I saw "The Passion"


So I was at a private screening at Icon Productions yesterday, and got to see a rough cut of "The Passion". There were about twelve people in the room, including Mel Gibson, his producing partner Steve and four or five other Icon staffers.

After the screening, we talked to Mel and friends for about an hour. (As cool as that was, the quality of the film was such that the celebrity stuff was completely gone from the moment. I can't explain it really, except that it would be like standing in the Sistine Chapel next to, well, someone like Mel Gibson. Great art is a great leveler....) The rough cut we saw obviously didn't have the final score or special effects, and there were many more sub-titles than they will have in the finished film.

So, here's my take...

The Passion is a stunning work of art. It is a devout, act of worship from Mel and his collaborators - in the way that Handel's Messiah and Notre Dame were artistic acts of worship in previous times.

Let's get the controversy out of the way right at the top. The film is faithful to the Gospel, particularly St. John. It is no more anti-Semitic than is the Gospel. There are at least two members of the Sanhedrin who come forward to protest on Jesus' behalf during the sham trial. The Romans are just as guilty of cruelty and hatred against Jesus in the film. And best of all is a final look right into the camera of Mary, holding her dead Son. She is looking at all of us with a kind of , "Look what you've done"/This is for you" expression. A cinematic Pieta worthy of Michelangelo.

Having seen the film now, I can only marvel that the attacks are pretty much demonic. Hopefully, the devil will end up spitefully biting his own tail on this one-- as he does in The Passion by inciting on the executioners of Christ, and thus being complicit in his own ultimate defeat. The Passion is high art. It is the greatest movie about Jesus ever made. In the discussion following the film, Mel and co. were asking us how mainstream theater audiences would react to the film. I told them, "Who cares? What you have here is so much more than just a product to sell. It will live forever, regardless of whether it is a commercial success for you or not."

For those of us who love Jesus, The Passion is devastating to watch. It is so good, I almost couldn't stand it. There is one moment on the way of the cross sequence, in which the whole tragedy unfolding devolves into a vicious riot of hatred between Romans and Jews with the Savior on the ground in the middle of it getting it from both sides. It was so frenzied and terrible, I wanted to run from the room. But then, the film again finds Mary, Jesus's Mother on the sidelines, and her presence gets us through it. Kind of like how Mary's presence helped Jesus get through it, it seemed to me.

The film is lovingly Marian. Mary is perfectly portrayed here. She is contrasted repeatedly with the really super creepy Satan character, who is also a woman (something for the feminist theologians here? heh heh...).

The film is strongly Eucharistic. There is a beautiful juxtaposition of images that cuts from the stripping on Calvary to the unwrapping of the bread to be used at the last Supper. Fabulous stuff.

Every Christian needs to see this film at least once. Just to remember, in our current comfort zones while evil is closing in, the price that was paid for us. On my way home from the screening, I found myself praying in the car, "Jesus, I'm so sorry, I forgot..." How many films have led you to compunction lately? The Passion is a miracle.

I'll take questions...

From the Comments....

Did you discuss problems with getting a distribution company with them? Do you know the status?

No, we didn't discuss this. I don't know the status.

... you mentioned subtitles. Was he ever serious about not having them?

I don't know if Mel was ever serious about not having any sub-titles. If he was, he has moved beyond that now. The version I saw actually had too many sub-titles. We don't need distracting translations flashing on the screen when the Roman soldiers are saying obvious things like, "Hey, you, move!" Mel, noted that they were going to eliminate some of the sub-titles in future edits.

And, what was Jim Caviezel like as Jesus compared to, say, Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (the standard for actors, I'd imagine)?

It's hard to answer this. This movie is completely other. I would say that Powell was great in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jim is great in The Passion. It's not really about performance. He embodies the role in a way that makes discussions of performance feel inappropriate.

does the film end with the Resurrection?

I'm going to say wait and see. It is really the only possible suspense left to the filmmaker isn't it? Because we all know what happens on Good Friday. I think it would be ungrateful of me to put this out there. Someone will probably leak it in the next nine months. It won't be me.


I said I would answer questions about my comments on the screening. I will not enter into the frenzied trap of trying to convince people that the Gospel is not anti-Semitic. Nor will I address the specific list of depictions that someone has decided would render the film anti-Semitic. It wouldn't prove anything.

The film is not anti-Semitic. It is beautiful. Think how insane it is to be condemning something without any experience of it. It is absurd and frivolous. No one will even remember this discussion once the film is released. And I only enter into conversations that have the possibility of being thoroughly memorable... But if some of you want to look really foolish, keep on keeping on with the sniping in the darkness.


Focus on the Family leaders got a screening of The Passion. They sound enthusiastic. I was a little worried how they would react because the film is so very graphic in its depiction of the violence inflicted on Jesus. But, I'm glad to see they are letting a work of art be a work of art.

"It conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was," Ted Haggard said based on clips he viewed at New Life. "You can't help but be upset when you realize the gravity of what Jesus went through."

"I was very impressed," said Don Hodel, president of Focus on the Family. "It's certainly the most powerful portrayal of the passion I've ever seen or heard about. The movie is historically and theologically accurate."


Barbara Nicolosi. "I saw The Passion." Church of the Masses: The Blog of Barbara Nicolosi (June 26, 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from Barbara Nicolosi.


Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at Actone2000@aol.com.

Copyright © 2003 Barbara Nicolosi

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