As a brash, young 17-year-old, the first sermon I ever preached was on the crucifixion. I was fascinated by the violence of it. I studied every nuance of it. I made sure to pound the pulpit effectively to demonstrate the power of the nails piercing Jesus' flesh. I described in detail how they dropped the cross into its foundation hole, heightening Christ's agony. I wanted to make sure my captive audience was exposed to every horror Jesus had endured. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. After viewing Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ I realize how woefully inadequate my words were.
The Passion of the Christ is a stunning motion picture, in every sense of the word. Stunning in its daring use of dead languages and simple subtitles. Stunning in its stark, haunting soundtrack. Stunning in its utter brutality. Stunning in its use of darkness and light. By the end of the film I sat quietly; motionless; stunned.
Gibson's fingerprints are all over this film and an officially licensed companion book from Tyndale House, The Passion: Photography From the Movie The Passion of the Christ. In addition to financing the project out of his own pocket, Gibson co-authored the screenplay, produced and directed the film version of The Passion of the Christ and wrote the foreword to the companion book.
You don't have to look very far to see parallels to his earlier work in The Patriot, Braveheart, The Man Without A Face, or even Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. There is a thread of redemption through suffering that runs through each. To quote the scripture, "It is expedient that one should die for the people." The Passion: Photography From the Movie The Passion of the Christ follows Gibson's paradigm of allowing stark imagery to tell the story with minimal narration to detract from the visual impact. Reading the foreword by Gibson, you get the sense that this is much more than just another project or even a labor of love. There is some element of compulsion about his work on The Passion.
The Biblical narrative is told simply and unobtrusively using the New Living Translation. But the photography is the centerpiece of the printed version of The Passion. Taken on-set during filming by award-winning photographers Ken Duncan and Philippe Antonello, the images range from the stunningly beautiful, blue-washed shot of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the harrowingly beautiful portrait of Mary Magdalene comforting Mary the mother of Jesus, to the horrifically graphic depiction of the crucifixion as Christ cries out, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me)?" Photographs of Jim Caviezel as Christ effectively display not only the physical pain of his passion, but the loving humanity of Jesus. Flashbacks of earlier, happier times when he was just a carpenter and content to be so are jarringly juxtaposed against the flailing cat-o'-nine-tails. The shot of Mary comforting the brutalized Christ on the Via Dolorosa mirrors a tender, universal moment when a much younger Mary kissed the scraped knee of her toddler Messiah.
Pictures of Hristo Naumov Shopov as Pilate capture the nuances of a ruthless despot, caught between a religious war that he cannot understand and an even more ruthless Caesar that he knows all too well. The beautiful Monica Belluci as Mary Magdalene is mesmerizing even when covered in dust and splattered with blood. And Rosalinda Celentano as Satan is perhaps the most intriguing devil ever photographed.
I am not unique among my fellow critics when I say The Passion of the Christ is not entertainment, it is an event. Movie reviewer Teddy Durgin of FlickVille.com may have said it best when he declared that people were "not going to this movie to be entertained. They were going to bear witness." But to bear witness to what? This Gospel according to Gibson answers in a single word Veritas. Truth.
"What is truth?" Pilate asks the beaten and bloodied Christ. He poses the question again, slightly altered, to his wife, Claudia. "Do you know truth when you hear it? Can you teach me how?" Is this representation of the Passion, as some say the Pope declared, "As it was?" I don't know. But it was close enough. I'll never look at communion the same way again.
Mike Parker, who received a B.A. degree in Bible and Philosophy from Hardin-Simmons University, writes about the Christian entertainment industry from his home outside Nashville.