Monday, April 05, 2004

I'm here...

"Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command," was one of the last instructions Christ gave His disciples during the course of their Passover meal and the movie The Passion of the Christ goes to great lengths to show us how great that love was. Far from the anti-Semitic messages critics were raging against even before watching it, Director Mel Gibson's movie doesn't point an accusing finger on any race for the horrible death of the Messiah (in fact it was Mr. Gibson's hand that held the nail and hammer to show that he too shared in the guilt and contributed as much to the Divine sacrifice). There were some minor additions to the story that were not found in the Gospel accounts designed to highlight the suffering but so far it does not pose any problems to the story. These scenes fall under the category of "what-could-have-beens" and one of the problems critics have been using to destroy Mr. Gibson's credibility. Personally I don't have anything against these changes or additions like the appearance of Satan in the garden of Gethsemane instead of an angel giving comfort to Jesus, or the appearance of a Jewish mother offering a clean cloth to wipe off Jesus' blood and sweat (she was unnamed in the movie so let's leave it at that), or the more-than-the-usual-involvement of Pilate's wife with this particular case, or Jesus being thrown off the bridge, or Judas being taunted by demons driving him to commit suicide, or Simon of Cyrene's hysterics when he was pushed to carry the cross, etc. These were harmless devices used to show us the flesh and blood side of characters from an otherwise ordinary narrative some two-thousand years ago. I also found it amusing and ironic how the media could suddenly cry foul and rally against what they deem to be gratuitous violence in the movie. Following on the heels of a movie that spilled more blood "for entertainment value" than this film the media subjected the whole production to a trial by opinion even before it was even finished, fueling an uncalled for panic from Jewish groups who feared a backlash from rabid "Christians" who'll start another blame game for murdering the Founder of our faith. Fortunately, all the hullabaloo from the secular sector of society merely served as bell toll to the people to line up and watch the movie. What was intended for evil turned out to be for good, throwing back the turd critics have been lobbing back at their faces. Here are some backgrounders to the characters highlighted in the film:

Jesus (Jim Caviezel), the central figure of the story is a sympathetic character but he also comes off as a strong individual despite his being betrayed, beaten with chains, choked with ropes, thrown off a bridge, falsely accused, humiliated, punched, spat upon, scourged, crowned with thorns, forced to carry almost a ton of wood, kicked, thrown rocks at, crucified, bones pulled out of their sockets, mercilessly mocked, and experienced hell with the separation of the Father from him as he took on all imaginable sins past, present, and future. He neither protested nor cried out in defense during all the torture he'd undergone. His silence and calculated response to his accusers showed him to be in control of the situation contrary to how it appears to most people. "My heart is ready Father… my heart is ready," went His short prayer right before the torture started. Actually He was all ready the moment He finished His prayer in the garden prior to his arrest and the appearance of the Holy Spirit prior to His interrogation by Pilate gave Him the grace to peacefully undergo the trials ahead by, he still braced himself from a greater temptation to lash out at his torturers or to call out an ever ready cavalry at his disposal. It's also interesting to note that though movie audiences were already cringing at the result of the beatings and torture Jesus had undergone by the time he was crucified, Mr. Gibson admits to toning down the recreated violence in the movie compared to what really happened to Christ who was so disfigured that he looked anything but human by the time He was crucified. Also despite what the others think that Jesus was crucified nude on the cross (patterned after Scorsese's Gnostic movie "The Last Temptation of Christ"), the movie was more faithful to the Gospel in showing that he was left with a loincloth on.

There were lots of things that Mary (Maia Morgenstern) did that I cannot understand at first, like wiping the blood off the floor after the scourging or even watching the whole proceedings from the arrest down to His death. But then again there are extreme situations that would call a loving mother not to abandon her child no matter what. Then as a disciple she had to summon as much courage and faith to try and understand that this was the summation of Jesus' mission here on earth. Her being a mother was affectively shown in the flashbacks interspersed in between scenes ("escape doors" Mr. Gibson calls them) from lovingly critiquing her son's work to helping Jesus up both when he was a child and as an adult when he seemed to have hurt himself when he fell. At the second instance it was her son who comforted her by directing her gaze to the future. She tried to keep her composure throughout the whole ordeal in understanding the fulfillment of the prophecy given to her, there were still those times when her mothering side couldn't help but reach out to her son and try to share in his pain. As she looked towards the audience towards the end of the film as she cradled the dead body of her son, her intent gaze seemed to say "This is what your sin has cost my son…" sparing no one from the collective guilt. Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and John (Hristo Jivkov) are two very faithful friends of Jesus who also stood by Him and His mother offering their watchful presence as a witness to his sacrifice. Mary Magdalene being the adulterous woman Jesus saved from the mob sometime earlier, showed her gratitude by being a loyal follower and faithful disciple of His, caring for his needs together with a small band of women from Galilee. When Jesus was sent to the High Priest's house she alone from the small group of followers found the courage to approach a couple of Roman guards and inform them about the cowardice of those involved by arresting a so-called fugitive under the cover of darkness. During the time when women's opinions didn't matter even in the court of law, her courage to verbalize and expose the loser mentality of local authorities speaks volumes about her. Although John escaped for fear of his life from Gethsemane he quickly made up for it by informing those closest to his Master about his arrest. He's the disciple closest to Jesus and even though he had the privilege of enjoying such close proximity to the Messiah it still did not spell any clear answer for him as to why his closest friend chose to go through such horrific treatment from his captors. In spite of everything he still stood quietly observing at the sidelines and giving comfort in whatever way he can to his two female companions. He was also the second Apostle next to Peter to investigate the empty tomb during that first Easter Sunday.

Another very loyal friend and faithful disciple of Jesus is Peter (Francesco De Vito) who tried very hard to defend his Master from being arrested. True there were two weapon carriers among his disciples at the time but it was only Peter who brought it out, trying to buy enough time for his Master to run away with the other disciples in the dark. He only stopped fighting at the insistence of Jesus to drop his sword. At the time he also couldn't believe how Jesus could still find the opportunity to heal one of His enemies when clearly they were out to arrest and kill Him. The character of Peter is an interesting one (he's my favorite among all the Apostles), along with James and John, he was part of Jesus' inner circle and privy to more miracles and wonders than their companions. He's also brash and quick to the draw often eating his pride and habitually finding himself trying to pull his foot out of his mouth. But he's also the risk taker of them all. Where other disciples would shrink off he would race to the forefront never mind what the others think him. Of course, it wasn't Jesus alone who took notice of this character but so did Satan who Jesus revealed earlier had asked special permission to subject his faith to the test, but was assured that he would prevail and after which to look after the others. When he saw that Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, he followed Him to Caiaphas' house and probably waited for an opportunity to spring him from His enemies' hands. In this instance three times his loyalty was put to the test and three times he also failed. Teary eyed and shocked by the beatings and punches inflicted on his Master, he kept his eyes on Jesus but at the same time denied from knowing or keeping His company. When Jesus' and Peter's eyes locked, the full realization that he reneged on his promise earlier that he would never leave Jesus' side even to prison and death hit him no amount of comfort could lift him up from the deep hole of remorse that he has dug himself into. Contrary to popular opinion, the character of Judas (Luca Lionello) in this movie was quite sympathetic. Although the reasons for his decision to betray Jesus was not shown, his regret over his actions made people wish that he shouldn't have done what he did when he took his own life. The reason for his betrayal was a simple one, initially he was happy with the arrival of the Messiah but he like the other Jews he had a different expectation for the kind of Messiah they were waiting for. They were expecting the kind of Savior that would lead a revolt against the oppressive Roman Empire and establish the old glory of the Israelites. But when that failed to materialize, his disappointment drove out all respect he had for Jesus and sold him out to his enemies to do with as they wish. He didn't take into account the innocence of the man he was betraying until it was too late. Like Peter, he too was remorseful over his actions and wished he could have undone everything, but unlike Peter, he was lost forever when he hung himself outside the city. Things could have turned out differently if he waited, but then again he was already fated to die outside the grace of God.

The High Priest, Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the other elders of the Jewish faith were already afforded with lots of opportunities to cease and desist with their mockery. First of these was when half their number, including Nicodemus (Olek Mincer), raised their voices against the great injustice, he and his cohorts silenced their opponents by throwing them out of the place if they hadn't already walked out of the place. Other opportunities came when they watched the pitiful figure of Jesus being scourged, when they watched him tired and groaning under the weight of the cross at Golgotha, and when he looked into the questioning eyes of a grieving mother. Each time he chose to harden his heart and look away. Since the start he was already determined to get rid of this popular figure who was threatening their status quo over the Jews. Never mind if they violated their office as priests in the process of doing so. Though he was last shown crying at the destruction of the Holy of Holies part of their temple, the Bible shows him unrepentant as ever when he and his coterie of elders asked Pilate for additional guards at the tomb just in case the Apostles get the funny idea of stealing Jesus' corpse and some weeks later when he tried to silence Peter and the other Apostles from proclaiming the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus at Pentecost before a crowd of thousands (you can also read an interesting tidbit regarding the discovery of his ossuary). Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) was not too pleased with the fact that that he was assigned to look over the backward province of Galilee. History has shown him to be a royal jerk right from the moment he arrived till the day he was asked to execute a Jew claiming kingship and Godship. He couldn't be more interested in a case like this but the way the High Priests and their followers riled over this quiet man the thought that there must be something more to him than meets the eye. But compared to the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and King Herod, Jesus was more considerate with His answers to him. Though those answers didn't help much in understanding what the problem the High Priests were fussing about it made him question his grasp of the truth and rethink everything he knows to be true. When he asked his wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) if she recognized the truth if someone spoke to her about it, her reply was insightful, "If you will not hear the truth, no one can tell you." That line is also a warning to those who are merely curious and are not out to seek the truth for themselves like Pilate did.

The Roman Centurion Abenader (Fabio Sartor) is also considerate and somewhat sympathetic fellow in contrast to most of those under his command and what not. Or maybe, what I construed to be sympathy on his part was just plain practicality? Just the same he has been remiss with his job twice that could cost an ordinary human being his life (good thing their prisoner wasn't an ordinary man). Maybe, like Pilate, he's also sick and tired of his surroundings and its people but he had a job to do with no questions asked. Still, after all the years of experience in the battlefield, there was something about this man that tugged at his heart. That something he only realized after the events following Jesus' death on the cross. The actions of the Temple guards sent by the Pharisees and the Sanhedrins were unusually cruel. I'm not sure if there were records of them treating their prisoners like so but the Bible mentions in passing the treatment their men did to Jesus. The Roman soldiers shown being drunk and all while doing their job shows a lot about themselves. First of all, why would their commanding officer allow them to drink on the job? And why was Abenader allowing it? Far from being an excuse for them to perform their job (which, I must say, they thoroughly enjoyed), it shows a downward spiral for the condition of this provincial outpost. The Governor was not being followed and in fact was openly mocked by Caiaphas (to the surprise of Abenader who looked to Pilate for his reaction), the ruling religious leaders where still king despite the presence of the Roman authorities. What's also inferred was the fact that these two peoples obviously hated each other's guts. They only found a common ground just this one time. There's also an interesting trivia about the line "Hail the King of Worms!" and "Hail! Wormy King!" being not exactly mouthed by the Roman Soldiers in the Praetorium. Mel Gibson upped the insults by including a description of the suffering Messiah from the Psalms.

And if the soldiers and Temple guards were unusual with their cruelty, so were most of the crowd gathered during His trial and in and around Pilate's house, these I call Crowd no. 1. This set of crowd were mostly composed of the servants, staff, and followers of the Pharisees and Sanhedrins (who by the way also united this one time because of a problem). The leaders or those who incited the crowd were shown being paid an unseen amount of money to provide false testimonies and lots and lots of "yes men." Some of the others who later joined them were probably influenced by rumors scattered by that initial group, perverting their facts disappointing some of those who gathered around some five days ago when Jesus first entered Jerusalem. While Crowd No. 2, including a couple of sympathetic soldiers like Cassius (Giovanni Capalbo) and Malchus (Roberto Bestazzoni), whose ear was severed and restored at the beginning of the movie, composed both of those who believed that Jesus was a Holy man, the promised Messiah, and/or commiserating bystanders who were taken aback by the sight of a half-dead bloody figure carrying his own instrument of death to Golgotha. These were the crowd Jesus' enemies were avoiding when they planned their arrest very early in the morning. And last, but not least, Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth J. Merz) who was initially disgusted with the idea of being implicated with the procession of the condemned. He didn't know what the heck was going on and he was there to celebrate the Passover along with other visiting Jews. There wasn't anything the first time his and Jesus' eyes met (people usually turned away ashamed from His gaze), the second time around he had enough of the mockery and beating some of his fellow Jews and Roman soldiers were giving the condemned man. He couldn't stomach the fact that here was some quiet defenseless guy already exhausted and bloodied on his way to being crucified and there were these people laughing, shouting, whipping and kicking him on the groin? During the third stop when Jesus fell exhausted to the ground unable to go on, he whispered words of encouragement to egg Him on: "Almost there... We're almost near the place... almost done." This last part struck me the most. I'm sure Simon didn't know who he was helping at the time but it was prophetic. In part it was like saying, "Hang on with me here, you're almost done with your mission. Just a few more steps." Then with their arrival at the place and when their eyes met for the last time, something struck Simon in his heart and he left weeping bitterly. It's also interesting to note that his sons, Alexander and Rufus were mentioned by Mark in his Gospel because they eventually became prominent members of the early Church.

In conclusion I must confess I was both surprised and heartened with the reactions to the film. Some were disappointed with the small bits of situations not found in the Bible, some where thankful it changed their lives, some where brought back to God, some rationalized away the violence, and some where apathetic to it. But one thing's sure, with the timely release of this film there's no day like today to start reconsidering what the message of this film did with regards to your faith.

* Check out also the review in Hollywood Jesus for more insightful reactions to this great movie.
** This great Italian website has lots of pictures from the set, costumes, cast and crew of this movie.

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