Laurentiu Dumitru


Mel Gibson and The Passion of Christ

- conversation with Reverend Father Lucian Grigore -

[ versiunea in limba romana ]

Such movie should not be watched in theatres, it should be watched with a kneeled heart in the mystic chamber of prayer!

Laurentiu Dumitru: Father Grigore, when we discuss about the religious movie in general, we cannot help but to wonder: how moral is it to make a movie having the Son of God as main character, He who is True Man and True God, without sin? The creature is “playing” the Creator. Is it courage or is it madness? Would it not be a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit such bravery?

Father Lucian Grigore: I think that such means of expression, means that the ancient world did not know, appeals to the senses, to our capacity of acknowledging a certain message through our senses. It is natural to ask ourselves whether it is appropriate or not to put God on a scene. I do believe that the difficulty of such a task derives mostly from the fact that God cannot be involved in our lives the way we want Him to be, but in a way He chooses for Himself, according to His holy will and knowledge.

It is a bravery to choose in account of God the scene in which He reveals Himself to the world! I would say it’s a beautiful bravery, as long as you don’t betray Him.

Every single time I am called, because of the nature of my priesthood, to reveal God through word, it comes repeatedly to my mind the promise I pronounce when I prepare myself for receiving the Holy Communion: for I will not speak of the Mystery to Thy enemies; I will not give Thee a kiss like Judas. It is a difficult task to know whom to talk to about God and how to interceed so as God will reach the heart of the one you are speaking to.

In today’s world, the image is a very important way of communication. These days, people barely read anything and they hardly let them be caught in the “fishing-net” of a sermon about God, even if it was a very well chosen and very well composed one. This is why I believe it is not an unsettling thing to do, putting the word into images, so as, regardless the methods, God could reach the heart of man. What did the Savior said about the exhaustion of the preaching methods?! If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out (Luke 19:40). And, behold! today, more than any sermon, the stones cry out, they speak. And I am not talking about the testimony of the word, as the “stone” on which God built His Church stands for testimony; I mean by this the declaration of Peter the Apostle to the Savior: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16). The very stones on the Way of the Cross, the stones of Golgotha, the stone of Resurrection, the stone of Lord’s Ascension, on which you can feel even today the traces of His feet – they all stand for testimony.

What could represent a movie about God? Another testimony about His power and glory, another stone on the path towards understanding, but only if it is not done in mockery, only if it is not blasphemous and does not mutilate the truth and the light of the Scriptures.

How moral is it to make a movie about God?!

I believe it is as moral as having a sermon about God or painting an icon of Christ. From this point of view, it seems to me that such a question leads to a fallacious issue – a never-ending debate on the methods of preaching and especially a debate that would ressurect the iconoclastic controversies.

In my opinion, the well-done religious movie is a dynamic icon – an icon in movement – and it is not important to me in what colors it is painted, because I am looking for the painted One and not for the painter’s hand.

Why should I be afflicted because of the one who “plays” the “role” of the Son of God? Aren’t we all created in God’s image? Aren’t we exhorted by our Christian call to see the image of Christ in our neighbor?!

Many icons of Christ the Lord bear the resemblance of the face of someone that might have inspired the iconographer, one time or another. The impediment – concerning the movie – isn’t the image, but the power of holiness, the sharing of Grace and sanctity.

The fundamental difference between a religious movie and an icon is this very property of sanctity – this is the only thing that separates the icon from the movie. However, the message of a religious movie is an alive, dynamic, efficient message; not outside, but inside of Salvation’s work.

L.D.: The movie directed by Mel Gibson has numerous defenders that praise the accuracy of its message, but has also fervent critics who say that the movie contains “particular errors or deviations from the Scripture”. What is your opinion?

Fr.L.G.: Mel Gibson’s movie, disregarding the criticism or the approbation, it’s a movie about God and this fact represents for many – and, I must confess, for myself too – an important reason to try understanding its message.

L.D.: The enthusiastic defenders of the movie talk about the overwhelming divine inspiration the producer had, a inspiration that gained a creative expression, using the means characteristic to cinematography. I dare to ask you: How much represents the man (the movie’s director, the actors) and how much represents God, through His intervention, in this creative act?

Fr.L.G.: If we were to divide the world into defenders and denigrators of this movie, please allow me not to put myself in the second category. It would be unfair to join those who condemn Gibson’s movie and this exactly because this movie, more than any other movie ever made about Jesus Christ, really succeeds to capture something that none of the previous ones did: the crushed, mutilated face of the Son of God, a face in front of whom you can hardly hold back your tears. What does Christ say? Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. (Luke 23:28). We understand that it was such a deplorable view not only in the movie, but also in reality. This is the reason why I personally believe that Gibson didn’t made any exaggeration. The cruelty of the ancients is frightening us now, although neither we aren’t very far from their thirst for blood (it would suffice to take into account the millions of abortions committed by Christians and by everybody else). As much we are healed from this type of dehumanization of our nature regarding the torture, in the same the measure we perceive the horrifying nature of this torture.

I am think that this is the type of healing Jesus wanted to plant into our own inner resources, the healing from the appetite for horrifying. It is clear that fire cannot be extinguished with fire, water cannot stop water, wounds do not heal with other wounds. Nevertheless, through this great pain, Christ shows to the world a great miracle, a mystic work: the work of healing the horrors that abide into our own hearts.

Christ’s sacrifice – as I understood it from this tragic movie – is a fire beyond any power, a fire that extinguishes the flame of our indurated nature. It is the staff of the Cross that stems the water of baptism on the both sides of our fallen nature, to enable us for moving together with Christ from earth to Heaven. It is a deep wound that mysteriously heals the wounds of our hearts.

I was saying earlier that it is an understandable thing not being able to fight fire with fire: in my childhood, in one autumn, I lighted a fire with dry leafs, without knowing that beneath them was hidden an almost empty spray can. The spray can exploded and the fire extinguished, it vanished. A bigger fire, a ferocious one had extinguished the previous one.

The same striking effect had Mel Gibson’s movie on my conscience. After seeing this movie, I declined to see on my television set any form of violence, any horrifying scene. It was enough for me, it wasn’t possible anymore to allow myself seeing bloodshed. However, I do understand it does not work for all of us in the same way. I had the sad experience to watch the movie again at an almost empty movie theatre in Piteşti, in the presence of some youths who would chuckle or burst out in laughing even at the moments of great tension and great pain of the movie. I am not very sure though if such people were Christians. In Piteşti, the movie played in theatres during the Beer Festival – the cinemas were empty, while the city square was full of crowd; there weren’t many people in the church either. I was expecting the people of my town, often described as a sensitive and serious public, to have another kind of presence, another kind of participation and another kind of reaction regarding this movie. Although, if you want to find out what happened to Christ during the days of His Passion, a pint of beer cannot stop you from this quest… No, the temptation lies elsewhere than downtown, it lies somewhere deeper and discreetly enrooted in our own conscience, in our own nature, in our life style, in our daily yearnings.

From the very beginning, since the first sequences of the movie, I considered that the movie has a theological basis, that it has a realistic and convincing script. I assume Mel Gibson had among his counselors priests and theologians and, therefore, he was able to highlight some extremely important details that define his work as a unitary one, with a great impact.

I can’t tell how much effort the human invests and how much grace does God invest in such a creation, but I feel it is a work of great power and you can let yourself cry, if the viewers from vicinity let you do so. It is very important who is sitting next to you. Such movie should not be watched in theatres, it should be watched with a kneeled heart in the mystic chamber of prayer!

L.D.: In the movie, Jesus was scourged more than He ever was in all the movies about His life altogether. Many viewers fainted in the theatres watching these scenes... Răzvan Codrescu once stated, in an article, that the ferocity of Pilate’s servants [in the movie] is not based on the evangelical texts. But Isaiah, prophecing about the passions of Christ, said: He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). Moreover, a Saint of the Church, Dimitri of Rostov also spoke about the horrifying ordeal of the Cross. I am asking you, Father, do you believe that the 16 minutes of brutal scourging were exaggerated, or not?

Fr.L.G.: I strongly believe that nothing was exaggerated at all. From the moment of capturing to the moment of Crucifixion, more than 12 hours are passing. How much would these 16 minutes mean, comparing to all the rest? The purpose of scourging as it is seen in the movie, as well as in the Scripture, was exactly to soften the hearts of the ones who wanted Him “punished” – He who called Himself the Son of God.

This is what Pilate would have wanted: persuasion of the delators to give up the idea of killing Jesus, exaclty because it would have satisfied their desire to see Him punished. But “for the evilness not to remain without death”, Jesus Christ, waiting, by His Father will, to receive death from their hands, hides the suffering into death and brings their sin to death: Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do! (Luke 23:34). Therefore, together with Jesus, any other possibility of death “dies” for the ones who believe in Him, because He says to the redeemed one: Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43). And then He again says: I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live (John 11:25).

L.D.: Father Grigore, many have accused the extreme violence of the movie to be paroxistic in certain points. In US, the “Movie Association” rated the movie with ‘R’ – restricted. In Romania, we also had debates about The Passion..., seen by some as kinda of Rocky IV or called The Five o’clock movie (an allusion to the macabre news broadcasted by many Romanian TV stations at that hour in the afternoon). What is your answer to these “omniscient” columnists?

Fr.L.G.: I could not give any other answer but the one given by Isaiah the Prophet! You have quoted earlier the shattering words of this Prophet. Let us go further and see what else he had said about Christ: a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:3). Why do you think the Prophet Isaiah says about Christ that he was touched by such a great suffering, that it was meet to cover your face from that sight?! Because it was impossible to see His face and not be touched by that pain and sorrow. It is unrealistic to say that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ should have been put unto such a make-up, so that the children could watch also. Behold, Isaiah is the first one to point out the restriction for this sight of horror.

I suppose that the ones who talked about this movie making an allusion to Rocky IV or the 5 o’clock News are not religious people and did not feel anything watching these scenes. That is why God Himself hide from them – in their case, God covered His face, for them not to know Him. Some people saw in this movie just James Caviezel, for sure. Most of the Rumanians saw only Maia Morgenstern…

L.D.: Personally, I think that for watching the movie “in a proper manner”, one should be a connoisseur of cinematography and theology, because otherwise he might miss certain dimensions of the artistic act and of the message. To make a digression, I say that a disco-music fan cannot ‘perceive’ a symphony, even less he will understand why a passionate for classical music will prefer George Enescu instead of Ion Voicu. The connoisseur is able to discern the elements of refinement whereas the profane superficially reacts at the message that the movie conveys. From this point of view, what are the ‘risks’ of watching the movie?

Fr.L.G.: It is not necessary to be an expert in theology to understand that Jesus Christ is scourged for you and endures the nailing on the Cross for your sins. Imagine that all those who were watching did not have their hearts broken with pain because they were theology experts, but because they were enduring together with Christ the torture of that transformation of the sinful human nature. Seeing Christ broken for you, you reach, together with Him, to the broken heart of the renewal of you being, you change, you repent, and you decide to change yourself to please God. You unchain yourself from your passions and, together with you, everybody who feels just like you unchains themselves.

L.D.: Father, how can this movie help a non-religious, muddled youth, but who is sincerely seeking for the truth? Does the movie have any pedagogical dimensions?

Fr.L.G.: The youth must reach, using his nature, the moment when Christ climbs the stones of Golgotha. He must struggle with the madding crowd, make his way out to Christ and cry out loud, like the blind man from the Gospel: Lord, that I might receive my sight (Luke 18:41, Mark 10:51). In that moment, Christ will work His wonder and the blind within him will see Christ suffering, for him not to suffer anymore. He will see Christ lifting with the burden of the Cross also his sins, his own sins of blinded human. The healed blind will then try to give thanks to God, wondering and elevating himself to a better understanding, being able to say: Blessed art they that have not seen, and yet have believed (John 20:29).

L.D.: Mel Gibson confessed in an interview: “The words of the Savior Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do will have a different significance after this experience.” We can say that the director gave us an idea about God’s love… I recently found out that even the Muslims are deeply touched by this movie, after they leave the theatres. Yasser Arafat had tears in his eyes when he left the theatre. I ask you, do you think this movie could revolutionize the relations between Christians and Muslims? What about those between Christians and Jews, considering that the movie gives them an answer, of Jesus being a historical person. Is this movie a chance to spread the message of Christ outside the Christian world? A call? A chance for those?

Fr.L.G.: You see, this is the wonder: some of the Christians burst out laughing in theatres when they see this movie – to their perdition, while the Muslims go away with tears. It is thus time for us to see whether the eternal goods will be taken away from the sons of the Kingdom and be given to others (cf. Matthew 8:12). I believe that God will fulfill His work with Muslims and Jewish. What worries me is this lukewarm attitude of ours, of the Christians. May God vouchsafe us to meet at the gates of Heaven with tears of joy and repentance and the angel of God say: Come, enter, everything is ready! and, getting inside, may He grant us to see what eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man (1 Corinthians 2:9).

L.D.: From the whole 126 minutes of the movie, approximately 2 minutes are showing the Resurrection of the Savior from the dead. The viewer is facing his weakness, His Cross. I believe people do not go back home with the happiness of resurrection or with the hope of victory, they are on the stage of torment. The unaware spectator might believe that he is venerating a weak. Don’t you find it is very risky such a disproportion between the Passions and the Resurrection?

F.L.G.: I do not think this proportion is important. What is important is the force with which a certain icon is revealed. For instance, I have at home a printed copy of a Russian icon representing Christ the Savior giving His blessing. It took me about two years to discover the sad look of the Lord. I simply thought it was a common icon. Although I looked at it hundreds of times, I never realized the inner status of that look. I felt the pain of that look only after watching Mel Gibson’s movie. That icon never changed, I was the one who changed the “glasses” I used to look through.

We do discover at the end of the movie an insistent, clear look of our Resurrected Lord – Christ looking at the world that will pass through in front of Him, as if the world would move towards Him; although it is very clear and understandable, His moving was towards the world. Rediscovering that clear look of Him, you understand that it does not take a long time to find the Resurrected Christ. A moment lasts as long as a thousand years, and a thousand years last as long as the moment of Resurrection in this movie. I do not find any disproportions. It would have been lamentable if the movie had ended with a dead Jesus. Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and He is slipping from death to life, just like the light surrounds the dark; He rises from death just like a Bridegroom comes out from “the wedding chamber”.

L.D.: The movie makes a very strong impression on the senses. The director and the artists use different tricks and techniques to stimulate reactions and feelings (the adequate soundtrack, pictures in slow-motion). Certainly, some viewers will remain only on this level, on the emotional level. I believe that this kind of emotions as easy they come, as easy they go. Is the emphasis on sensorial a gain or a loss for the movie?

Fr.L.G.: This movie is made better than any other movie ever done about Jesus Christ. It reveals not only an exceptional artistic performance, but also an idea of great impact. The movie is not just sending emotional signals for the sake of emotion, but it is also sending them as collateral effects of the message. This is not the type of movie at the end of which you have the feeling that the producer wanted to test your capabilities of reaction, your endurance to stress or whatever other possibility. It is a movie that conveys a message, a movie that makes you think, a movie that makes you take long-term decisions in your heart, which puts your mind to work and torments it, which helps you ask questions about yourself and your own responsibilities.

L.D.: Father Grigore, this movie emphasizes the analogy of the Bread with the Body of Christ the Savior and succeeds to point out the importance of the Mother of God and the closeness between She and Her Son. (My opinion is that Franco Zeffirrelli did not accomplish to do this in his Jesus of Nazareth.) From a dogmatic perspective, are you able to see discrepancies between the Orthodox Christian teaching and the cinematic vision of Mel Gibson, he himself an Old-Catholic?

Fr.L.G.: The Passion of Christ is a theological essay that goes beyond the artistic and technical boundaries of a movie. It is the actualization of the shattering drama of the crucifixion of Lord Jesus.

The Passion of Christ is a prayer, during which you fall on your knees without even noticing. The image calls upon you to participate in a universe that theology has willingly emptied of tragic, in favor of the sublime of Resurrection, emphasizing through this the divine aspect of participation in spite of the human dimension. The movie brings both of them into a balance. The sublime cannot be expressed through the abundance of blood, but through the torments of the moment. The contrast between darkness and light, the outbalance of the terrifying moments and the moving towards the world of light and peace where we used to be with Jesus Christ once, the return to the time of his holy work and preaching constitutes not parallels, but explanations of the different moments on the Salvation’s road.

On this road of terror, into which the movie introduces us, we have into our account two levels of suffering: one assumed by the man, a humanly pain, which is completed by fears, apprehensions, physical exhaustion and another kind of suffering – a dignifying one, assumed by God Himself out of compassion for the world.

If Jesus would have endured this suffering of transfiguration of the world just as a God, without a human involvment, His love for the human kind would have been questionable, even blamable to a certain extent. He would have loved us with a love enstranged from any human implication. His love would have remain unshared, unknown, unexercised. But He loves us perfectly because he loves us until His death, He loves us in death and beyond death.

Carrying on Himself our own inabilities, suffering as a human and as a God, Jesus had inside Him the tragedy of the human sorrow, making possible the deification for man.

The sacrifice of Our Saviour receives a dimension of the participation of the whole world in it, it implies us as well and calls us to weeping exactly because in the broken, beaten face of the Lord we see, as in a mirror, our own face broken by sins. Weeping for Jesus, we weep for ourselves, as our Lord said: weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children (Luke 23:28). And this is not because we did not have any reason to weep for Him, but because by shedding tears for Him we give our face another appearance, a new motivation – the love for God, that never dies.

Our sorrows are His sorrows. The assumption of this heavenly bound of sorrow, the pain that bounds His destiny with ours, represents our garmenting with Christ: As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27)

I believe that the icon of Mother of God in this movie is a good one, an icon of pain, of patience, of suffering consented by the will of the Son, an icon of a complete understanding of this tragedy.

We can find inadvertencies of a theological and scriptural order, if we are interested in them, but it is a certain fact that they are well hidden under undeniable symbols.

L.D.: Please, decrypt for us a few symbols and key moments from the movie! Such as the “shadowed” face of the Savior, the demons using the appearance of children, the tear of the Father falling from the sky, the “adjusting” of the arms of the Savior on the long rail of the cross, the director’s gesture to be the first nailing the Savior’s hand, the ordeal interlinked with precedent scenes, the crushing of the snake’s head in Gethsemane.

Fr.L.G.: Beside the scene in which the Savior crushes the head of the snake – moment that had already been announced in the Book of Genesis, we come across many obvious “off-tracks” from the Scripture. In the scene of Judas’ hanging, the director inspiringly romances the whole episode, but there are many other scenes that are near pure fiction, such as the ones in which the devil appears too many times. We should also mention the scene in which Christ is enchained and thrown from the fortress’ wall – it makes an allusion to the temptation of Christ to throw himself from the Temple; the scene in which satan holds a hideous new-born – the devil; the scene in which Simon the Cirinean carries the Cross of the Lord and Christ, covering his arm and the Cross, protects him against the scourging.

All the symbolic images that you noticed and all the rest stand however for a theological meaning, they motivates all the suffering and give a meaning to it. In this context, the tragedy is revealed to our eyes not for the absurd meaning that any bloodshed would have, but for a much more different meaning – placing the history of the Salvation of human kind into a prophetic bunch about life and death, into serving a “ritual” that was to shatter the history and the beliefs of the world. The movie is actually a story about the first Liturgy – from Gethsemane to Resurrection – a Liturgy that addresses to time and eternity, where the Great High Priest Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one Who brings the sacrifice, is the one who brings Himself as a sacrifice, is the one “who is divided” to the world, but “never is disunited”.

In short, if we were to discuss the quality of each symbol, we would say that this “shadowed” face of the Savior depends only on the contrast that the producer will make as soon as he shows the Resurrected Christ. The image of the demons appearing as children confirms the idea that demonism cannot go deeper than that, when even the faces of the children would be defiled, tarnishing even this last frontier of human purity. The arms of the Savior ‘not matching’ the Cross, although it does not have a scriptural basis (just like the rest of the symbols we are talking about), help us understand that the meaning of this adjustment is for us to try to measure with the same gauge God and man together – and because our measure didn’t match with the one of God, we brought Him to our size. I have written before about the Father’s tear (n.b. an essay published in a local paper) and therefore I have no intention to repeat myself – the idea is fascinating. But what I find really suggestive and being the true message is that each of us brought Jesus to the measure of our lowliness and by doing so, each of us, we put a nail into His hands.

L.D.: Undoubtedly, the movie addresses to persons with a certain religious measure. We are not perfect, because if we had been, we would not have needed it. Rev. Fr. V. Sorescu said once: “A living faith absolves yourself from most of your curiosity. Many of our Christians do not wish to see the Athos or the Jerusalem. They have everything in the Church, in the Divine Liturgy”. In the end, to whom should we recommend this movie? To the Christians who don’t frequent the churches, to the “practicing” ones, to the non-christians? Who really needs to see such a movie?

Fr.L.G.: The movie is for those not perfect, and that is why it suited me very well, because I feel that it addressed to me. You see, Christ reveals Himself to some people because they found themselves amongst those who shout Away with him, away with him, crucify him (John 19:15). Others must be ‘caught up’ to the third heaven to see Him. And some others, in time, through the divine providence, are shown a way of understanding. This movie is such a way. The Church reveals this way; the Liturgy, also, heralds this way, everything heralds this way, the same reality – Our crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.

It is very important for our Salvation to understand the way in which God speaks to us. Otherwise, we will never have the chance to cry out, as did Thomas: My Lord and my God! (John 20:28)

Thus, the movie addresses to the ones like Thomas, but also to the ones like the blind man we spoked about earlier.

Without sacrifice, we can’t understand Jesus Christ. We cannot comprehend the importance and the sublime of the Resurrection, if we don’t garment with Christ even from the first step towards Golgotha. I’ll go back to Thomas and I’ll ask you: what did he say before the passions of Lord?! Behold what he said: Let us also go, that we may die with him (John 11:16)

Therefore, let us go die and resurrect together with Him! Amen.

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