Mel Gibson's unavoidable questions

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Oct 29, 2003 12:00 AM

"Quid est veritas?" What is truth? So asked the great and powerful Roman procurator Pontius Pilate of a lowly Galilean carpenter named Jesus. The question runs like an irresistible undercurrent throughout Mel Gibson's still-unfinished movie, "The Passion of Christ."

One truth is that this movie is pro-Christian, a triumphant declaration that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Another truth is that this movie is not anti- any other faith or creed.

I watched a "rough cut" of Gibson's film in a confidential screening last week, after which the movie's marketing director, Paul Lauer, freed me to write about it.

The themes that Gibson explores in Pilate's praetorium and along the Via Dolorosa are timeless and universal. They are cowardice and courage, faith and desperation, hope and salvation.

America needs more moviemakers with the moral courage to make this kind of a film -- that seeks to elevate the human spirit rather than corrupt it.

"The Passion," I admit, is not exactly what I expected it to be. It does not dwell on conflicts among clerical and secular powers in Roman Palestine. It does not engage the esoterica of historical revisionists or settle ancient theological disputes. While the brutal treatment of Christ is depicted graphically -- arguably to excess -- the film is no slave to visual realism. In Gethsemane and elsewhere, a visible Satan appears to tempt Christ in a form that one friend of mine described as an "androgynous" creature.

Yet, beneath its sound, fury and graphic images, "The Passion" is a subtle movie. It is about the often unspoken struggle taking place within the souls -- but betrayed in the faces and actions -- of every major character that crosses the screen.

What must I do about this Jesus? What must I do about the injustice being done to him? What must I do about the truth?

In Gibson's dramatization, Pilate delivers his famous question about truth in a relatively quiet scene that sits like the eye of a storm amid a visual and emotional cinematic hurricane. Later, Pilate ponders Christ's declaration: "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Alone with his wife, Pilate protests that truth cannot be known. His wife thinks he protests too much.

Pilate's words, by the way, are in Latin -- with subtitles. Others speak in Aramaic. But the language barrier is little impediment to the meaning.

For Pilate, for the chief priests, for Roman soldiers, for bystanders on the streets of Jerusalem, for the carpenter's closest disciples, the dilemma is the same: To embrace justice or reject it? Embracing it carries a high price. Will they pay it?

None does without faltering.

In the Christian vision of humanity, there is no man without sin and no collective guilt. We answer to God individually.

Just as in Scripture, so in Gibson's movie, the characters come off as fallible, but redeemable, human beings. Judas betrays Him, then despairs -- though it is clear he need not. Other disciples flee when Jesus is arrested. Peter -- the rock upon which Christ would build his church -- denies his friend and Savior three times. Some among the chief priests hold Jesus innocent, others demand conviction. Some who crowd Pilate's palace want Jesus freed, others want Barabbas.

Simon, the Cyrenian, a Jewish passerby on the road to the crucifixion mount, wants nothing to do with Jesus. But, then, Roman soldiers force him to carry the cross. After witnessing the horrible abuse of the condemned man, he takes a heroic stand and shames Christ's tormentors.

In American life today -- as in the life of all societies -- we see similar dramas played out all the time. A good man bears witness to an unpopular truth -- and for this he may be subjected to ridicule, abuse, character assassination or professional destruction.

Many who view Gibson's movie may find themselves pursuing the answer to Pilate's timeless question: What is truth? And many of us will emerge from the theatre, reflecting on our own fallen nature and the faltering steps of all who meet Jesus, even his disciples, and ask: Which one am I?