The greatest story ever filmed

Posted: Aug 05, 2003 12:00 AM

Last month in Washington, 50 people attended a private screening of actor Mel Gibson's new film, "The Passion," about the last 12 hours in the earthly life of Jesus Christ.

We were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, promising not to write or speak about the film without permission. That restriction has now been lifted.

As one who has seen virtually every modern biblical epic - from Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" to the two-part "Jesus" miniseries on CBS three years ago - I can say "The Passion" is the most beautiful, profound, accurate, disturbing, realistic and bloody depiction of this well-known story that has ever been filmed.

Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus with tender understatement, may be the best "Jesus" ever (not counting the original). To those in the Jewish community who worry that the film, which is scheduled for release next Easter season, might contain anti-Semitic elements, or encourage people to persecute Jews, fear not. The film does not indict Jews for the death of Jesus. It is faithful to the New Testament account. Also, Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic, does not elevate Mary, Jesus' mother, beyond what Scripture says of her, which will broaden the film's appeal to Protestants.

A Christian friend whispered to me during the scene in which the mob demands that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, order Jesus (who, after all, was Jewish) to be crucified: "What disturbs me is that I might have been part of that crowd."

Exactly. Guilt is universal, not particular to the Jews.

There is an important theological point to be made, especially for any Christian who might wish to blame the Jews as a people for Christ's death. According to the biblical record, Jesus said He came into the world for the purpose of sacrificing Himself on behalf of all humanity and that no one had the power to take His life from Him. He said He had the power to lay His life down, and the power to take it up again. That doesn't sound like a murder victim to me.

Questions had been raised as to whether Gibson can find a distributor. Asked about it at the screening, Gibson said confidently, "Oh, I'll find a distributor."

This is not a date film. The rough cut I saw contains graphic scenes, including the seemingly endless scourging of Jesus. The makeup artist deserves an Oscar for the way he created the "wounds." The crucifixion scene is long, bloody and painful to watch. Several audience members wept. The film will probably earn an "R" rating for violence.

"The Passion" should not be labeled a "religious" film, or something to be shown only in church basements. Compared to examples of recent Christian films ("Left Behind" is one of many very bad ones in this genre), "The Passion" is a work of high art and great storytelling.

The dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin. English subtitles are provided, and they are helpful in following the storyline. A decision about using them in the final version has not been made. Few liberties are taken with the Gospel account, and the extra dialogue added helps round out the characters without damaging historical or biblical accuracy.

Satan is cleverly played as an asexual being who at first seems to be an observer in the Garden of Gethsemane (and in other scenes), but the appearance of a snake slithering between the character's feet and attempting to wrap itself around the arm of the prostrate and praying Jesus identifies him and his evil intent. The film is an intense two hours. It uses unknown actors, which helps focus attention on the message. By the end of the film (a unique portrayal of the resurrection), the viewer is exhausted.

Thirteen years ago, actor Mickey Rooney wrote an editorial for Variety in which he said, "The on-screen depiction of religion is less than flattering, and, as a Christian, I pray the era of denigrating religion on screen comes to a screeching halt. And soon."

Rooney's prayer has been answered with "The Passion." It is a soul-stirring film that deserves wide distribution and viewing. Its message is not just for Christians, but for everyone. I doubt a better film about Jesus could be made.