The heat of PASSION

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is based on a subject and texts that have been part of history for the last two millenia. But an advanced age doesn't mean there's a lack of controversy about the story and this latest film incarnation.

The movie, which opens Wednesday — Ash Wednesday to be precise — has become a lightning rod of discussion among a national audience. Already religious groups both Jewish and Christian are debating the merits and intentions of the movie, there are conflicting reports of Papal approval and Gibson has been the subject of prime-time interviews and controversial quotes, and this is all before the movie has even been released to a national audience.

But "The Passion of the Christ" is certainly not the first film to touch on upon religious issues in film. Three Marquette professors discussed what has made the movie so talked-about and the issues that come with this and any other Biblically-based movie.

Lost in translation?

"The Passion of the Christ" narrows its scope on the Life of Jesus by looking only at the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. While the timeline of the film is shortened, Gibson — the film's producer, director and co-writer — still has the job of condensing the stories from the four Gospels from the multitude of versions of the Bible, all while putting the dialogue in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew with English subtitles.

Ralph Del Colle, a Marquette theology professor specializing in ethics, said there is an inherent difficulty in presenting a condensed story.

"The four Gospels all provide a different way of proclaiming Christ," Del Colle said. "You have to present one story faithful to the message of the Gospels, but that is still somehow a gleaning of the four."

Marquette theology professor Mark Johnson feels focusing on part of Jesus' life does simplify the work, but still causes problems.

"Gibson gave himself wiggle room and freedom by just doing the last 12 hours of Jesus life, but condensing those stories are still a challenge at the end of the day," Jonhson said.

One of the main topics of discussion swirling around the film, is possible anti-Semitical statements in both the film and Gospels themselves.

While early versions of "The Passion of the Christ" were reported to include statements from a Jewish crowd to let Jesus' blood be on them, the scene has been cut from the final version, though those words still exist in some translations of the book of Matthew. The professors felt the words are more of an indicaton of the time the books were written and not to be applied today.

"The Gospels were written at a time when the Christian Church realized it would not be accepted in the Jewish Church of the time," Johnson said. "The Gospels pick up a bit of edge from those situations.

"That's where early Christianity was at the time."

William Thorn, a journalism professor and director of the Institute for Catholic Media, stressed the statements on Jewish culture in the Gospels must be kept in context.

"The Gospels clearly say Jesus and his disciples were Jews who were feared and despised by a group of political Jews," Thorn said. "It's a matter of history that those specific Jewish leaders were responsible for putting Jesus to death."

That specificness and the statements of Vatican II make persucution of Jews illogical and unjustifiable for Thorn.

"To hold Jewish people of a later generation accountable for the death of Jesus is racist and antithetical to what Christ preached," Thorn said. "In a way we're all responsible for his death by being sinful."

Deeper Impact?

The film is also being marketed as an evangelical opportunity for churches and Christian groups as a way to introduce the story of Jesus. Del Colle has no problems with those intentions, but warns of proper follow-up.

"If churches invite non-Christians to the movie. each church will have to decide how to present the Gospel in words," Del Colle said. "My concern is that the Gospel is presented in depth; as deep and profound as if the movie were an evangelist preaching."

The graphic violence of the movie has also been a heated topic, and while Thorn said people may find the scenes "brutal" and "appalling," he felt they are needed.

"Crucifxion is an event outside most people's experiences," Thorn said. "The truth of it is not in a sanitized version, but a historically accurate version."

As for the Ash Wednesday opening, most felt it was an appropriate start for the movie.

"Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of a penitential season of recognizing our own sins and working toward Good Friday," Johnson said. "Our own sinfulness is on display on Ash Wednesday,"

Thorn agreed that the film could serve as a "Lenten reflection and meditation."

Even before this film, presenting the Gospel in other mediums, such as passion plays, was commonplace. Del Colle said

"It's not that Christians haven't attempted to harmonize the Gospel message to assist prayer and meditation," Del Colle said. "Film is just more direct and public."

The movie also has been talked about more than other religious releases such as "Jesus of Nazareth" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," which Thorn said were mostly talked about in Christian circles only.

Part of the extra talk came from Gibson's aggressive screening to religious leaders and the film's prominence also is a sign of a movement in the entertainment world.

"What you see in this film is an asserting by the religious right of its right in the public square and to have movies and debate about religion in the public square," Thorn said.

But for all the religious implications, the film may just follow Gibson's filmmamking pattern.

"The last two movies he directed ("Braveheart," "The Patriot") were about people who sacrificed lives for their beliefs," Thorn said. "Why wouldn't he do Christ next?",”Matthew T. Olson”