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Modern Romans await ‘The Passion’

The release of "The Passion of the Christ" in Italy this week is sparking as much debate and controversy as it did elsewhere. NBC's Stephen Weeke reports on what the modern day descendents of Christ's Roman executioners make of the film.
Actor Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus, talks with producer and director Mel Gibson on the set of the new film "The Passion of The Christ" during filming in Italy.New Market Films via Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

The wait for the arrival of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" ends this week for Italians, opening precisely when the Roman Catholic Church commemorates the final suffering of Jesus Christ.

The North American premiere on Ash Wednesday, the start of the church's Lenten period of abstinence, generated an extensive public debate which has translated to record box-office sales and unprecedented popularity for a religious film with subtitles. 

And while critics asserted the movie would fuel anti-Semitism because of its unfavorable portrayal of Jews, others have noted the film seems to lay historical blame for Jesus’ torture much more on the Romans.

So what will the now Catholic descendants of Christ’s executioners’ make of this movie, which opens Wednesday?   

Point of pride
First and foremost the film is giving Italians a great deal of national pride because the film is “100 percent, Made in Italy.” 

It was shot on location in a part of the old city of Matera, where for many centuries people lived in caves hewn into homes built right into steep cliff-sides.

The quarter, known as “I Sassi,” (the rocks), was known for the abject poverty and ignorance of its people. Well into the 20th century entire families still lived in these caves with their farm animals, amid terrible sanitary conditions.   

Prior to the spotlight brought by this film, the cave-dwellers of Matera were made notorious by one of Italy’s greatest 20thcentury novels, “Christ stopped at Eboli.”  The book recounts a year in the mid-thirties when the author, Carlo Levi, an intellectual opposed to Benito Mussolini, was banished to internal exile in the backwoods of Italy.

Ironically, the title arises from the writer’s shock at the living conditions of the cave-people, and the general misery in the town.

In this god-forgotten atmosphere, a local peasant tells the author that Christianity never made it this far. Hence Christ “stopped,” at Eboli, a town 50 miles away. The book’s indictment forced the government in the 1950’s to deem Sassi a “national disgrace,” and forcibly relocate the cave families to regular housing in the city.

Mel Gibson’s work exorcises Levi’s literary “curse” by not only bringing Christ to the godforsaken caves, but by blessing the place with an artistic mysticism which is already giving rise to a kind of religious-film tourism.

This small, southern, inland city has always struggled economically.

Now its people may be in for an economic revival but may live to regret the mixed blessing of celebrity, when the influx of thousands of tourists ends the peace and quiet they’ve enjoyed for centuries.

Debate over legacy
Meantime, the capital city of the Roman Empire is now better known for the headquarters of the Catholic Church. And here in the center of Western Christendom the debate over this film has been no less passionate.

Gibson shot the soundstage parts of the movie at Rome’s Cinecitta’ studios and spent many months in this city. In a recent interview he said he was inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio for their “darkness, violence and action” and aspired to render those impressions on film.

In the Vatican, where new ideas and old traditions clash continuously, opinions are greatly divided.

French Cardinal Georges Cottier, the official theologian of the Pontifical household, said that he, for one, will not see the movie.

“I believe that a film cannot reproduce the state of mind of Christ as a painting or a sculpture would do," he said.

"Sculptures and paintings are the result of the meditation of the artist. The immediacy [of a film] doesn’t allow this, although you can show physical pain. They tell me it’s well made, technically speaking, but I’d rather not see it.  It’s an aesthetic matter, we could say," the cardinal told NBC.  

Cottier's aesthetic objections might have been tempered by the filmmaker’s inspiration in Caravaggio, and the director’s belief that years of his own meditation on the suffering of Christ are what brought this film about.

Extreme violence
But it is precisely the “immediacy of physical pain” that has inflamed public opinion about this movie.

In fact, the violence is the cause of most of the controversy, more than the story, the potential for anti-Semitism, and more than the deeply conservative brand of Gibson’s Catholicism.

What is most unusual about this interpretation of Christ’s death is how utterly horrifying was the physical pain he was subjected to.

So when the debate was opened on Italy’s biggest talk show, Porta a Porta, (“Door to Door"), moderator Bruno Vespa ignited the discussion with that very question: “Why does the film need to be so violent?”

His guests who ranged from the Italian actors and actresses who played Caiaphas, Satan, and Pontius Pilate’s wife were supportive of Gibson’s vision.

On the other side a newspaper film critic called it an American horror film, only to be contradicted by the editor-in–chief of a daily newspaper who asked him how a Roman crucifixion could possibly be anything but horrific.

Since the violence is all people seem to be talking about it is obvious that it is also the reason that everyone is talking about this film. In that alone Gibson has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination and the evidence is at the box office.  He set out to show people how much Jesus suffered, and he did just that.

Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney and the highest Catholic official in Gibson’s home country of Australia, told NBC News the film was very convincing.

“I think it was a very powerful and beautiful film. I think it was like that. You can not kill someone without violence. Jesus died and suffered a lot," said Pell. 

Pell has urged all high school seniors in Australia to see the film. “It will make them think, and I hope with many of them it will strengthen their faith.”

Even Monica Bellucci, the Italian actress who plays Mary Magdalene, says the movie's strength lies in the controversy. 

“It is also for this reason that the film becomes important, because there are so many polemics and so many intelligent arguments that arise from these discussions, that just for that very reason the film was worth making,” Bellucci said on Sunday.

The heated debates that surround this film will find fertile ground here for some time as Gibson's "Passion" plays to audiences nationwide. 

Italians love strong opinions, and this film is generating a multitude of emotional responses.  The one thing it is not causing, is indifference.