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Interview Transcript: Dr. Monica Miller on Crucifixion Scenes in Film

 Crucifixion Scenes in Film

Dr Monica Miller – 03-31-17

Al Kresta:  And good afternoon.  I’m Al Kresta.  As we, again, move through Lent toward the Triduum, a lot of us preparing, of course, for Good Friday.  And one of the things that families have started doing on Good Friday is to watch “The Passion of the Christ,” the great Mel Gibson movie.  And I thought it would be a good idea if we asked Dr. Monica Miller to join us.  She’s Associate Professor of Theology at Madonna University and Director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society.  But she’s written what is really the definitive, in my mind, the definitive work on the theology of “The Passion of Christ.”  And talked to — ask her about these crucifixion scenes that we’ve seen in various of these Jesus movies over the years and how they conform with not only historic reality but theological fitness.

And, Monica, it’s good to have you with me.  Thanks.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Yes.  So good to be with you.  Thank you, Al.

Al Kresta:  Well, again, you — this is a scene-by-scene theological study of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”   Let me just leapfrog to the Passion narrative.  It’s been known as an especially brutal depiction of the Passion.  Is that in keeping with what we know, one, historically; and, two, about a theological fitness?

Dr. Monica Miller:  Well, I think the most important thing to realize about the Gibson film is that, certainly, while it is historically based, I think it’s primary focus is theological.  And so the images, the symbols, the narrative, the way the film is mounted, Gibson is making a theological statement about the sacrifice that Christ offered for the sake of the salvation of the human race.  And so I get a little, I don’t know, annoyed — I guess maybe I could say a little annoyed when people insist that the Gibson film is historical.  Well, that’s not — I don’t think, you know, that’s the point, you know, that the scourging actually happened that way, the crucifixion actually happened that way.  As a matter of fact, he takes — let’s just be honest — tons of liberties —

Al Kresta:  Sure.

Dr. Monica Miller:  — okay?  I mean, you’ve got, for example, at the crucifixion, in the crucifixion scene you have an inverted cross, where the cross is elevated — Jesus has been flipped over while he’s on the cross so that the soldiers who are crucifying him can pound the ends of the nails back against the wood so that the nails will not pop out.  And yet, you see that Jesus is not actually on the ground; he’s elevated.  And then you see Mary Magdalen looking at, wow, what’s happening here.   But he’s taken that out of Mary Agreda’s visions of the crucifixion, and, again, to make certain theological points.  So I think we have to — you know, you kind of miss the depths of the film if you’re only focused on absolute Gospel, you know, parallels and historical, you know, detail.

Al Kresta:  How does Gibson compare to this long tradition about Jesus?  Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” certainly, Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” “The King of Kings” from 1961, Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”; how does this fit in, how does this compare?

Dr. Monica Miller:  Well, I’m going to say that Gibson’s movie is certainly the most theologically informed of all films that have ever been made about Our Lord.  And it’s very interesting, too, to note that Gibson made this movie basing a whopping 70% of it from Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Honestly, she should have gotten film credit.

Al Kresta:  (Laughing)  As a script writer or something.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Yeah, I mean, he just cannibalized her.  He took whole scenes, dialogue, imagery from The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, which, by the way, is a very violent book, very, very graphic in terms of the torture and the suffering that Our Lord endured, and which I think actually appealed to Mel Gibson, who is not known for subtlety, right, when it comes to on-screen violence, even in his latest film that was nominated for best picture.

But let’s do a little bit of a comparison here, for example.  Very, very critically acclaimed, and maybe, you know, if you had to count up the positive reviews, Pier Pasolini’s  1964 film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” might come out ahead in terms of positive reviews.  It is a very, very well-done movie, and surprisingly, given Pasolini’s own personal life — he was a practicing homosexual, he was a Marxist, atheist, but because he really mounted “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” literally, all of the dialogue is taken directly from the Gospel, he couldn’t help but come up with a film that was very respectful and really honored the Gospel text.   But it’s very interesting to see what he’s doing in that movie that’s very, very different from the Gibson film.  For example, you go and you watch the crucifixion scene in Pasolini’s movie, even starting with the trial of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate, the camera angles are very distant, very remote from the actual action.  And so, in fact, you — for example, in the trial before Pilate, he must be filming that from 100 feet away.  I mean, the characters are very far away from the viewer —

Al Kresta:  Interesting.

Dr. Monica Miller:  — and so you hear the dialogue, but you almost can hardly make out who the characters are in the trial scene.  So there’s a certain distance and remoteness between the viewer and the actual activity that’s going on on screen.  Now, supposedly he did that to place the audience in — the actual theater audience as part of the audience —

Al Kresta:  Part of the crowd, yeah.

Dr. Monica Miller:  — watching and observing.  But it removes you so — it puts you at such a distance from the action, you just don’t really feel that you are involved.  You do become a mere observer of what’s happening.  Furthermore, you’ve got the way Jesus is portrayed in the carrying of the cross.  Now, first of all, there’s no scourging scene in the Pasolini movie, there is very little blood.  Jesus actually looks like he’s just taking a stroll down the avenue, though he is wearing a crown of thorns; but he doesn’t in any way look like he’s tortured.  The crown of thorns just sort of sits like a nest on top of his head.   Even somebody comes along and gives him something to drink while he’s, you know, pacing along.  Somebody else is completely — you know, some Simon of Cyrene, one would assume, is actually the one carrying the cross.  When we get to the crucifixion itself in the Pasolini movie, it’s done almost completely in silence; Jesus doesn’t show any agony while, you know, the nails are being driven through his hands and his feet, while, oddly enough, one of the thieves that’s being crucified, he is in real distress.  Okay?  But here we have a Jesus who just seems to be, in a sense, very stoic about it all.  So very different from the Gibson movie.

The thing that really marked the Gibson film — and, again, in comparison to what’s going on in the Pasolini movie — everything in the Gibson movie is — you get the front-row seat.

Al Kresta:  Yeah.

Dr. Monica Miller:  If you were there actually in the scene yourself, you would be splattered with all the blood —

Al Kresta:  Right.

Dr. Monica Miller:  — that’s how close you are.  Everything is very proximate.  You see the facial expressions of everyone; that’s how close you are to the action.

Al Kresta:  Yeah, including the executioners and the accusers, yeah.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Exactly.  The executioners are splattered with his blood.  And you’re right on top of the action.  And the torture then is very graphic.  You are pulled into it.  And, furthermore, in the Gibson movie often you see the crucifixion from Jesus’s point of view, so it becomes very personal.  You experience what he experiences through his own eyes.  Like, for example, sometimes on the carrying of the cross, which, by the way, again, very upfront, close and upfront because you feel the weight of that cross that Jesus himself is bearing.  So you really become a part, not just an observer but a real participant in the crucifixion of Christ in the Gibson movie, which then, you know, makes you part of the action.  You become very affected by it in an emotional, and I would say then even in a spiritual way, the way that the kind of stoic approach that happens in the Pasolini movie.

And here’s another thing that’s very curious.  In the crucifixion — after Jesus dies and he’s being taken down from the cross in the Pasolini movie, the crown of thorns is tossed aside like it was just a piece of rubbish, totally cast aside, flung out into who knows where, a very — in other words — and some may say that Pasolini may have been making a  point about the Catholic obsession with relics, that we shouldn’t be so concerned about these material items that were associated with the Passion of Jesus.  But in the Gibson movie, indeed, the crown of thorns and the nails that have been — are now removed from the hands and feet of Jesus are carefully set aside.  And the camera lingers on them.  So you are drawn into the torture instruments that now have become sanctified.  They are sanctified relics, and we honor them and we pay attention to them because they point us back to the sacrifice that Christ offered for our salvation.  So, again, it’s very interesting to see the approaches that these directors take in terms of mounting the crucifixion.

Al Kresta:  And it’s important to remember, too, that a lot of thought is given to this.  I mean, I don’t know how many years I’d been alive watching movies before it dawned on me that moviemaking was a real art and a real craft.  There’s a great skill.  Everything — you know, you think about the camera angles, you think about the dialogue —

Dr. Monica Miller:  Oh, absolutely.  You know, everything is preplanned.  You know, there are even the — you know, they even draw on, you know, these storyboards exactly what they’re going to be doing when they actually come into the studio or on location to film, to make the films.

Al Kresta:  My guest is Dr. Monica Miller.  She’s author of The Theology of the Passion of the Christ.  And what we’re doing is we’re looking over some of the great depictions of the Passion in other films, comparing them with Gibson’s treatment of the Passion.  And we’re going to continue on the other side of the break.  With me, again, Dr. Monica Miller.  I’m Al Kresta.

(End Segment 1.)

  Al Kresta:  Well, good afternoon.  I’m Al Kresta.  With me is Dr. Monica Miller.  She is the author of The Theology of the Passion of the Christ.  And as we approach the Triduum and Good Friday, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the portrayals of the Passion of the Christ.  Most of us are familiar with, of course, Mel Gibson’s outstanding movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”  How does that compare with some of the great films of the past?  Last segment we were talking about Pier Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” from 1964, which is probably the most critically acclaimed movie about Jesus.  But there are others, as well.

Before we go to some of the other movies, Monica, I just wanted to ask you a question about The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and his reliance on Emmerich’s private revelation.  You say about 70% of the film is derived from her work.  Does that create any problems for you as a theologian?

Dr. Monica Miller:  Oh, no, absolutely not.  I mean, Anne Catherine Emmerich is, if I’m not mistaken, she’s been elevated to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich.  And as long as the imagery and her own particular, let’s say, private meditations serve the faith and don’t detract from the faith, I certainly — I don’t have any problem with it.

And maybe with saying that, we could segue into another person who definitely has a private point of view, and that would be Martin Scorsese.

Al Kresta:   That’s exactly where I was going to go.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Of course, Martin, good old Martin, he did his, you know, a film about Jesus which was enormously controversial for all the reasons it should have been controversial.  “The Last Temptation of Christ” was 1988; the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, which was also quite controversial.

I want to say this, even before we get into maybe some of the nitty-gritty technical comparisons, there is a huge comparison right off the start, and that is Martin Scorsese, maybe we could say he’s a friendly agnostic.  I mean, he’s conflicted in his faith; he doesn’t really know where to put his faith.  He has issues with the Church; he’s not shy about that; that’s pretty much public knowledge.  So what happens?  If you compare what he does with Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ” to the Jesus that we have in the Gibson movie, it is a world of difference, and for this very reason.  Scorsese, in his own private struggles with faith, presents us indeed with a Jesus that is also struggling.  This is a Jesus who doubts himself, this is a Jesus who doesn’t know what his mission is all about, this is a Jesus who is distracted by worldly concerns, this is a Jesus who appears almost to be a kind of insane revolutionary figure, this a Jesus who is ambivalent about whether or not he will actually offer himself as a sacrifice and do the will of the Father; is this even the will of the Father.   But, you know, is that really Jesus or is that more Scorsese?  Okay, but very different, so we get this ambivalent, conflicted Christ in “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Move over to the Gibson movie.  Now we have a Jesus completely the opposite.  This is a Christ who is absolutely committed.  He knows who he is.  He is there to offer that sacrifice.  He absolutely, you know, is completely committed to entry into the Passion for the sake of the salvation of the world.  And so, as I say on page 161 of my book, “While the Christ of ‘The Last Temptation’ reflects ambivalence towards the redemption of man, the Christ of ‘The Passion’ is a sure savior, he’s someone we can count on.  The fate of the human race is not simply a maybe in his hands.  The ambivalent Christ of the Scorsese film reflects the director’s own stance towards God, and the sure Christ of ‘The Passion,’ Gibson’s ‘Passion,’ reflects Gibson, who believes that Jesus is truly the Lord and the savior, even though you might have some difficulties with Gibson’s schismatic points of view on certain things.  But he is a believer.”  So that’s right here.  We have a huge difference in the approach and even in terms of will Jesus offer a sacrifice.

Al Kresta:  I mean, the heart of the Gospel is the confidence that God loves us.  I mean, this is not something he’s ambivalent about.  And the whole scheme of redemption is directed for us to have eternal communion with him.  And so to, as you point out, to make Jesus ambivalent about God’s purposes or his purposes or whether he should go to the cross or not really undermines the Gospel, doesn’t it?

Dr. Monica Miller:  Well, I would even — I think the movie is blasphemous.  And I do take umbrage with directors who exploit the Christian religion to work out their own angst.  It’s sort of like, you know, “Please leave our religion alone.”  But there it is.  Okay.

But maybe we can move over quickly to a comparison with the 1961 “King of Kings” remake.  This is that —

Al Kresta:  This was a remake of the Cecil B. DeMille —

Dr. Monica Miller:  Well, right.  The first major motion picture was the 1927 silent, “The King of Kings,” Cecil B. DeMille.  And it is a masterpiece; it is a beautiful work.  And then we had to wait — how many years? — do the math, but we had to wait 40 years or more, thereabouts, before we would see another Jesus and we would be able to look at his face.  Jesus, you know, in the 1950s, for example, the two movies that would come to mind, also very good movies, “The Robe,” with Richard Burton, and then the —

Al Kresta:  “Ben Hur.”

Dr. Monica Miller:  — “Ben Hur,” right, with Charlton Heston.  Jesus is always filmed from behind.

Al Kresta:  That’s right.

Dr. Monica Miller:  You never actually see his face.  And this was to emphasize the mystery of God.  And it was very — it was meant to be respectful, and indeed it was.  And, you know, these were very clever directors, and they made it work.  You know, we were not put off by it or thought it was strange.  It did work for what they were doing.  I mean, some of the most moving scenes ever about Jesus are in “Ben Hur,” but —

Al Kresta:  Right, yeah, I agree.

Dr. Monica Miller:  — we never see the face of Christ.  But the 1961 film starring the very handsome Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus — you know, in fact, the movie made a big deal — you will see Jesus fully characterized.  You know, that was one of the promos on the posters and on the previews and so on.  So you got really excited because now Jesus was not hidden and we’re bringing him out and you’re going to see —

Well, in some ways that’s very similar to what we get with the Gibson movie.  Jesus is very upfront, very personal, very exposed; and, I’m  going to say, very particular.  Now, what I mean by that is when the moviemaker allows us to be engaged with a particular Jesus, in other words, he has this eye color, he has this hair color, he has these facial features, this, I think, really honors the incarnational principle of our faith.  Jesus did look a certain way.

Al Kresta:  Yeah, he weighed so many pounds, yeah.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Yeah, he weighed this — he was this tall, he weighed this much, and he looked this way.  Now, it was very interesting to see those after Jeffrey Hunter.  You know, I think if you’re going to roll out Jesus after being hidden for 30 or 40 years on the screen, you have a Jesus that people really say, “Yeah, that’s him.”    You know, he looks very European ‑‑ right? — he’s got blue eyes.

Al Kresta:  Right, right.

Dr. Monica Miller:  He’s very, very nice to look at, very dignified, you know, so there was all of that.  But in the Gibson movie, though Jim Caviezel certainly isn’t Jewish, nonetheless, this is a very proximate Christ who’s very particular but also very Jewish.

Al Kresta:  Yeah, right.

Dr. Monica Miller:  And so we kind of honor, in a sense, that historical aspect of who it is that Jesus was.  He was a Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew, okay.  But that’s a good comparison there.

The other thing is “The Passion of the Christ,” Gibson’s movie is very Marian.   Okay?

Al Kresta:  That’s true, yeah.

Dr. Monica Miller:  And for that reason, there’s a huge, you know, a definite theological depth to the Gibson movie that just puts it in a whole different category.  It’s pretty interesting —

Al Kresta:  The mother-son relationship is very clear, yeah.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Mother-son relationship, yes.  Well, give some credit to that 1961 Jeffrey Hunter movie because the Mary in that movie is really seen as a kind of covenant partner to the work of her son.  Siobhan McKenna played Mary in that movie, so you really see, in a kind of a sense, a prefigurement, if you will, of the role of Mary as we get it fully, you know, fully developed in the Gibson movie.  So there’s definitely an insight going on there.

I guess I would have to say, Al, in terms of real comparisons, I think the only movie that really comes close in terms of the moving, graphic and violent dimension of the crucifixion is in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1976 very, very well done “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Robert Powell played the role of Christ in that movie.  And even just to go and watch that particular segment of the Zeffirelli movie from Jesus’ appearance in front of Pilate all the way through to the end of the movie is almost like a little mini-movie all to its own.  But the crucifixion is, in some sense, is very different but still extremely effective.  The movie, in Zeffirelli’s film the crucifixion happens very swiftly.  With a kind of cold, expedient speed, the soldiers mount Jesus on the cross.  But it’s very violent; Jesus is in terrible agony.

Al Kresta:  So it’s kind of impersonal efficiency here.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Very impersonal efficiency.  So in that sense it’s different from the Gibson movie that really takes its time.  You know, every single detail is focused on in the actual crucifixion when we finally, in the Gibson movie, we get to Calvary.  But it’s interesting to see how those two different approaches still wind up being very, very effective from the Zeffirelli film to the Mel Gibson movie.

Al Kresta:  Let me ask you — we’ve only got a minute left.  You pointed out that one thing almost all movies about Jesus have in common is the way Herod is depicted.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Right.

Al Kresta:  Tell me more.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Herod, just about in every Jesus movie, is depicted as either effeminate, so, in other words, not very manly.  And, actually, there are certain homosexual overtones suggested; this is certainly the case in the Gibson movie.

Al Kresta:  Right.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Even Pontius Pilate sometimes is depicted that way, in a sort of effeminate ‑‑ and I have a whole theory about that that I talk about in my book — but, yes, Herod is debauched, and he is a sexual pervert.  In the Zeffirelli movie Christopher Plummer plays Herod, and he’s depicted as lusting after Salome.  So the moral depravity speaks to the spiritual blindness of Herod in terms of Jesus.

Al Kresta:  Well, Monica, thanks so much.  Great talking with you.

Dr. Monica Miller:  Thank you.

Al Kresta:  And, again, I would urge people to get The Theology of the Passion of the Christ by Dr. Miller.  The Theology of the Passion of the Christ, it’s really one of a kind.

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