The world of film is at times utterly unpredictable. Films with star power and fabulous special effects can slump. Films made on tight budgets and no-name actors can soar. Movies that no one saw are rewarded with Oscars, and movies that everyone raves about fail to bag nominations. It seems that “Hollyworld” and the Real World have a hard time seeing things from the same point of view.
Exactly five years ago on February 25, Ash Wednesday, critics scratched their heads as a small-budget film about a supposedly out-of-fashion topic raked in blockbuster millions. It was called, “The Passion of the Christ”. The plot was unoriginal, the location lacked magnificent scenery, and the make-up did not enhance the main actor’s face but disfigured it. The characters made no jokes (except for one), the villains swore in dead languages, and the women were clothed from head to ankle. What, then, made it such a popular film?
Five years later, Jim Caviezel’s Christ is more alive than ever, his image having been inserted into the prayer books and hung in the churches of Christians across the world. Last week I attended Mass in a tiny town in Mexico and noticed Christ from “The Passion” on a poster promoting support for seminarians. Everywhere, Christ-believers and non-believers think of the same face when asked about Jesus, especially the young who are already out-of-sync with the Jesus flicks of the 60’s and 70’s.
Five years later, the film has transcended the multiplex cinema and has entered into the terrain of legend. It occupies a singular place among contemporary works of sacred art. It has merited more praise than any other film on Jesus, even though it treats of the shortest time period within his earthly life. Most movies impact us for a short while and quickly give way to the new. Few can permanently transform our behavior and outlook on life. The “Passion” achieved it, having married cinematic excellence to a rare factor millions of modern people are thirsting for.
Faith which does not just inspire the grandest works of art, but actually finds a voice through them. Faith which does not restrict itself to the proclamation of the Word, but must be transmitted through the image. As Jesus Christ, the Word, came to earth in flesh and blood, so faith seeks to incarnate itself in the souls of artists, not as an option, but as a need. “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art,” John Paul II told artists in his 1999 letter, “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God… Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.” This experience of the unseen God is the reason why people who saw the “Passion” five years ago will see it again in these next forty days, not to cry, not to admire, not to laugh, but to believe.
Who will nurture this belief? Today, art, like the prodigal son, has fallen by the wayside of distinguished careers. Young people run for the practical, the economical, or flow with the status quo. Within the Church, a rebirth of sacred art would not only nourish faith in an age sapped of transcendence, but revive art in an age sapped of beauty. Art needs the Church. “Because of its central doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word of God,” John Paul II continued in his letter, “Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in inspiration. Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion?” A great source of inspiration that is inexhaustible, but, like a deep well, needs hands to draw its fertile waters to the earth.
Fifty years from now, I don’t doubt the Passion of the Christ will still be shown. What would be sad is that fifty years from now, the octogenarians should be reminiscing, “Do you remember that film, “The Passion of the Christ”? It was such a hit when it came out! What a pity no one has made another film like it since.”
What would that have to say about our commitment to satisfying the thirst of millions?
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