Friday, November 26, 2004

SBL Passion of the Christ interview -- Fulco and Fitzgerald

Sunday, 7 p.m.: one of the ballrooms hosts an event entitled "An Interview with the Writers of the Passion." The writers in question were Benedict Fitzgerald, co-screenwriter, and William J. Fulco, S.J., the film's theological consultant, who was responsible for the translations to Aramaic and Latin. They sat in armchairs on the stage, and were joined by Clayton Jefford and Alice Bach.

David Shepherd did a pretty good job of conducting the interview and frankly it would probably have been better if it was just him with Fulco and Fitzgerald since the other two did not add much to the mix. Jefford spoke only occasionally and looked like he didn't know why he was there. And I wondered whether Alice Bach was a little starstruck; she did not ask any difficult questions of Fulco or Fitzgerald and the only negative reaction she gave in the session was balking at Fulco's use of the terms "man" and "macho" to describe Jesus. And she was a little touchy-feely with Fitzgerald as if very pleased to be sitting up there with him.

Fitzgerald looked every bit the Hollywood celebrity, sitting back in his armchair with nonchalance, wearing a throw-over green scarf and an open-neck shirt, chewing gum throughout, with perhaps a hint of nerves at the rather unusual audience of a bunch of Biblical scholars. Fulco was relaxed, jovial, clearly enjoying himself, and looked like a Dad on holiday, middle-aged and professional but with Hawaiian style shirt hanging out and unbuttoned to the middle. The latter was a poor sartorial decision, not just because it overestimates the audience's enthusiasm to see so much of this priest's chest, but also because the tie-mike would sit too far away from his mouth and he was consistently asked to put it closer.

David Shepherd did put the difficult questions, though, and in particular pressed Fulco on the issue of Greek. Why Latin and Aramaic? Why not Greek? Fulco explained that they had tried using Greek too, but that it did not work and they thought they would have lots of complaints about pronunciation. He said that the advantage of using Latin and Aramaic was the sound of these two languages -- they could have the actors speaking variously in Aramaic and Italianate Latin and then every viewer would be able to distinguish between who was talking in which language because of the basic sounds. Fulco and Fitzgerald added that Gibson had a real love affair / obsession with the Latin of the pre-Vatican II mass.

Shepherd also asked them about Jesus speaking Latin. Fulco (I think it was) replied that this was for deliberate dramatic effect -- you have Pilate addressing Jesus in Aramaic and then Jesus surprising Pilate by answering in Latin.

On the question of sources, Fitzgerald said that John was the Gospel he was primarily dependent on, though he used details from the others. And, of course, he mentioned Emmerich, though he was inclined to play down the importance of this. His comments on the genesis of the script were interesting. He said that Mel Gibson got in touch with him and asked him to put together a screenplay for him. The first draft was entirely his work. He did not consult anybody and he was making the attempt to remember the Passion story largely as he had encountered it as a child (which Bach balked at a little).

At another point, Fitzgerald said that he did not like The Last Temptation of Christ with the exception of one scene, the raising of Lazarus. He specifically mentioned the camera's presence inside the tomb, looking out, interesting in the light of the Resurrection scene in The Passion of the Christ.

Speaking of the latter, Fulco commented that he would have preferred the film to end either with the pieta, so that there was no resurrection at all, or with a more extended resurrection scene. He related a story I have heard him tell before, about how he attempted to press the point with Gibson, and which ends with him saying "Shucks, I'm just the translator".

Fitzgerald gave an interesting insight on the resurrection scene -- he mentioned a painting in which Jesus is seen inside the tomb, looking at his hands and feet, as if in wonder at his own resurrection. He said that he was moved by that painting (wished I could catch who he said the artist was. Anyone recognise it from the description?) and so tried to write the resurrection scene as a kind of dramatic realisation of it.

Fitzgerald also spoke about the term "aletheia" which he described as connected with the act of "remembering", arguing that this was key in the way he perceived the film, something that also crops up in Mel Gibson's preface to the book of photographs from the film.

Both Fulco and Fitzgerald said that they did not think that the first of the flashbacks worked, the Nazareth table scene. They said it was Gibson's attempt to put some humour into the film, albeit very briefly, but that they felt it did not gel and they wished it was not there. I still love that scene, though, so I am pleased that Gibson prevailed.

On the question of the anti-Judaism, Fulco located the origins of this with a newspaper article long before production was complete, in which a journalist had looked up Mel Gibson's father and reported on his crazy views (their term, if I remember correctly) and making a link to this film. They both rejected the claim utterly that the film was anti-Jewish and Fulco spoke of his great suffering through the whole business, perhaps the one moment in the interview when he became serious. It was an interesting moment, not least because some of those present would have been fresh out of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media section just beforehand, at which Amy-Jill Levine and Paula Fredriksen had spoken about their suffering at that same time. I couldn't help feeling that there was something utterly peculiar about having these two sessions about The Passion of the Christ, from such different perspectives, without any connection between the two, in each of which the speakers were commenting on their suffering, and in each of which no questions or comments from the floor were allowed. An outside observer at either session might have wondered what kind of academic conference this was, that in these sessions the audiences were not able to contribute.

Also on the question of anti-Judaism, Fulco mentioned an assistant he had -- don't remember the name -- on the language coaching on set. She was Jewish and apparently frequently sat down with Mel Gibson to discuss the question of the representation of Jews and Judaism in the film. She made suggestions for improvements to the film throughout, including something to do with the depiction of the Last Supper.

On the flashbacks, Fitzgerald commented that the primary purpose was sacramental. They were attempting to frame the events of the Passion by reminding the viewer of their sacramental context. I found that a particularly useful thought; many of the flashbacks are, after all, located at the Last Supper. That is definitely something I'll be bearing in mind on my next viewing.

With reference to the Satan character, one of them commented that the actress (Rosalina Centano) was actually anorexic and that they were quite worried about her while she was on set. And in relation to the Satan and the ugly baby, Fitzgerald confirmed that this was indeed intended as a kind of demonic mockery of the Madonna and child.

One of the things Fitzgerald was insistent upon was that one should not view the screenplay as "text". It is not designed to be read as text but to be viewed as film. Seeing it as "text" distorts the way it is viewed. I felt that this was particularly aimed at the audience of Biblical scholars with their tendency to textualize whatever they see, though I wondered whether Alice Bach was shifting around in her armchair a bit as he said it given film theorists' use of the term text.

Fulco cracked a joke with such dry humour that many fell for it. Shepherd asked him about the long term future of the film. Where would people's appreciation of it be in 5 or 10 years? Would it be regular Easter TV fare? He answered that Mel Gibson is currently working on a PG version of the film which would enable it to be shown on TV; he said that the PG version would be about 14 minutes long.

This was a fascinating session, just under 90 minutes worth altogether, and much better organized than the session that was going on next door on The Forgery Crisis, from the sound of it (see Paleojudaica on this). And it was especially welcome after the previous session in the Bible and Ancient Modern Media / Johannine Literature section, which was so frustrating in so many ways. David Shepherd did a fine job and I went to congratulate him afterwards. It turned out that he had organized the session himself, inviting the speakers and so on. Good for him -- an excellent job.


Jim said...

From the title one would think the conversation were with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John... ;-) I'm sure, though, that Fulco in particular was interesting.

Anonymous said...

The painting you may be referring to with reference to the 'resurrection' may be by the painter Caravaggio as Mel Gibson has stated he used his paintings with regards lighting and atmosphere in the film to depict the duplicity of light and dark etc.
By the way really enjoyed the weblog of the conferenc.