Jesus's progressive solitude draws the audience to him.
Screenplay blends epic
qualities and intimacy
Benedict Fitzgerald worked for two years with Mel Gibson on the screenplay for "The Passion of the Christ."
Fitzgerald -- the son of renowned poet Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Homer, Virgil and Sophocles are still considered definitive -- first won acclaim for his adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood" (directed by John Houston, 1979). The editions of O'Connor's letters ("Habit of Being") by his mother, Sally Fitzgerald, are equally renown.
As a screenwriter, Fitzgerald has continued to specialize in literary adaptations. In the '90s he wrote a teleplay for "Zelda," starring Natasha Richardson and Timothy Hutton; Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1994), with John Malkovich and Tim Roth; "Moby Dick," with Patrick Stewart as Ahab; and "In Cold Blood" (1996), with Eric Roberts. He's working on a miniseries for German TV based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel "The Last Days of Pompeii."
He took the time to answer some questions about the "Passion" screenplay:
Star-Bulletin: Because most people know the story of the "Passion," did that make it easier to adapt?
Benedict Fitzgerald: More difficult. ... From a technical point of view, I understood it would have to have certain epic qualities, and simultaneously with that, it also had to have intimacy, which is vitally important. These two things have to be occurring at all times because it's an eyewitness account.
The true Catholic church is an apostolic, not an ecumenical, church. We depend on the eyewitnesses and Holy Ghost for everything we believe.
SB: What do you mean exactly by intimacy for this film?
BF: The entire film is really an intimate view from the solitude in Gethsemane, the enormous crowds, moments between mother and son, Magdalene and Jesus, Pilate and Jesus. Think of that moment when Mary rushes to Jesus when he falls carrying the cross, and there's the flashback of her running to him when he falls as a little child. It's epic and intimate.
SB: Wasn't this project a bit intimidating?
BF: I was in a state of abject fear most of the time because I was tackling something that is not only sacred, but something, the spiritual, I had veered away from, and I was just finding my way back. Mel and I had much of the same experience. We underwent a shock of recognition.
SB: How did you structure the story?
BF: I did it in three parts, which makes sense since the first part happens at night, the second in the morning and last in the afternoon. Jesus' last day, which we show as 12 hours, is actually 18 hours.
SB: How did you want to draw the audiences to the character of Jesus?
BF: Through his progressive solitude. He's more and more alone as time goes by but also more and more loving, so he becomes very intimate to the audience. It was strategic to ensure the audience felt close the Jesus, to have them looking at the man but also feel the presence of the divine. That takes people's breath away.
SB: What were some other things you needed to convey in the script?
BF: That Jesus got stronger the more he was punished and abused.
SB: Could someone actually take that kind of punishment and not die sooner?
BF: Only God. Remember that even the Romans were astonished when he stands up after the first part of the scourging.
SB: Why was it necessary to show the beatings so graphically and make the scene so long?
BF: You saw less beating than you think you saw because the shock value has such impact. The second time, it won't seem as long. In the film you see the result and his body turned over, but you really don't see actual beating as much as you think.
SB: Were the Romans actually that brutal?
BF: Yes. Think about what they conquered, and they didn't do that by building bridges. They controlled by destroying the will of all the people they conquered. Rarely did someone survive a flagellation.
SB: The biggest controversy surrounding this film has been charges by some in the Jewish community that it's anti-Semitic.
BF: It's too broad for me to react in any other way than to say historically, the Pharisees, the leaders of the temple ... were tyrannical over the Jewish population. Jesus was most popular with the people who the Pharisees were trying to control. ... The Pharisees were accused of being corrupt and as such were worried there would be a revolt against them.
It's not the Jews comprehensively that anyone should be talking about with this film (about who killed Jesus). I think the controversy stems from ignorance. ... To assume that of all the people in the world that only the Jews are the ones who are free of guilt and sin is to make a rather vast generalization. We are all sinful and this is why he died.
SB: Who is the enemy in this film?
BF: Satan is the enemy, but we killed Jesus because of our sins.
SB: Why do you have Satan asking Jesus, Who are you and who is your father?
BF: It comes from my profound conviction that Satan couldn't know who Jesus was because ... if he had any idea ...
SB: What model or picture of Jesus did you want to portray? Is he a hero or victim?
BF: Jesus is a vigorous man whose power is integral to his nature, which is divine. His heroism is a matter of the choices he made. I think particularly of his fear and knowledge in Gethsemane, where he learned his fate and was so fearful he sweated blood. But he still continued to meet his fate. You cannot have courage without fear. He is a hero.
SB: How was it writing the screenplay with Gibson, who's not known to be a writer?
BF: It was a very brotherly process; I learned a lot from Mel. By nature, Mel is not a writer. By the time we were done, it was clear this was something we had done together. It was a true collaboration.
SB: Were you fearful that the beating scenes were going to be too intense?
BF: They had to be real and honest and historically accurate. It wasn't done for shock value, but it will affect people and make some people cry. People will have to stay through these scenes because of what they represent.
SB: What effect do you think the film will have on audiences?
BF: It could give back the sense that people actually do have a spiritual side to them. It did for me.
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