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American Cinematographer Magazine
A Savior's Pain    

Caleb Deschanel, ASC photographs The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial film about the final hours of Jesus Christ.

IInterview by John Bailey, ASC and Stephen Pizzello

Edited by Stephen Pizzello and Rachael K. Bosley

Unit photography by Philippe Antonello

Director Mel Gibson has taken his share of hits for daring to tackle the death of Jesus Christ on film, but so far he has escaped the wrath of religious watchdogs for a minor "act of heresy" that has somehow eluded their scrutiny: hiring a Quaker to serve as his cinematographer. "It's true, I was brought up as a Quaker," admits director of photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC. "The Quaker religion does not have priests or people in charge. Basically, everybody is equal, and you believe in the supreme being of your own thought process - whatever your own invention is. You just sort of let your conscience be your guide."

Although he "really didn't have a background in Catholicism at all," Deschanel nonetheless found Gibson's The Passion of the Christ to be an intellectually, emotionally and artistically compelling project, and he lent the picture an outsider's eye for detail. "I've always been fascinated by religions because of the rituals, the ceremonies and the imagery. I find places of worship to be very beautiful and inspiring, whether they're churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. I'm drawn to those places because they offer images that have a certain power and majesty. When you go to St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, you can't help but be awed by it. The biggest problem I have with religions is that they inevitably become politicized, but I do find religion's symbolism, imagery and metaphors to be really attractive and interesting."

Deschanel had worked with Gibson on Roland Emmerich's The Patriot, which earned the cinematographer an ASC Award and an Academy Award nomination (see AC June '01). Deschanel was working in Montreal when Gibson and producer Steve McEveety sent him the script for The Passion of the Christ. "I thought the script was amazing," he recalls. "I gave it to my wife, who was brought up Catholic, and she was really moved by it as well. I subsequently had long talks with Mel and Steve about how the film would be done, and they asked me to do it."

The result is a unique and powerful film that depicts the events of the Passion with uncompromising rawness and intensity. The viewer is thrust directly into the drama via perspectives that have the intimacy of cinema verite, but the film also depicts the tale's most famous moments in compositions that evoke the spirit of great religious paintings.

During a break in his current project, National Treasure, Deschanel agreed to discuss The Passion of the Christ with fellow ASC member John Bailey and AC executive editor Stephen Pizzello at the ASC Clubhouse.

John Bailey, ASC: I attended a screening of the film with several other people at the Icon Productions offices in Santa Monica, and when the lights came up, nobody moved for about 90 seconds. We were immobilized. I finally stood up and kind of slithered out of the room. I was so far beyond thinking of it as a movie because I was raised as a strict Catholic, and watching this film was like having all of those weekly examinations of conscience and confession, as well as the whole Passion week and Easter rite, come to life before my eyes. I felt like I was seeing the iconography of my childhood - all of the representations that I eventually came to know as art - unfold onscreen in an excoriating way. I was totally unprepared for something that would cause such a visceral reaction in me. Virtually none of the films made about the life of Christ or the Passion have been as raw as this one.

Caleb Deschanel, ASC: That's also true of much of the art that's been passed down through the years, even the works that were commissioned by the Catholic Church. None of it really depicts [details] of the flagellation and the other violence that was done. I did a lot of research going into this film, and I didn't find much imagery like that. There are things in the film that you can find in certain artistic representations, but it's rare to see images of Christ with severe wounds from the flagellation. One Caravaggio painting shows him with faint marks on his body, but most of the images that represent the later stages of his story do not show those wounds clearly.

Bailey: Well, Caravaggio's representations are more refined, but you see a lot more of the flagellation in Spanish and southern Italian art.

Deschanel: In art that was made prior to the 13th century, too, you see a lot more representations of that, but at some point the images became cleansed. The way the story has been represented is very interesting.

Bailey: Something you said to me on the phone struck me as very interesting, especially coming from your perspective as a humanist rather than as an adherent to some branch of Christianity. If I understood you correctly, you didn't approach this film so much in terms of the religiosity or spirituality of the story, but more in terms of the human Christ. I believe you referred to him as a revolutionary - an outcast and a controversial political figure. The thing I find so fascinating about the film is that it doesn't create any sense of this imminent religious and supernatural being; its treatment of the story is incredibly human, even more so than Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Deschanel: I really did read the script as a dramatic story, and I thought about how it would work as a film. Certainly, Christians know the story of Christ, and most others do because it's hard to escape - at least in the United States - during particular times of the year. But while I knew Christ was condemned and crucified, I didn't really understand the ultimate message of the story.

Viewing it as a dramatic film, I found the story to be the antithesis of your average Hollywood film. In the typical American film about someone who is oppressed by tyranny, there's a clear-cut formula: the hero will escape and rally his friends, and then they'll gather weapons and go kill the bad guys. The catharsis for the audience [comes] when the horrible villain is finally killed.

Christ's story, on the other hand, is about someone who recognizes that his fate is predetermined - that he's going to be condemned and killed - and totally accepts it. And once he accepts it, he views everyone who comes into his life as someone to forgive. In doing so, he imparts this understanding to everyone around him - his mother, the apostles, Mary Magdalene - in a way that makes them accept the trials that he has to endure. It's a phenomenal concept, which is probably why Christianity has survived for all of these years. Christianity may have lost its way during the Crusades, the Reformation and all of the horrible scandals of today, but it still has that amazing story at its core.

Of course, the story in this film is really pre-religion; it inspired a religion, but it's not a religious story. It's the story of a person whose power comes from forgiveness. Ultimately, if the movie works, that will be the reason, because it's a violent and brutal picture in so many ways. Violence can be hard to take in many types of films, but the main character in this film is not condemning the people who are doing these terrible things to him, and this fact tends to soften the horrible violence.

Bailey: The way you photographed the film makes it more visceral and difficult to watch, but also more compelling. I felt a constant tension throughout the movie, this sense of being pulled into the action because of the way the camera is used. I also felt repelled and horrified because I felt so close to what was happening onscreen. In most of the films I've seen about this subject, you really sense the proscenium; there's a sense that the scenes are being reenacted out there, amid grand settings, in front of you, sitting here, as a member of the audience. You didn't use a handheld camera the way Pasolini did, but I still felt very close to the action. I felt like I was in the arena when Pilate hands Christ over to the Roman soldiers, who later tie him down and really tear him apart. I felt so close to these things, so present, that it was just horrifying. Can you talk a bit about your inspirations for the look of the film?

Deschanel: There's been a lot of talk about Caravaggio inspiring the look because Mel and I both really like his work. In Rome, where we were shooting, there are at least 16 Caravaggios; there were three [each depicting scenes from the life of St. Matthew] hanging in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, which is near where I was living in Rome, and there were a couple more in the immediate vicinity. Unlike Girl With a Pearl Earring, though, we weren't really trying to reenact specific paintings. Caravaggio's work inspired the film as much in terms of the faces he used in those paintings as it did in terms of the lighting and composition. Those faces probably inspired the casting of the film. I keep looking at all the faces that were found by Mel and the casting director, Shaila Rubin, and they're really quite extraordinary.

The look was also inspired by Gericault, Raphael and other artists. I studied art history in school, and I've been to a lot of museums, and the paintings that really interest me are the ones that feature good performances. I'm drawn to that element even more than I am to the graphics or the lighting. What I took from the paintings was not so much a specific way of representing light or creating compositions, but more emotional content. For example, Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa has a certain motion toward defeat and inevitable death. Mel's desire to capture that type of emotion is what made us go right in close with the characters and try to make the story intimate and real.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.