The Passion

The Santa Ana winds were blowing hot as hell, and fires were burning in the Hollywood hills. The famous actor watched them burn.

He was divorced now. Divorced after decades of marriage. Divorced like so many others. It gnawed at him, this failure of his. He had asked for it, though.

“I want a divorce,” he’d said.

Hard words for a Catholic like him.

He was old-school like his father. Pre-Vatican II, that was the true religion.

It was hard to reconcile divorce with that, hard to fit it into the narrative of his life. He tried not to think about it. What he needed now, he decided, was to throw himself into a new project. Make a movie. But not act. Direct. So he cast about for a story to tell.

Early one morning, months later, as he was running along the beach at his place in Malibu, it came to him. He would tell the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus. Sure, it had been done before, but not well. Not really. His movie would not be a remake or a rehash of all the things everyone already knew. He would focus on Christ’s passion, his suffering, the part people tended to skip over. There would be blood and sweat and real pain. People would finally understand what he went through for them.

The ocean roared and he ran faster as he pictured it. As director, he wouldn’t flinch. He wouldn’t cut away or fade to black. Every detail would be authentic. He would even do the dialogue in Aramaic, the language of the day, the language that Jesus spoke. It would be like you were there, seeing and hearing it for yourself.

Don’t speak Aramaic? Read the subtitles. Small price to pay for authenticity.

He knew it would be controversial. Not just the language but his focus, his unflinching focus. Even as they shot the film, on location in the Holy Land (the light was amazing there!), he knew he would be criticized for the choices he was making. So be it. Jesus was controversial, too, you know.

He wasn’t going to shy away from the truth here.

Like the Gospel writers, though, he made certain choices about what to include and what to leave out. Matthew chose to begin with Jesus’ birth, Mark with his baptism. The director chose his arrest. Key events — the Sermon on the Mount, the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper — could be included as flashbacks. So what if the Gospel writers didn’t use flashbacks. It’s not like they all put things in the same order either.

In the case of the woman caught in adultery (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”), he chose to place Mary Magdalene in the role, which would explain why she appears so devoted to Jesus in the rest of the film.

Historically accurate? Well, the Bible doesn’t say it was Mary but it could have been. Anyway, in Hollywood parlance, the flashback “worked.” It made emotional sense and made for a better, more compact story.

He suspected he would take some flack for this, too: As Jesus falls under the weight of the cross he must carry, we see his mother watching and recalling Jesus falling down as a toddler. Clearly, she wishes she could scoop him up again and comfort him as she did then. It’s a touching moment and could even be true. After all, what mother hasn’t comforted a child who has fallen?

Was that really what Mary was thinking? Doesn’t matter. It works, right?

Then someone — it may have been him, it may have been the screenwriter or just someone on the set, who really knows? It’s a collaborative medium, right? — came up with this: We flashback to Jesus as a young carpenter who builds a table that is unusually high for the time period. He has to explain to his mother how people will sit at the table using the chairs he hasn’t built yet.

Who knows? Maybe Jesus was a visionary carpenter as well as a visionary teacher. Maybe his accomplishments as a furniture maker were simply overshadowed by his other insights. The high table forgotten; his admonition to love our enemies remembered.

The point is the movie really needed a bit of comedic relief at that point.

The famous actor-turned-director would be asked about it later, when the movie was in theaters across the country and everyone was talking about it. Had he made some wrong choices? Was that one of them?

He was in the studio for his first televised interview and the Santa Ana winds were blowing again — so hot it seemed as if the hills might ignite at any moment. He noted how magical the sky looked before he went inside. The question came and he had his answer ready:

Just look at the numbers, he said. The box office doesn’t lie, brother.

Suddenly something hit him hard on the side of the head.

Motherfucker! That hurt.

His hand went up and he felt hot blood seeping into his hair. He looked down. There was a sharp, blood-stained stone at his feet. He couldn’t believe it. Someone had thrown a stone at him.

Jesus!

BOOKS BY AL RISKE

Precarious | Sabrina’s Window | The Possibility of Snow | Then We’d Be Happy