God and Film: Conversations With Mel Gibson

Legionary Father John Bartunek got more than he bargained for when he went to Rome to study theology.

Father Bartunek, who had once worked as a professional actor and a drama director, was able to get onto the set of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He observed, interviewed and participated behind the scenes in the production. He tells the story in his newly published book, Inside the Passion.

Father Bartunek, who was ordained a priest in 2003, spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake.

How was it that you came to spend time on the set of The Passion of the Christ?

My initial contact was through the friend of a friend of a seminarian who had been working on the film. When I visited the set, I struck up a friendship with Mel Gibson, Jim Caviezel and [producer] Steve McEveety. That was the beginning of an intense two-year experience. That’s when the idea for the book came to me.

I was so fascinated by what went into this movie that I wanted to record it. I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like being Michelangelo’s assistant while he was working on the Sistine Chapel. When I mentioned the idea for the book to Mel he was hesitant. “I don’t write books,” he said. I shadowed him, asking every question I could think of, and interviewing all of the people who worked on the film. I gathered as much information as I could.

When the film came out, I put it into a book. Mel read it, revised it, and wrote the foreword. It’s the only authorized explanation of the film. It’s a unique book because it’s a look at the film from the director’s point of view.

Was there a spiritual regimen that was followed on the set?

The regimen was completely free. No one felt pressured to pray or believe what Mel believed. Yet, Mel and Jim made it a priority to keep squeaky clean during the project. They felt it was necessary for them to stay close to Christ himself as they were trying to portray him.

Jim never went before the camera without receiving Jesus. That created an atmosphere where everyone felt comfortable talking about issues of faith. Being a priest in the midst of that, I was like a lightning rod for spiritual conversations.

Still, some people were really converted.

The actor who played Judas [Luca Lionello] started out the film as an angry atheist. That was his spiritual perspective and he had no qualms about saying so. I remember when the initial version of the film was complete and they were re-recording some of the dialogue. I was sitting in the sound-room before the actor was going to do the dubbing. He asked for confession.

Apparently he had been completely transformed by the experience. He baptized his children, sanctified his marriage and came back to the Church.

Do you have a favorite memory of being on the set?

When Mel was shooting the Garden of Gethsemane, before there is any dialogue, Jesus is in the garden suffering, praying silently. He didn’t have any lines. They had shot the scene a few times when Mel said, “Cut, cut. We need to have him praying something. What could we have him praying?”

Right there, on the set, one of the priests said, “Why don’t we have him pray Isaiah 53.” Mel asked, “What’s that?” The priest responded, “It’s the psalm of the suffering servant.” Mel said, “Bring me a Bible.” When he read it, he said, “This is perfect, perfect. Where is the translator?”

So, even though it’s not in the subtitles, that’s what Jim is praying the first time we see him in the garden. It shows what Mel was really after. When something didn’t hit home spiritually, he couldn’t rest.

Your book takes a look at the movie, scene by scene, with explanations for what is going on and what the director meant. Were there any times where the reality differed from what you thought the director meant?

Yes, I talk about them in the book. One was where the crow pecks the eye of the bad thief. I thought that it was punishment for his sin because he was blind to the reality of Christ. Mel said, “That’s a great idea, but that’s not at all what I was thinking.”

He told me there were two things going on. First, he wanted to show how gruesome crucifixion really was. Sometimes it took 3-5 days for someone to die, and birds of carrion would come searching for fresh meat. He had found that in his research and wanted to convey a bit of that.

But Mel also said that there was something else. He said that the thief had given himself over to sin and hadn’t repented. He was angry and resentful and sinful to the end. He had let Satan take over in his heart.

When Satan does that, he draws horrible things to people. When we give ourselves over to sin, the devil takes every chance he can to make us suffer more. That insight dumbfounded me. That’s great theology.

Were you surprised that The Passion was completely ignored by the Oscars?

No, wasn’t surprised, because this movie is in a whole different category. Most probably didn’t know what to make of it. I am disappointed that Mel wasn’t even nominated for best director. Everyone knows this story. It was in Aramaic and Latin and was still the third-highest grossing film of the year.

What can you tell me about The Passion Recut that Icon released March 11?

The last time I talked to Mel, he said it’s an opportunity for him to refine a couple of things. As I understand it, the film will have 5-7 minutes edited out. I think he toned down the scourging a bit.

A lot of people don’t go to R-rated movies, so he re-cut it so that people who would like to have the experience can have it. I’m eager to see it and have complete confidence that it will be comparable. If anything, it will be even better.

Tim Drake writes from

Saint Joseph, Minnesota.

Finding God in Florence

Father John Bartunek says his faith deepened through his experience of being on the set of The Passion of the Christ. But his own journey to God began in Cleveland, Ohio, as a child in a non-religious home.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I have one older and one younger sister. My father was an attorney. My mother was a schoolteacher. She had multiple sclerosis and died when I was 9 years old, so my father raised us himself. We were not a religious family. I don’t remember ever going to Sunday school or church. My father stressed honesty, hard work and other basic human values.

Growing up, I was involved in football, basketball and baseball. I loved reading and the theater. I was always involved in acting — from school plays to summer plays — all the way up until I entered the seminary.

What led you to the Church?

There were two stages. The first was becoming a believing Christian. That happened through my older sister. One of her coaches had encouraged her to attend an Evangelical Christian church, and she invited me to go with her. So, at the age of 14, I started attending church. I liked it because of the atmosphere. There was great preaching and the people were good, but I didn’t believe what they believed. After six months, I joined the youth choir.

I had a moment of grace one evening as we were singing the finale of a concert titled “Let There Be Light.” We were in a small church in Pennsylvania. In the back of church, there was a stained-glass window and the sun was setting. At that moment, I believed that Jesus was real and that he believed in me.

From that moment on, I wanted to study the Bible and learn as much as I could. When I started high school, my father discouraged me from continuing with that church. He was very suspicious of organized religion. So, I stopped going, but continued to read the Bible and continued to believe.

When I attended Stanford University [in the 1980s], I was free to be rebellious, so I started going to different churches every Sunday. I was looking for one that was alive, but I never went to a Catholic Church because I had been instructed with the common misinformation that Catholics weren’t Christians.

While at Stanford, my history advisor was a post-atheist professor who was Jewish by family. We used to have these conversations where he would try to de-convert me, and I would try to convert him.

During one of these conversations, he said, “Look, if you have to be religious, and you shouldn’t, there are really only two true religions in the world. One is Judaism, and one is Roman Catholicism, and you’re not Jewish. That Presbyterian church you’ve been attending isn’t a religion. It’s a personality cult.”

Here, a brilliant man was telling me that the Roman Catholicism was the real thing. All these years I thought it was a pagan cult. When he told me that, I thought that there must be something more to it than what my pastors had been telling me.

So that opened you up to learning more about the Church?

Yes, but my study experiences in Europe opened my heart. During my junior year, I studied overseas, first in Florence and then in Krakow. I felt this would be a great time to find out what was so great about the Catholic Church.

As soon as I got to Florence, I felt like I had been transported into another world.

I spent all of my free time exploring the city and drinking in the art and culture. Of course, it was all Catholic, directly inspired by this Catholic concept of the Gospel and of the world. The more I was being drawn into the beauty of this art, the more I was being drawn into the Catholic faith. I asked my art history professor how she could teach us about the art without teaching us about the Catholic faith. She explained that it was difficult, and that she had to be careful, but asked, “Do you want to learn?” I said, “Yes.”

As it turns out, she was a deeply Catholic woman. So she gave me instruction in the faith by sending me to see particular pieces of art and to talk with specific [men and women] religious.

What I saw in Poland was the other side of the Catholic Church — the living, hope-giving faith of Catholic people living under Communism. When I talked to the people it left me agog. It was clear that the Catholic Church had given the people hope over the last 150 years. That helped me fall more in love with the Church.

By the time I returned to the U.S., I was defending the Church.

— Tim Drake