of the Cross The intentions
of the filmmaker
essay was written in 1989 and is published here for the first time.
A Contemplation of the Cross (1989, 27 mins)
My film A
Contemplation of the Cross has as its theme the crucifixion
of Jesus Christ. This historical event became a theme in Christian
painting and sculpture in the third century when Constantine abolished
crucifixion in the Roman Empire. Prior to that, when crucifixion
was the common form of execution for the basest criminals, it
seems that Christians were apparently too ashamed to depict their
founder upon the cross.
source of information about this event is the New Testament, with
its various narratives. These narratives, although formulated
long after the event, were probably based on oral accounts by
eye witnesses. The event itself is not extraordinary. Many thousands
of crucifixions occurred in that period, and all through history
we see that those who challenge the entrenched evils in the institutions
of their society are usually got rid of in some similar way.
Jesus' execution unique is that it was not the end of him. After
his death and burial some people claimed they saw him again, spoke
with him, ate with him and touched his body which, though mysteriously
transformed, still bore the wounds of his crucifixion. Many people
believed these witnesses and have continued to do so for the last
2000 years. This belief has transformed lives and cultures and
has had a profound influence upon world history. In fact most
people on earth number the passing years from the estimated date
of Jesus' birth.
So this execution
of an itinerant rabbi, in what was then a minor outpost of the
Roman Empire, is full of mystery. His cruel torture and death
was an apparent failure of his mission to preach the power of
God's love and compassion for us, yet it was the beginning of
a world transforming religion.
My work in
the medium of motion pictures derives more from the art of painting
than it does from either theatre or literature. In Contemplation
of the Cross, I am not concerned with presenting a dramatic
re-enactment of the crucifixion - the story is already well known
- nor with giving a visual impression of what the event may have
appeared like all those years ago. I am concerned with the inner
meaning of the event. I am making an icon. Icons are highly stylised,
they do not attempt to present an historically accurate picture,
they are concerned with stimulating meditation upon a sacred mystery.
As I see
it there seven sequences in the film, so I will go through them
giving some account of what I was trying to illustrate in each
sequence, in black and white, is of Jesus carrying the cross-beam
to the site of his execution. Here I am trying to indicate that
his fate is shared by us all, as we are all, in our own ways,
moving towards death. He stumbles on amidst scenes of war and
death; he falls onto the earth which contains the bones of dead
ancestors. He is stripped and held down onto the cross.
sequence is in colour. Here I try to show the suffering that Jesus'
body endured by intercutting images of hands and feet being nailed
with actions his hands and feet may have performed during his
life. Simple actions that we all perform - walking, washing, holding,
breaking open fruit. Again I am indicating the common fate of
human bodies - though they are marvellous and beautiful they end
track for this sequence is the ancient Gregorian chant "Kyrie
Eleison". An English translation from the Greek is
mercy on us
have mercy on us
It is a plea
to God to free us from our sinfulness and mortality. It is a prayer
to Christ asking forgiveness for killing him.
sequence returns to black and white images and continues with
Jesus being nailed to the cross and then the cross raised. Superimposed
over this are images of human strife, war and destruction. Here
I am showing human sinfulness. The image of the crucified Jesus
summarises, for me, what has been going on all through human history
- human slaughter. It goes on from century to century and in apathy
we consent to it. I use footage of the Nazi death camps and nuclear
explosions because, for me, they illustrate most profoundly, the
calculated effort of human will to pursue evil. Christians have
accused Jews of killing Christ - in the Nazi death camps Christians
killed Jews and at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two major centres
of Christianity in Japan, Christians killed Christians. Evil is
within our human nature - we are all executioners and we are also
all victims. The scenes of Christ crucified are intended to show
the human condition and the impossibility of freeing ourselves
from it. No human institution and no spiritual tradition has been
able to eliminate human evil.
Yet in this
evil act, the brutal murder of an innocent man, evil did not triumph.
Contrary to all expectation, hope dawned in the hearts of his
devastated disciples. A hope that our evil can be forgiven. This
man we killed became the source of a hope which has been the foundation
of many millions of lives ever since, a hope that death is not
for this sequence is a setting of the old Latin prayer "Agnus
Dei" by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. An English
translation of the text is
takes away the sins of the world,
mercy on us.
the fourth sequence where the dead Christ's side is pierced with
a spear and blood and then water flow out from the wound. Here
I have used coloured inks and painted the blood and water directly
onto the film emulsion. Amidst the flow of blood emerge glimpses
of images produced by Christian artists through the centuries.
The major idea that I hope this sequence will communicate is that
the shedding of Christ's blood, the pouring out of his life, gives
life to the world. The blood and water flowing from the side of
the crucified Jesus is a life-giving fountain. It is the source
of all Christian art and music and literature through the centuries
and more importantly it is the source of that hopeful trust in
the mercy of God which has empowered so many people to perform
acts of genuinely unselfish love. That such a brutal murder could
bear such wonderful fruit is a mystery beyond human understanding.
Job questioned God concerning the apparent injustice in the world
- he did not get an explanation for an answer - but he ceased
questioning and was satisfied, because he had an experience of
the awesome power and mystery of God.
In the next
sequence I try to give the audience an opportunity to contemplate
the mystery of God - the transcendence of God. Here I use abstract
geometrical patterns. This is a traditional means of bringing
to mind God's transcendence. In Islam especially, where the iconoclastic
tendency, deriving from the second of Moses' ten commandments,
discouraged representational imagery, abstract decoration in mosques
was intended to transport the viewer into an awareness of the
wonder and otherness of God. In some traditions of Buddhism, yantras
- abstract configurations - are used as objects of meditation.
for this sequence is the Latin hymn "Adoro Te Devote",
attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century. Its
basic theme is the transcendence of God. An English translation
of the first verse by Gerard Manly Hopkins is
here in hiding, Whom I do adore
by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more:
Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
all lost in wonder at the God Thou art.
Most of the
abstract patterns I use are based upon an intersection of vertical
and horizontal lines and so it is the cross which emerges again.
Though the killing of Jesus on a wooden cross was an historical
event, for Christians it is also an eternal event. It is a moment
where time and eternity meet. The horizontal line which defines
the bounds of our earthly existence is cut through by a vertical
- a descent from above and an ascent from below. It is on the
cross of Christ that the eternal God from above descends and,
participating in our human life with its inevitable end - death
- makes it possible for our human nature to ascend and participate
in eternal life. The crucifixion is the centre-point of history
and through it history is redeemed and the gateway to eternal
life is opened.
In this sequence
I exploit the unique quality of the motion picture medium to present
to the eye 24 still pictures every second. Here the pictures are
not related so as to produce the illusion of motion, but are arranged
in various ways to produce the effect of a dynamic stillness.
I did not
feel that it was appropriate to end on this transcendent note
but felt that I had to bring the film back to earth. Transcendent
visions may come - but they are momentary - and return us to the
pain and strife of human existence which must be endured until
death which is always with us - each moment of our lives we are
dying. But, because of the cross, our response to suffering can
be transformed. God came and suffered because of us and with us
and is still suffering with us. We can see our suffering as a
participation in Christ's suffering on the cross.
So in the
next sequence, the sixth, I focus upon the principle means by
which I, as a Christian of the Catholic tradition, acknowledge
my desire to participate in the divine life of Christ, that is
by eating the bread and drinking the wine in the rite of the Mass.
This rite instituted by Jesus himself commemorates his death on
the cross. By participating in the ritual I join with others who
are following him in the hope of a resurrection like his after
of a rock which becomes a loaf of bread indicates that in reality
our bodies are sustained by the fruits of the earth. The earth
is transformed into the wheat and grapes which we make into bread
and wine that sustain us and give us life. As a Christian I believe
it is God who gives me my life and sustains it every moment and
so by eating the bread and drinking the wine in Holy Communion
I acknowledge that life comes to me through Jesus Christ.
for this sequence is a setting, by the Melbourne composer, Roger
Heaghney, of the following words
we adore Thee
Thee, O Christ, we give praise
Thy cross, by Thy holy cross
have redeemed the world.
sequence is an image of thousands of birds being released from
cages and ascending into the sky to form a flock. This image,
like others in the film, has the potential for multiple interpretations.
Following is a translation of the words of the Gregorian chant
which accompanies the final image.
victim, opening wide heavens gate,
and enemies press hard against us;
Give us strength, bring us help.
praise be to the Lord, one and three.
he give us everlasting life
the land where dwells our Father. Amen.