Saturday, June 28, 2003

I VIDEOTAPED STIGMATA last week and finally watched it over the last couple of evenings. Here are some thoughts on it. I'm usually the last person in the western hemisphere to see any movie, so I'll allow myself a few spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet and don't want the experience sullied by advance knowledge, read no further.

1. I know that Hollywood movies are supposed to have lame, unimaginative plots, but really, Father What-A-Waste and the Tempting, Beautiful, Secular Woman vs. the Evil Vatican Conspiracy? Was there no other rack on which to drape the Aramaic Gospel of Thomas?

2. If, as the movie notes at the end, the Gospel of Thomas was already discovered in the 1940s, albeit in Coptic translation, and anyone in reach of a good bookstore or library has had access to the English translation since the 1970s, tell me again why having the Aramaic original is such a big deal? (To philologists it would be, of course: we'd descend on it in a slavering pack. But for the spiritual lives of normal people? We already know what it says, near enough.)

3. Assuming this Lost True Gospel was different from the Coptic translation, what exactly was its Explosive Revelation that the Evil Vatican Priests were try to suppress? Near as I can tell from the movie, it was "Do your own thing."

4. What about that vision of the woman who drops her baby into the traffic? Did we ever come back to that? What did it mean again?

5. The movie has been criticized for writing all the Aramaic in paleo-Hebrew script, since in the time of Jesus the newer square script was in normal use and the paleo-Hebrew script was only used rarely for extremely authoritative works like books of the Pentateuch (of which a few copies in this script were recovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls). But this was one thing that didn't bother me. If the book in question was actually the One True Gospel of Jesus, I can see the Aramaic-speaking, first-century Jewish author writing it in the Paleo-Hebrew script to make a statement on how authoritative it was. Of course, I'm probably being too generous to Hollywood, but at least I could work out a rationale for this one.

6. The Vatican divides up the noncanonical gospels from its Secret Archive and Hoard of Looted Manuscripts among the three priestly orders so that none of them knows too much and they don't get into tiffs over who gets what, and each translator only gets every third page. That's a lousy way to do it and would result in translations that aren't nearly as good as they could be. For example, who translates the fragmented sentences at the beginning and end of each page? I've worked enough with fragmentary texts in ancient languages to be sure that many of those sentences will be completely opaque to both translators until they can see the whole sentence. But I guess this is part of the price of running an Evil Vatican Conspiracy.

7. At one point Father What-A-Waste, who resourcefully had his miniature tape recorder running when Frankie started spouting glossolalia during one of her fits, played the tape through the telephone to his translator-priest friend at the Vatican. On the basis of hearing one sentence on a scratchy tape over the phone the translator-priest immediately pronounced the language to be first-century Galilean Aramaic. Not Judean, not Syrian, not second century. Right.

8. Okay, some of the photography and some of the music were cool. And the casting of the three cardboard cut-out main characters was pretty good. It's a tolerable evening's entertainment, if disengaging your brain that long doesn't give you a cramp.

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