I still find the enthusiasm of evangelicals for Mel's very Catholic film a bit perplexing. Christianity Today wonders, what's so Marian about his movie? David Neff acknowledges Gibson's high Mariological beliefs only to casually dismiss them as barely visible and snugly compatible with evangelical attitudes. To Neff, Mary in the Passion is sympathetic as, and only as, a mother helplessly watching her son suffer, like any other mother who has suffered for her child. While that's certainly not trivial, this interpretation of Mary's function in the movie highlights once again the innocent myopia of so many evangelicals when it comes to Catholicism. I almost can't believe he fails to see her theological magnitude in the film (I even felt at one point that Mary stole the show).
This is where visual faith makes a difference. Catholics can't watch the film without it automatically setting off images of Mary in the mysteries of the Rosary, in the "deisis" and pieta iconography, all etched deeply into our collective memory. Her gaze and bodily expressions are direct translations into moving form of Immaculate Heart and Theotokos imagery. Even the precise way her hand rests upon her son's dead body as she stares out at us, the audience, is a detail that cannot be glossed over by the Catholic eye. We have been trained to watch Mary because she draws us more intimately into the mystery of her son. She is a living sign and prototype of the Church itself. When John early in the movie addresses Mary as "Mother," our first thought is not the fact that she's not his biological mother, but that she is our Mother through Christ as well. How the disciples regard Mary is how we regard the Church. What Mary does in the film is archetypal for what the Church does. This is what makes Catholics and the Orthodox "Mariologically literate." To not see this at work in the film is like watching The Matrix and thinking Neo's just another existentially-tormented action hero.
Neff also suggests that a more explicit Mariology in the film would have the disciples kneeling before Mary reciting Hail Mary prayers with rosaries in hand or something--this is a typical misunderstanding of Marian piety. Mel says it's a Marian film, but Neff thinks he knows better--okie dokie. Nonetheless, Neff unwittingly succumbs when he says almost in passing "we see much of Jesus' agony through Mary's eyes." Indeed, not only his agony, but his entire mystery.