February 29th, 2004


Theology Journal: Reviewing Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

The Passion of the Christ

Okay, I promised I'd review Gibson's movie after I'd seen it and I've been getting a surprising amount of emails and such asking me for my impressions, so now I'd better come through! Thanks to everyone who let me beg off doing this "for a few days."

First off, just because this has become such a cultural phenomenon/hype-fest, I guess I should mention my state of mind going into the theatre. Long story short, I could have cared less about all the screaming done about the film. I had little patience with all the negative review of it--often before the reviewer had seen it. In the same way, I was equally-dismayed by all the Christians making such a stink before The Last Temptation of Christ came out. Explicit visual portrayals of Christ having sex fantasies about Mary Magdalene? I think a universal Christian statement of "That's absurdly tacky" would have been sufficient. So our contemporary style of shrill pre-movie controversy doesn't impress me much: it tends to say a lot more about the protesters' hang-ups than about anything positive to their positions. Or maybe the media tends to go for the shrill and fringe types. Thirty minutes of thoughtful, precise reflection by someone educated in history and theology would not a good sound bite make.

I walked in to the Oriental (Milwaukee's classic vaudeville-era movie palace, complete with electric Buddhas that look like they're from the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) Thursday night with a pretty open mind. I was a bit nervous, actually, only about the level of violence that was going to be in the film, as that had become the major news subject in the previous day or two, rather than the ever-tense "Is it or isn't it anti-Semitic?" After saying hello to the people I knew and being introduced to those that I didn't in our group, I settled in and gave myself to the film. [There are possible scene-spoilers below, if you haven't seen the film yet.]

I don't need to talk about the story, per se. That is pretty much assumed, even before you go into the film. So instead, let me offer some thoughts about the areas that people have been talking about, both the major ones, and maybe some others more minor.

Anti-Semitism. "Is The Passion of the Christ Anti-Semitic?" To those who have been saying so, all I have to say is that that's nonsense. I have listened very closely to what they've said and watched the film with that question in mind, too. And before I further develop that train of thought, let me add a point. I'm Jewish. One quarter, and damned proud to be a descendant of Abraham. Did I feel a sudden urge toward self-hatred? Not in the least. "Proud," would be closer, if I thought that the ethnic question really even mattered here. The simple fact is that everyone in this story is a Jew, unless they're a Roman. But perhaps the "anti-Semitic" thing is just a sloppy way of stating the potential issue, because "anti-Semitic" is a racial concept. Rather, "Does the movie blame the Jews for the crucifixion?" That would be more exact. And more problematic. Has that line ever been used in Christian history? Sure, it has. Can it ever be "Christian," per se? I don't think so, actually. No more than one could call cannibalism among starving Holocaust prisoners "Jewish." (I'm thinking of a harrowing story told to me by a survivor of the camps.) In both cases, you have something tragic and even evil done by people of different groups, but something that doesn't represent the actual beliefs or ideals of either group: in fact, it is quite the opposite. The very notion that "Christians" could blame "Jews" for the crucifixion of Christ is foreign to the New Testament itself. There were not two separate religions when those documents were written. Christianity was a sect of Judaism. (I would say that is it still really is.) The Gospel of John could unfortunately confuse later readers used to the idea of the two as separate by calling the enemies of Jesus who arranged the crucifixion, "the Jews." But everyone (except the Romans) in the text are Jews. This was just John's shorthand for those enemies of Jesus among the Jewish leadership of the day. Gibson actually went to great lengths to show the division in the Sanhedrin--the Jewish leadership council--regarding Jesus and that many disagreed with the forcing of a case against Jesus. Gibson even has them storming out of the first trial. Only people today who cannot see that Christ was a Jew and all of his followers (to this day) are in a movement flowing from Judaism would make the mistake of thinking that the Christian story can even be misrepresented as anti-Semitic.

Is it accurate? I suppose that I'd say in general it tended to be faithful to the New Testament documents and what the historical and archaeological sciences have revealed to us. It was certainly a very realistic movie in its graphic portrayal of the kind of violence that the Romans used. But there are a number of points I'd want to be understood by someone who hasn't studied the material at an academic level. Gibson goes out of his way to make his movie line up with traditional art and practice. Jesus is crucified on a Latin cross, and many of the scenes of Jesus carrying the cross are right out of classic Stations of the Cross illustrations. But even the obvious annoyance of constructing something so unwieldy speaks against that being accurate, along with the lack of any evidence of such a design at the time. Christians didn't start using the cross as a symbol until quite some time after the government had stopped putting people up on them. Details had slipped by that point, and things morphed in time among the artists. Nails in the palms of the hands rather than at the base of the hands in the wrists is another concession to such later art.

Latin being primary over Greek speaks more to Gibson's devotion to the old Latin Mass of the Church than to the reality. The Eastern part of the Empire was dominated by Greek; the Gospels were written in it, and some of the statements that Greek wasn't used because that was "the language of the intellectuals" are laughable. Jesus slipping into Latin when talking to Pilate is again Gibson enjoying the beauty of the language of the old liturgy in the mouth of Jesus. But Gibson seems to present this as a miracle by having Jesus looking up to see the dove of the Holy Spirit (who gave the gift of speaking many languages, including that of Rome, at Pentecost in the Book of Acts) just before his interview with Pilate. It came across as a subtle demonstration of Jesus' quiet power in the film, I thought.

And the ever-popular Mary Magdalene. I'm not sure when she became Jesus' babe. Or why she is presented as the woman who was caught in adultery and brought to Jesus for judgment in John 8 (my favourite Jesus story, I think). Neither seem to be part of the medieval tradition, from my brief glance into the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. I wonder if this actually started in the movies? Interesting, if so: probably the only significant contribution to Christian iconography that film has made, if so, although I don't know what to make of it. It would add a different character, and perhaps even depth to Mary's becoming a disciple of Jesus. The gospels only record that Jesus cast several demons out of her. Either way, she was played with quiet fire by the ever-stunning Monica Bellucci, who would probably remain stunning even if she fell down in a field filled with manure.

The Extra Stuff. I actually thought that the extra-canonical stuff (the stuff that isn't anywhere in the records, like the devil material) was a bit weak. The leanings toward trying to portray the activity of evil in the form of the devil and other demonic moments didn't really seem to add very much to the film to me. It might have made some of the nature of Jesus' struggle--like Satan articulating such temptations as self-doubt with questions like, "Who is your Father?"--a little more clear. But such devices as some of the setting of Satan as an opposite to Mary seemed a little more perplexing to me. Perhaps future viewings might let me see where Gibson was going with that, but for now some of the moves toward "horror movie" images seem a bit unnecessary to me.

So do I have anything positive to say? Yeah, there were numerous powerful and moving moments throughout the film. Here is where I found Gibson's "extra" moments to sometimes be among the most powerful in the film, perhaps because of the added element of surprise. Gibson's device of showing earlier moments through flashbacks gives us one of these: Jesus crafting a table. Some kind of "Jesus the carpenter" shot seems obligatory in more recent films as a device to show Jesus' being a "regular guy." I have to say that I liked this one. I recognize this Jesus. Others were powerful, like the shock of Malchus' face in the garden as he tries to process what just happened to him was the best, most sensitive, and natural or realistic portrayal that I've seen of how that must have played out. Peter's three denials were also natural (although very quick) for their setting and his meeting with Mary afterward was also penetrating in its horrified simplicity. Very surprising, and ripping me up more than anything, was Jesus speaking the line from the Book of Revelation, "See--I make all things new" to his mother while carrying the cross. Things of this sort made for a mediation on the Passion of great depth and sensitivity. This is where the device of the flashbacks was especially powerful, as it tied all of the life of Jesus into the Passion. Some good theology, that. We were a bit disappointed by the brevity of Gibson's treatment of the Resurrection, but even there the camera's attention to the wounds was still making this film's focus on the Passion, and the Passion alone. It was a legitimate and understandable artistic choice.

All the rest--some great cinematography, a soundtrack that was wonderfully engaging at times, the obvious attention to detail in going for ancient languages in the film--all of these are signs of a significant undertaking. Is this our generation's Sistine Chapel--an artistic masterpiece and theological commentary in its own right--to pass on to history and to the future church? Only time, and lots more viewings, will tell. It has potential, but The Passion of the Christ will have to outgrow its own hype (and that hype won't be done until at least after next year's Oscars) before we will even begin to be able to see it for what it alone is as a work of art.