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25
Feb 04
Wed

The Passion of The Christ

A movie like The Passion was always going to come under intense media scrutiny and criticism. The film has garnered support from leaders of various denominations (even aside from the commendation claimed to have been uttered by the Pope that turned out to be a fabrication) and, interestingly, also a Rabbi or two. Nonetheless, the main two criticisms have been that the movie is anti-Semitic, and that the movie focuses so much on gore and Jesus’ physical suffering, that it is so far removed from any of the tolerance, love or forgiveness that director Mel Gibson claimed to seek in the film.

Virtually all the people I’ve spoken to do not see the movie as being anti-Semitic. At the very least, no one emerged from the cinema with a cold hatred for the Jews who “killed God”, and anyone who did probably had that feeling going in to the cinema in the first place. The concern arises over the depiction of Caiaphas (and the rest of the Sanhedrin) as a cold, deceitful, heartless instigator of the pain inflicted upon Christ. However, this is no different from any other movie with a sadistic antagonist. Just because Tavington in The Patriot had a penchant for more “brutal” methods of quashing the American revolution, didn’t mean all English were likewise cruel. On the contrary, there are numerous scenes where Jews were portrayed in kinder lights, such as Simon, the cross-bearer.

In any case, on a religious level, without Caiaphas’ actions, the prophecies never would have been fulfilled. The fulfillment of the prophecies was only necessary because man was sinful and nothing else could erase that. If you want to be picky, the Jews may have ordered Jesus’ death, but can anyone really think that Jesus, the Son of God, would have let himself be abused, let alone crucified, if it was not God’s will? (Mat 26:53; cf Mat 26:39) To come away with animosity towards the Jews of today for the acts shown in this movie is just not logical.

But you also can’t really blame the Jews for voicing such concerns, as inaccurate as they may be. Compared to the conflicted and reluctant character of Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas is definitely not portrayed in a positive fashion. I imagine it’s also touchy because Judaism has always denied Jesus as being the Messiah. In other words, Caiaphas’ disbelief that Jesus was the Son of God extends to the present for Jews today. Of course, this belief is entirely different from the motivation of Caiaphas wanting Jesus crucified in order to secure his position at the head of the Sadducees.

Another issue arises with Gibson inserting some scenes that are not mentioned in the Bible, but are part of Catholic tradition. For instance, when Jesus collapses when carrying the cross, a woman scuttles over to him, wipes his face with a cloth that later retains an imprint of Jesus’ face, and tries to offer him a drink. That woman is supposed to be St Veronica, who is not found in any of the Gospels. It is known that Gibson supplemented his Bible readings with the writings of two nuns,
Catherine Emmerich and Mary of Agreda. Such scenes are obviously not canonical, and to some it taints the Gospel (perhaps with reference to Rev 22:18). It is true that the movie might have been a little more interdenominational had Gibson left out these scenes. However, the movie is not a substitute for the written gospel. It is a dramatical re-enactment, and you’d expect that the Christians in the audience would be aware that what they are seeing is just like any other film based on a true story – not 100% accurate, nor claiming to be. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a Gospel substitute. It’s a movie.

More strongly, some believe the movie to be heretical in itself, violating the commandment about idolatry (Exo 20:4) by even attempting to depict Jesus. But again, the movie is not creating a figure of Jesus to be worshipped. No one’s going to be worshiping Jesus thinking he looks like Jim Caviezel (although it seems to me that any dark-haired caucasian with a beard like that will automatically look like a movie-Jesus). The movie isn’t trying to create an idol. It is merely an aid to understanding the Gospels.

That said, and away from any theological concerns, the movie does a wonderful job as a period piece. It was filmed in Italy, with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin and subtitles. Some people dislike subtitles, but to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of dialogue, and the majority of dialogue is taken straight from the Book anyway. It’s certainly refreshing not having to hear the actors speaking stilted lines in American-accented English.

One of the most contentious aspects of the film is that it is quite intensely graphic. For most of us, it will be the most gory movie we have ever seen. Not because it features the most people dying, or the most blood spilt, or the most gruesome methods of death, but because it’s essentially a two hour long torture session. That’s never been done before. The movie turns a single sentence, “He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:15) into a thirty minute spectacle of Jesus getting his skin flayed off, inch by inch, by two burly Romans who are doubled over with exhaustion by the end of it all. There’ve been reports of people leaving the cinema – not so much because they were offended by the gore, but because they couldn’t stomach it.

Admittedly, the violence is overly emphasised (it’s hard to believe a man could endure that much suffering without passing out at least once), but it’s not gratuitous. Whether confronting (some would say punishing) the audience with so much of it was warranted is a matter of personal opinion.

I think it was warranted for a couple reasons. It is shows, in a very raw way, what Jesus went through. It’s certainly not the image any of us had of the scourging in Sunday school. To me, however, the real power in it is that, from a Christian perspective, we know that what Jesus really, really feared when he was praying in Gethsemane was not the physical agony he was about to endure, but the imminent spiritual separation from God (Luke 22:42-44). (It is interesting that Gibson replaced the angel in verse 43 with a leering Satan.) That spiritual separation scared him more than the crucifixion is telling indeed. There will be a lot of Christians saying afterwards, “look, you can see what the Lord had to go through to save us all”, but what he really had to go through is absent from the screen. We will never know what he really had to go through to save us – you can’t depict that sort of anguish on screen. So in place of that, Gibson has substituted it with something we all (Christian or not) can identify with – physical suffering. And that, I suppose, is the justification for upping the level of gore. For non-believers without an understanding of Christianity, the violence is something I imagine that would arouse curiousity.

Interestingly, the film only received an MA rating, which means it is accessible to all ages. As Ebert has noted, it either means that the ratings board will not award an R for violence alone, or that its subject-matter played a part in getting it downgraded to an MA.

One thing I would have liked to see is more about the resurrection, to round out the 2 hours of suffering we had to watch. Regardless, I do highly recommend this film. I’m not sure what atheists or agnostics who are set in their ways will get out of it, but it is a quite competent piece of cinema.