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Spring 2004 | Volume 26, Number 6 | Books & Film

“The Passion of the Christ”: After the Uproar, Three Views of the Film’s Potential Legacy

in The New Yorker displays a small parish now anointed “Our Lady of Mel Gibson.” It’s a good-natured tease that recognizes the movie’s sweeping embrace by religious audiences. The director must be smiling. His latest, “The Passion of the Christ,” continues to break box-office records around the world, and against all odds, it is the most profitable film of his career.

Now that the dust of controversy has settled a bit, I’ll take stock — one more time — of the movie as a movie. Most significantly, I think, Gibson develops his own mysterious visual style to breathe life into this meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Paradoxically, the movie is both highly stylized and unflinchingly realistic. We first encounter Christ wrestling with fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, bathed in shadows, mist and dark blue hues. Slow-motion photography emphasizes a host of iconic moments, from Judas planting the final kiss; to Mary racing to comfort her son; to God quite literally weeping, as a single tear falls from heaven when Christ surrenders his spirit.

Gibson has an eye for muscular, arresting visuals. He and his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, were inspired by painters — Caravaggio, Gericault and Raphael, no less — and the movie plays like a series of indelible portraits that might compose a shimmering but grisly coffee-table book.

At the same time, the movie depicts the physical violence endured by Christ with documentarylike precision. The camera creates an unrelenting immediacy, tracking the actors so closely one can nearly wipe the dirt off their faces. Of course, this approach is most disturbing during the scenes of brutality. Yet in fairness, Gibson pulls back at critical moments. There are a series of flashbacks of Christ’s life that fracture the cruelty, briefly throwing the film into relief. Newsweek’s David Ansen — always fair-minded — dismissed these scenes as “the cinematic equivalent of footnotes” in a movie whose true fascination lies in the spectacle of physical violence. I understand the critique, but I disagree. The flashbacks of Jesus being playful with his mother and breaking bread with the disciples are wholly necessary in making bearable the unbearable and establishing a larger context for Christ’s life.

The casting is also impressive. Gibson shows again and again that he knows how to choose performers. In a style that departs from so many life-of-Christ movies, the quartet of Mary, Mary Magdalene, John and Satan takes center stage, amplifying Christ’s agony as they witness his tortured steps. In particular, Maia Morgenstern as Mary has an extraordinary face that’s made for the camera. The movie closes the crucifixion episode with a shot of her blood-smeared cheeks, her headdress blowing in the wind, and the holding of her son’s lifeless body. It’s a complex image that underscores her strength and vulnerability at the same time that it invites us to consider our own participation in Christ’s death. You’d need to go back to the silent movies to appreciate a performance that expressed so many conflicted, jagged emotions with so little dialogue.

As a work of art, “The Passion of The Christ” stands as an astonishing achievement. This is Gibson’s third directing effort. A classic movie star in the old tradition, he’s also a director with imagination and the courage of his convictions. His first two movies, “The Man Without a Face” (1993) and “Braveheart” (1995), might serve as working titles for his third — which suggests why audiences have responded so strongly to it.

When Tina Turner sang the theme of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985), she proclaimed, “We don’t need another hero.” Yet a hero was exactly what the post-apocalyptic world of that movie needed, and it arrived in the form of Mel Gibson. So “The Passion of the Christ” arrives with sound, fury, reverence and in the context of Gibson’s career, no surprise. He’s been saving souls (Mad Max, Mrs. Soffel, Ransom) — including his own (Lethal Weapon, Hamlet) — for years. “Our Lady of Mel Gibson” will forever be Standing Room Only.

   — Todd Rendleman, Assistant Professor of Communication

QUITE INDEPENDENT OF THE FILM’S cinematic quality or the accuracy of its rendering of the Lord’s Passion, the stunning popularity of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has occasioned a “teaching moment” for the church. We should be profoundly grateful for this fresh, provocative opportunity to reflect on the costs and risks of journeying with Jesus.

But the controversy provoked by this film also reminds the church that earnest Christians are responsible to provide witness to the existential and eternal importance of the Passion. Believers must voice graceful commentary to correct impressions made by this film or wrong-headed interpretations advanced by the loud pundits of popular culture. Toward this end, let me make three criticisms that may contribute to our current discussions of Gibson’s film in our various “town squares.”

First, we should explain that Gibson’s film is a midrash — that is, any film about Jesus is an artful commentary on the gospel narrative in a manner that retells it for a new audience.

We should not mistake this film for a literalistic take on the gospel narrative or an attempt to get the facts of history straight. The four different gospel stories of Jesus’ Passion from arrest to execution are blended together, and then added to, in order to supply the plotline of Gibson’s highly personal interpretation of the Passion story. This is neither Scripture’s nor the church’s commentary on the Lord’s death. With this understanding, we can better assess elements that are folded into the film’s plotline but are not found in Scripture, such as the enhanced role and characterization of the Evil One, of Pilate’s wife, of the two Marys, of the crowds that lined the path to the Cross.

Second, I think we should admit that Gibson’s film is anti-Jewish — not in an obvious or malevolent way, but clear all the same to those who know what choices Gibson could have made in characterizing Jesus and his rejection by Israel. In part, the film is anti-Jewish simply because Jesus is not rendered as a Jew in contrast to Scripture’s portrayal of him as Israel’s Messiah who goes first to the household of Israel to announce that the God of Israel has fulfilled promises made to Israel according to Israel’s Scriptures. In fact, the hostility of Jewish leaders is the result of Jesus’ subjection of the central symbols of his Jewish world — Sabbath, Temple, Torah, purity rules — to his messianic mission. Yet this film supplies no clear reason for the Lord’s Jewish opposition.

And Gibson could have provided such a reason. Flashbacks could have been used more strategically to position Jesus within his Jewish world. Gibson could have included a more-developed Nicodemus in the cast of Jewish leaders rather than portray them in an iconic, flat way as irrationally hostile to him. While pagan Pilate and not the Jewish Sanhedrin is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ execution, Gibson makes the Sanhedrin the film’s real villain. The biblical gospel is not so anti-Jewish, but rather interprets Jesus’ death as the fulfillment of promises that God makes to Israel in its Scriptures.

Finally, and most importantly, we should reject as unbiblical the film’s numbing glorification of the Lord’s heroic suffering — a retelling of Jesus’ Passion as “Braveheart.” The biblical gospel actually makes very little of the Lord’s horrific suffering and much more of his steadfast obedience to and for God. John’s gospel mentions it only in passing to interpret the Cross as symbolic of God’s sovereign control over the plotline of his redemptive mission. The lingering impression of Gibson’s Passion story is that Jesus’ death is but a Roman execution, following an arrest, a legal review and an unfair death penalty. But this plotline subverts the gospels’ Passion story, which concludes in God’s resurrection of the Messiah precisely to break the flow of such a juridical process! For this reason, the real climax of the Passion of the Christ is not a Roman cross, but an empty tomb, which teaches us that God, the only God, forgives us and desires to live with us forever.

   — Rob Wall, Professor of the Christian Scriptures

EVEN BEFORE THE OPENING OF “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson had taken as many stripes from the media as Jim Caviezel (playing Jesus) took from Roman soldiers in the film. With New York Times reporters leading the frenzy, the movie has been protested in the press more heavily than any film in recent memory. In contradiction to the media, most Christian viewers gave the film rave reviews. Unfortunately, however, Christian communities tend to approve of any art that echoes their beliefs. What has been missing, in my opinion, is thoughtful consideration of whether or not “The Passion” is great art. Great art requires contemplation, time and repeated visitations before its true significance unfolds. It will be interesting to see how “The Passion” is regarded in 10 years, after the cacophony of vitriol and praise has died down. So far, critics have insisted on viewing it through a few limited lenses, considering only certain aspects instead of looking at the aesthetics of the work as a whole.

Imagine C.S. Lewis’ satirical devil Screwtape suggesting to one of his errand runners:

“Urge critics to condemn the film’s graphic violence. Let them forget the hyperviolent films they have previously celebrated or the way they champion ‘freedom of expression.’ Censor the fact that this violence is a meaningful meaningful part of the storytelling, not mere gore for the splatter-movie fan.

“Distract the general public with petty debates about historical accuracy. Granted, few detailed historical records tell us exactly what happened at Golgotha. But let’s criticize at the expense of artistic license.

“Yes, Jesus, Mary, John and Simon of Cyrene are portrayed as admirable Jews. Yes, the Roman soldiers are portrayed as hating Jews. But let’s make anti-Semitism the focus of discussion so that people don’t think about the person of Jesus.”

Sound plausible?

To be fair, a handful of reviews have treated the film as a work of art — indeed as the latest in a centuries-old tradition of graphic, unsettling crucifixion art. But the church seems to have been preoccupied with “The Passion” as an evangelical tool, sometimes beating secular audiences over the head with it. Consequently, the true potential of the film to do a deeper work in people’s lives may be muted.

It is all too possible to exaggerate Gibson’s achievement, however. We must remember, this is Gibson’s expression, not the expression. Scripture tells us to “test all things and hold fast to what is good.” “The Passion” deserves close artistic analysis. It is a flawed work by a flawed human being, great in some ways, lacking in others. It should be discussed in the context of other great cinematic works about Christ.

In fact, there are meaningful films reflecting the gospel being made all the time. In recent days, the big-screen interpretation of “The Gospel of John” brought a wider lens to the story of Jesus’ life. Lars Von Trier’s harrowing parable “Dogville” asked what would happen if a Christ-figure gave up the path of grace and turned vengeful. Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece “Au Hasard Balthazar” has been restored, introducing viewers to what may be the most beautiful cinematic poem about Christ ever filmed.

We have an opportunity to engage in the cultural conversation about Christ by noticing not only “The Passion” but also such other films, bringing attention to them, supporting and discussing them. By exploring and responding to the art and ideas of others, we imitate the way Jesus carried on redemptive conversations with his contemporaries. In the process, we may encounter God — and learn a thing or two about ourselves.

   — Jeffrey Overstreet, film critic and Response Staff Writer

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