St. Paul would not have been surprised by the clash of opinions aroused by Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” At the beginning of his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul alluded to the controversy he himself encountered when he proclaimed “Christ nailed to the cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23).
The debate about “The Passion,” however, has been somewhat novel. Before the movie opened it would have seemed safe to predict that most believers would view it positively, but the verdicts have been more complicated than that. A number of Christian critics, including some Catholics, have expressed serious reservations about “The Passion.” Most of these negative criticisms fall into one or another of three categories.
The first discontent really misses its target. “The Passion” does have some striking flashbacks, and it does end with a brief evocation of the resurrection. Certain critics have complained, however, that the film pays too little attention to Jesus’ public life and preaching. This is like complaining that “Hamlet” concentrates on the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark and quite neglects his student days at Wittenberg.
In this film, Mel Gibson and the gifted company of photographers, designers and actors that he assembled intended what Bach intended in composing the St. Matthew Passion. In each case, the aim was to use the resources of a particular art medium to dramatize not the whole of Jesus’ life but only its last hours. The results are the most powerful works on the Passion in the chosen genre, music on the one hand and film on the other.
This judgment, however, is contested. Many critics have said that “The Passion” is too violent, that the scenes of scourging and crucifixion are too graphic and go on too long. But two observations are in order here.
“The Passion” is a masterpiece; but like some other great works, it is not flawless. Dr. Johnson thought so poorly of “King Lear” that he felt obliged to revise it for his edition of Shakespeare. No doubt there are episodes in the movie that could have been shortened or deleted—for example, the pursuit of Judas by a rabble of impish boys.
Mel Gibson was determined, however, to lift “The Passion” above the jumble of conventional biblical dramas and to give it the character of a documentary. One way of doing that, as the Scripture scholar Jack Miles pointed out, was to use only Aramaic and Latin for the dialogue. Another was to recreate the tortures inflicted on Jesus so vividly that the reality of what was suffered for the salvation of the world could neither be dodged nor forgotten.
The third criticism would be the most troubling if it were verified. Like all four Gospels, the movie shows the high priest and elders plotting the death of Jesus. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Peter J. Boyer of The New Yorker that he does not think that either Mel Gibson himself or “The Passion” is “per se anti-Semitic,” but he fears the movie could stimulate anti-Semitism.
But a poll taken after the release of “The Passion,” sponsored by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, reported that “less than 2 percent of Americans blame Jews and Jewish institutions of today for the death of Jesus.”
When the movie opened, New York City’s tabloids, The Daily News and The Post, asked people who had just seen it what they thought. “It was the most important, life-changing movie I’ve seen,” said 19-year-old Israel Santos from the Bronx. “It was a religious experience,” said Ruth Campbell, a 47-year-old Baptist from Brooklyn, “I feel washed by the blood of Christ.” Peter Trautmann, a 32-year-old campus minister from Manhattan, found it overwhelming; and Lillian Rivera said, “It’s really a story of love and forgiveness.”
It’s a fair guess that these witnesses and thousands of others like them did not leave theaters thinking of Caiaphas and his colleagues. They were thinking of Christ crucified, whom Paul, at the conclusion of the sentence quoted above, called “the power and wisdom of God.”