When Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” is released on Ash Wednesday, it will bring the 106-year tradition of the Jesus-film full circle. The very first films about Jesus, silent films lasting only a few minutes, were Passion plays. Since then, the genre has ranged widely from Hollywood epic to didactic exposition, from musical to popular evangelical treatment. Where does Gibson’s “Passion” stand in this tradition?
While any honest attempt to represent artistically the life of Christ is laudable, many of the Jesus-films offer object lessons in things to avoid when making a film about Jesus. The earliest Passions—precisely because they are silent and brief—favor exaggerated gestures by their actors and neatly divide characters into good guys and bad guys. In the brief Jesus episodes in D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916), for example, the disciples of Jesus are unabashedly good, and the Jewish religious authorities are all unabashedly evil.
The Hollywood-epic tradition tends to “enhance” the Gospel text with fictional characters and episodes, often disconnected from the central story of Jesus. A Mary Magdalene-Judas liaison, for example, opens “The King of Kings” (1927). The identity of Hollywood actors—Charlton Heston, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, Angela Lansbury and Pat Boone in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965)—can also overwhelm the characters they portray and thus interfere with the communication of the Gospel message. The Jesus musicals introduce the problem of the credibility of a Jesus character who, along with his disciples, regularly breaks into song. In “Godspell” the device works; in “Superstar” it does not (both 1973).
The popular evangelical approach in “Jesus” (1999) also has difficulties. Here Jesus engages in a water-fight with his disciples at the well in Samaria and never gets around to talking with the woman. The Christian message is compromised so that the film might appeal to all. Even Franco Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), while seamlessly crafted and breathtakingly beautiful, lacks the radical incisiveness that marks the Gospels. By contrast, last year’s “The Gospel of John” shows the problem of a too literal, and ultimately bland, transfer of biblical text, entire and verbatim, to the film genre. Likewise, the cool didacticism of “The Messiah” (1976)—Jesus teaches and preaches here more than in any other film—leaves the viewer strangely uninvolved.
Before Gibson’s “Passion,” Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) was the most controversial of the Jesus-films. When it appeared, many people were scandalized because of the “last temptation” sequence, which they erroneously viewed as an objective representation of Jesus’ sexual acting out. In fact, more serious issues involve the film’s inconsistent and often violent style, its heavily psychological analysis and the skewed anthropology it applies to Jesus. In spite of Scorsese’s repeated professions of faith to the press and the hastily produced disclaimer before the opening titles, the movie fails to resolve the mystery of the human/divine dimensions of Jesus’ existence and to represent a valid Christian theology of salvation.
The latest of the Jesus-films, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” offers a very powerful emotional experience, at times painful to watch. While avoiding most of the excesses of the Hollywood epics, Gibson’s “Passion” does develop, at times annoyingly, some dimensions of the biblical narrative, usually moving them in the direction of the sentimental. The role of Pilate’s wife, for example, is much expanded and includes a meeting with Jesus’ mother. There is a seemingly endless scourging scene, represented in several episodes. And Gibson slips several times into the kitsch that characterizes the Hollywood Jesus-film. In order to have Jesus in chains meet Judas one more time, Gibson has him beaten by the arresting soldiers, then lose his balance and fall over a cliff and, in a weird imitation of bungee-jumping, remain suspended just a few feet from the ground above Judas. And to punish the bad thief for cursing Jesus, Gibson has a huge raven land on his cross and—a reference to Hitchcock’s “The Birds”?—peck out his eyes. Again, to suggest that the Roman soldier with the lance is “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” Gibson has him fall to his knees under a shower of Jesus’ sacred blood.
“The Passion” has nothing of the musical about it, but its representation of Herod and of his encounter with Jesus seems directly lifted from “Superstar.” If “Jesus of Nazareth” lacked incisiveness and “The Messiah” lacked emotional impact, Gibson’s film makes up for both. Its theological point is crystal clear, and its emotional impact on the viewer is undeniably powerful. Gibson, like Scorsese in “Last Temptation,” subjects the viewer to an emotional roller-coaster ride. The two films share heavy production values—energetic photography, special effects, aggressive editing and a heavy music score—and at times an overpowering focus on physical and emotional violence.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Gospel According to Matthew” (1964) is still the greatest of the Jesus-films. Although radically different, Gibson’s “Passion” curiously has several elements in common with “Gospel.” Pasolini made his film because of a profound personal religious experience after reading Matthew’s Gospel during a retreat in Assisi. Gibson’s faith-commitment in the Catholic tradition—made even clearer to me when I spoke with him after a screening of “Passion”—is undeniable. And both men produced and made their films with unflagging courage and spiritual energy.
The two films are strong, uncompromising documents in both content and style. The Christian messages they proclaim are unambiguous. They confront their viewers, perhaps uncomfortably, with radical choices—as did the preaching of Jesus. Perhaps because of this, both films have been subjected to a firestorm of controversy. During the production of Pasolini’s “Gospel,” condemnations were published in the Italian media by people who could have no idea what the finished film would be like. Critics said that Pasolini—a former member of the Italian Communist Party, an atheist and openly homosexual—could not possibly make a valid film about Jesus. The premiere of the film at the Venice Festival of 1964 was presided over by hundreds of armed carabinieri. Riots were expected. The film was also strongly criticized in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano. But some 33 years later it was recognized by the Vatican as one of the greatest films ever made.
A highly charged, polemical atmosphere has also developed around Gibson’s film. Accusations are made; church authorities are cited by one side and then the other; reviews prophesying doom are written by people who have not seen the film; and irrelevant and often inaccurate comments are made about the director’s personal life and faith. The accusations, for the most part, have to do with what is suspected to be the anti-Semitic stance of the film. Some are based on an early cut of the film and on copies of an early version of the script. The issue here—and it has been an issue for most of the Jesus-films—is the way the film portrays responsibility for the condemnation and execution of Jesus. Are the Romans blamed? Jewish religious leaders? Only some of these leaders? Or is the blame widened to the Jewish people?
In the version I previewed just weeks before the opening, the film assumes a balanced position. Although Caiaphas and his colleagues who push the Romans to condemn Jesus may be slightly stereotyped and their power over a weak and perhaps too good Pilate exaggerated, their position is balanced by the several dissenting members of the council—Jews who strongly condemn the judicial inquiry as a “travesty...a beastly travesty” and angrily quit the assembly.
During the “trials” of Jesus, regrettably, the film has too many people gathered in the courtyards, something against which the American bishops warn in published guidelines for the dramatization of the Passion (see Eugene J. Fisher’s article in America, 2/16). The bishops argue that the “small ‘crowd’” (historically more probable) should never be replaced by a “teeming mob.” As if to compensate for this lapse, Gibson does not include the usually offensive words of the crowd, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Mt 27:26), the sentence that has been perhaps the most notorious basis for the persecution of Jews by Christians over the centuries. Furthermore, not everyone in the large crowd is against Jesus. Dissenting voices can be heard.
A few moments later Gibson shows crowds of people crying out in favor of Jesus as he struggles to ascend Calvary. Their protests are so strong that the Roman soldiers have trouble controlling them. Furthermore, Gibson develops the character of Simon of Cyrene, referred to disparagingly by a Roman soldier as “You Jew!” The anti-Semitism here is the Roman’s, and the film clearly condemns him. Simon’s interplay with the agonizing Jesus is a beautiful touch and a clear statement against anti-Semitism.
Finally, the clearest evidence of the film’s stance is its striking penultimate scene. In a physically static but morally dynamic representation of the Pietà, Mary stares not at the dead Jesus but directly into the camera, and therefore directly at the viewer. This is the only time in the film that Gibson breaks the dramatic frame of the narrative and addresses the viewers directly. This shot, lasting a long 20 seconds, invites the viewers to enter the narrative and assume their responsibility, as sinners, for the death of this Jesus, who—the film repeatedly makes clear—has died for our sins. Gibson here is saying, more strongly than any other director has done, that it is not the Jewish people who killed Jesus; every one of us sinful human beings is responsible for his death.
Although Pasolini’s “Gospel” and Gibson’s “Passion” have some elements in common, the differences between the two films are fundamental. The most obvious difference is that Gibson’s is a Passion play, while Pasolini’s covers almost all of Matthew’s Gospel. Pasolini limits the dialogue of his film exclusively to the words of Matthew, while Gibson develops it widely. While both films have English subtitles, Pasolini has his characters speak in Italian; Gibson’s communicate in Aramaic and Latin. Unique in the tradition of the Jesus-film, this audacious move on the director’s part is wonderfully effective.
In the final analysis, Gibson’s film is a highly personal interpretation of the Jesus story, something to which he admits quite candidly. It is very much “The Gospel According to Mel.” In its content, it reflects elements from the Gospels, from other, noncanonical books and from the director’s own devotional interest. In its style, it reflects many elements from mainline Hollywood cinema—a genre Gibson knows well—and most obviously from Gibson’s previous directorial and acting effort, “Braveheart” (1995). The tagline, “All men die. Not all men really live,” from “Braveheart” is oddly similar to the tagline on some of the posters for “The Passion of the Christ”: “Dying was his reason for living.”
In contrast to Pasolini’s film in ascetic black and white with straightforward linear editing, “Passion” is in vivid color and uses flashbacks and parallel-editing to present its narrative. While Pasolini inserts a few brief excerpts of classical music contrapuntally, Gibson enhances most of his film with an original music score. Where Pasolini favors very basic and unobtrusive camera angles and movements; Gibson employs a wide variety of self-conscious and often dizzying photographic techniques, including some shocking digital special effects, all staples of the contemporary Hollywood action drama.
Each director also announces the theological position of his film in its title. Pasolini’s “Gospel” proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, his life, preaching, healing, passion, death and resurrection as the definitive event of salvation and liberation for the people of God. Although uncompromising in its demands, Pasolini’s film has a theology of joy and hope in the risen Lord.
In contrast, Gibson’s “Passion” evinces primarily a theology of atonement, a theology of the cross. He focuses narrowly on the suffering and death of Jesus and his free decision to take onto himself—like the scapegoat, like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah—the sins of humanity and to live this horrific ordeal to redeem sinners. To set up this focus, the film opens with a quotation from one of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Is. 53:5). Every lash of the whip during the extended scourging scenes represents one of these human transgressions. Gibson’s flashbacks to the Last Supper act as a hermeneutic for that agony: Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, the victim on the altar, whose body and blood—as in the eucharistic sacrifice—are offered in atonement.
The resurrection scene of every Jesus-film reveals much about the director’s theological position. Pasolini creates a 15-second-long shot of Jesus standing on a hilltop, strongly and urgently proclaiming the concluding words of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...I am with you always” (Mt. 28:19-20), while a group of disciples runs joyously toward him. On the soundtrack, an explosion of sacred music—the Gloria from the Congolese “Missa Luba,” with its pounding drums and joyful voices—underlines the significance of this Resurrection as a cosmic victory not only for Jesus but for the entire people of God, a victory with a clear communitarian and missionary thrust.
In high contrast, Gibson’s resurrection scene—I won’t give away the specifics—represents that event not as a cosmic victory for all women and men of all times and for all of human history, but rather as a private experience of Jesus, with no implications either for his disciples or for the viewers of the film. There is no joy or hope in the scene. Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, John and the converted Roman soldier remain suffering and passive in the Pietà tableau, separated from the Resurrection by a screen that is black for six seconds, and by the self-centered and isolated risen Lord. Gibson, caught up in the extreme preoccupation with the sins of humanity that informs his atonement theology, misses a chance to give all of us sinners hope.
Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is not easy to watch. The physical violence visited on Jesus goes on seemingly without end and has earned the film an R rating. It is “over the edge” (Gibson’s own words), at times exaggerated beyond what is necessary to represent Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the redemption of us sinners. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the “Third Week” explores Jesus’ Passion, contemplated in prayer at times as vividly as anything in Gibson’s film. But the Spiritual Exercises place the retreatants’ experience of the Passion between an experience of the ministry of Jesus (the “Second Week”) and the Resurrection of Christ (the “Fourth Week”), during which the retreatant lives the joy and power and victory of the risen Lord. This offers us hope.
Gibson’s film is a devotional meditation in the Franciscan mode on the Stations of the Cross. We experience Jesus’ passion from the outside, separated from the good news of his preaching and healing ministry, and isolated from his Resurrection. We remain at the foot of the cross, passive and despairing with the other mourners. But for John and the soldier, for the women—who in the Gospel are the first witnesses of the Resurrection—and for us sinners who find hope in the victory of the risen Lord, Gibson’s “Passion” offers little hope.