Why am I writing this? More to the point, why are you reading it? The answer is simple. Everybody has to say something about it, and many of you feel you have to see it. Even before seeing the film—and making it clear that I had not yet seen it—I was badgered into making statements on it on the basis of trailers, stills, notices in the press, Mel Gibson’s varied television appearances and comments that other people are thought to have made about it. The pressure for secular and religious media to produce something, anything, borders on frenzy, as apparently does the public’s curiosity about it.
The Passion of the Christ has been branded as “controversial” or, more pointedly, anti-Semitic. How could we know? Surely, reviewers should address such an important issue, but how would a responsible reviewer say anything without having seen the finished product? The dialogue that has taken place over the past few weeks has little relationship to the film. At best, the film has provided the occasion for some deeply entrenched religious issues to rise to the surface and receive serious reflection. At worst, it has provided the occasion for name-calling and the stirring of some old animosities and suspicions.
Whether Mel Gibson and his colleagues at Icon Films formulated a deliberate strategy for prerelease publicity, I will not speculate. What they did, by devious design or by dumb luck, generated more free media time than Private Ryan, Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Some early scripts circulated among experts for comment stirred memories of Passion plays and the role they may have played in depicting Jews as “Christ-killers” and in keeping alive the anti-Semitism that has plagued Europe for centuries. Some evangelical Christian groups felt the film, when it appeared, would be an invaluable tool for outreach. Gibson himself never hides his traditionalist (and schismatic) brand of Catholicism, and it was but one short step to dig up several unfortunate statements his father had made and conclude that the younger Mr. Gibson might subscribe to them as well.
Even the Pope became involved with a cryptic comment that he may or may not have made and that provided fuel for both sides. For fans, it stood as a papal endorsement of the spiritual value and historical accuracy of the film. For critics it provided another indication of the anti-Jewish sentiment that remains in the Roman Catholic Church. Both interpretations of “It is as it was” seem a stretch, and neither comes from any relationship to the film.
The mix of sources for these comments proved incendiary. Evangelicals, with their concentration on the person of Jesus coupled with their aggressive conversion programs, generally leave some sectors of the Jewish community very uncomfortable, especially when some expressions of the message imply that acceptance of Jesus as Lord is a condition for salvation. In addition, the evangelical emphasis on the literal meaning of Bible texts leaves many mainline Protestants and most Catholics a bit edgy as well.
So the lines were drawn along the question of whether a historically accurate recreation of the Passion without contexts is possible given the sketchy material provided in the Gospels—or if it is, can it be theologically misleading by submerging the fuller and more complex understanding of Redemption? Catholics, too, have their own little in-house family feuds, left over from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Those of the old right feel that the cross has been historicized, deconstructed and symbolized into oblivion, with Gibson bringing it back to center stage. Those of the new left who would rather place all their theological eggs in one basket—an Easter basket—find Gibson offering a noxious return to old-time guilt-trip theology.
As a result, statements made by one group were met with counterstatements from another who felt their deepest religious sensibilities challenged. The media have fallen into line by providing a pulpit for everyone with an opinion. Some of this exchange has been quite constructive, but a lot of it is silly. And almost none of the buzz, I repeat, has anything to do with the film, which had been seen only by a select few, who, again by luck or design, were impelled to make the strongest statements about it based on their own agenda rather than on the merits of the film. While various advocacy groups were fencing over what they thought the final product contained, the film was kept under tight wraps, according to the standard Hollywood practice. In effect, the selective pre-release distribution through sneak previews excluded those who might tell the public something about what the film actually says.
Finally, a series of press screenings was arranged two days before the release to the general public on Ash Wednesday. Discussing the film on its own merits seems anticlimactic after the long barrage of hype, but it’s what readers have a right to expect from this column.
For starters, remember this is a commercial film, not a papal encyclical. Icon Films wants you to buy a $10 ticket, not give up candy for Lent.
“The Passion of the Christ” limits its narrative to the interval between the Agony in the Garden and burial, with a very brief coda for the Resurrection. It is a Passion Play and presumes to be nothing else. It offers a few brief flashbacks: the Last Supper, the rescue of the woman caught in adultery and a few snippets of preaching. It also offers two whimsical episodes of the home life of Jesus (James Caviezel) and Mary (Maia Morgenstern), one when Mary tends to the five-year-old Jesus after he scrapes his knee and another when she prepares lunch for him in the carpenter shop and they indulge in a genteel water fight. Both imaginary non-scriptural episodes nicely recall the loving relationship between Mother and Son. Gibson does not hesitate to embellish the truth for dramatic purposes, which he does deftly in these episodes, but these scenes raise questions for those who believe the film is a literal translation of divinely dictated narrative.
Dramatically, the film needs more of these. The character of Jesus seems disengaged from his world. Even though most viewers will be familiar with the outline of the story before the Passion and can be expected to fill in some of the background, the film still needs some traction with its environment. In “The Passion” Jesus becomes a pure victim of forces determined to destroy him for reasons that remain murky. I wanted a conflict to help me sympathize with a tragic hero rather than a pathetic punching bag. The complexity of political life in first-century Palestine and competing factions, civil and religious, undoubtedly rivaled those of the Middle East today. Too much exposition would have distracted from the narrative, of course, but by excluding all such historical background, Gibson has left us with a spectacle of bad people doing bad things to an innocent victim for no apparent reason.
Spectacle is an important word. The energy that might have gone into character development went instead into special effects of a most brutal kind. Gibson shows an almost sadomasochistic fascination with physical pain. (In his 1995 film “Braveheart,” Gibson had himself disemboweled in the final scene.) Jesus is whipped across the back and legs once with canes, then after a short break, a second time with the metal-tipped scourge. And after that ordeal, the Romans loosen one wrist, flip him over and flail his frontside with equal vigor. By the time it’s over, the make-up artists give his skin the texture of spaghetti marinara. From the opening sequence, blows from fists and whips whistle and crack, like the sound effects now so familiar from martial-arts films. Yes, Roman execution was a brutal, bloody business, but presenting it in such graphic detail passes dangerously close to a pornography of violence. Clinical detail cheapens both eroticism and suffering.
Dwelling at such length on torture has a paradoxical effect of slowing the action down. Undoubtedly, Gibson wanted to force audiences to see and experience the prolonged agony. The strategy misfires. Constant and prolonged lingering on painful events designed by special-effects units not only desensitizes the audience. It also makes the pace drag. The first blow is shocking; the tenth is tedious. If a director slows the action down to allow an audience to contemplate something beautiful, as Japanese filmmakers frequently do, the result adds to the pleasure, and we’re content to let the narrative lag for a few moments. Gibson, however, asks us to gaze at horrible atrocities, and unless one has a morbid fascination with physical suffering, one only becomes anxious to move on. Sadly, audiences have become numbed to movie pain through constant repetition. Gibson knows this quite well and pushed the limits of graphic torture, but after 20 minutes or so, the pain loses its meaning.
One very lovely and very Catholic touch is Gibson’s use of Mary. She appears as a witness to events, reflecting the vicarious suffering through exhaustion rather than hysterics. At the end, in her close-up as she holds the corpse of her son in a recreation of Michelangelo’s most famous Pietà, she gazes directly at the audience, as though accusing each of us of complicity in the atrocities we have been watching over the past two hours.
Now that the film has reached the public, I doubt that much will change in people’s perception of the events on the screen. Evangelicals and traditionalists will be deeply moved by the vividness of the Passion and will continue to market posters and study guides about it to further their outreach. Mainstream Protestants and Vatican II Catholics will be dismayed by the absence of theological reflection and historical contexts. Anti-Semites may be disappointed that their prejudices are supported far less by the film than they had been led to believe, but they will probably find something to support their stupidity. Those sectors of the Jewish community who tend to feel some trepidation about Christian belief that the execution of Jesus lies at the core of their faith will find little consolation: the film portrays all Romans as brutal thugs (except the indecisive but sympathetic Pontius Pilate) and some few Jewish leaders as schemers in a web of political intrigue it never bothers to explain. In other words, the baggage audiences bring into the theater they will have to carry out.
My guess is that after the first weekends on thousands of screens, ticket sales will drop off quickly. Evangelical churches have purchased blocks of tickets, and the curious will feel they “have” to see it, simply because the media blitz has told them they have to. So much for the first week. It is, after all, a well-intentioned but tedious movie, whose morbid fascination with pain and subtitled dialogue will do little to attract mainstream audiences over the long haul. My hope is that the dialogue among Jews and Christians, evangelical and mainline churches, Catholic progressives and restorationists will continue long after “The Passion of the Christ” becomes a videotape mainstay for church-sponsored study groups or (in a heavily edited version) a perennial Holy Week offering for network television.