No matter what one may think of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one thing seems uncontested. It has caused quite a stir. Has any movie ever generated such debate, even among atheists, over the real meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry? Initially, the film was considered too much of a financial risk for it to get major studio backing. Gibson apparently covered the $45 million for production and marketing himself. It has already made $300 million and might become one of the top five moneymakers of all time, so some critics now suggest that Gibson’s conspiratorial marketing tactics have been driving the box-office bonanza. Such cleverness from one they thought so dumb.
Actually, Mel Gibson tapped into something deep: the profound piety and religious devotion of many Americans. And piety and devotion, I believe, drove Gibson to make the film in the first place. And the film, as well as the astounding response, makes no sense if we do not remember that context.
An imperfect but powerful movie, The Passion of the Christ is not a literal recounting of Gospel passages. Rather, it is the rendition of an artist whose intense faith is influenced more by traditional devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross than by the historical-critical method or biblical exegesis. While not anti-Semitic, it is no surprise that it triggers alarm among some Jewish commentators (although it would be a mistake to assume that all Jews agree with this assessment; quite the opposite is the case).
I personally found the film so painful to watch that at times I had to look away. Gibson, a notoriously physical director and actor, collapses all of the horror of the Passion into bodily pain. This is not necessarily a mistake. It is difficult to imagine a more immediate and compelling presentation of the suffering, not only of Christ, but of humanity. (As one woman mentioned to me, I hope people realize that Jesus was not the only man ever beaten to a pulp. The point is that he shared that terrible fate with them.)
Reaction to the film has been wide-ranging. Some have been moved to tears or filled with feelings of love and gratitude. There have been thoughtful reviews, sometimes even entire issues of magazines, both critical and admiring. What I have found more interesting about the film, however, are two quite different kinds of reaction to it.
One phenomenon is the rather small group of critics and commentators who seem to have an almost zealous rage against the film. Leading the prosecution was Christopher Hitchens, who on the television program Scarborough Countryon March 11, announced, All religious belief is sinister and infantile. I had suspected he would be displeased with Gibson’s movie, but I wasn’t prepared for his comment in the Web magazine Slate that the film relies for its effect almost entirely on sadomasochistic male narcissism, somehow connected to massively repressed homoerotic fantasies. In an article, I Detest This Film...With a Passion, for England’s newspaper The Mirror, Hitchens urges his readers not to see the film. Leave it to the sickoes who like this sort of thing. David Denby of The New Yorker called it a sickening death trip that could incite the audience to hate. Frank Rich of The New York Times, echoing Hitchens’ theme, compared it to a porn movie with its lurid sadomasochism. Is that what has so moved 20 or 30 million people, old and young?
Frank Rich, to be fair, states that his quarrel is not with most of the millions of Christian believers who are moved to tears. But one wonders why there is such a huge discrepancy between some critics and the millions of viewers who saw nothing of hatred or sexual perversion in it. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does the same go for ugliness?
Most interesting, in contrast to the high profile denunciations and exegesis of media people, has been the quality of personal discussion about this film. Have you had the experience this Lent of more reflection and conversation about the meaning of Jesus’ Passion? As one English professor mentioned to me, he was amazed that he had recently been engaged in at least five long conversations aboutnot so much the movie, as the content of our faith. Whether with students, colleagues, family members or acquaintances, I have found myself encountering issues of good and evil, Mary’s relation to her son, the reliability of Scripture and the theology of redemption.
Gibson’s implicit theology seems to stress the repayment or satisfaction theme of the paschal mystery, that things had to be set straight with God and amends be made. This is part of a rich tradition and could be at least half the truth. But there is also something so radically ugly about the Roman soldiers’ torture of Jesus and something so deeply moving about his trust in the face of ultimate suffering that another tradition is also suggested. Did Jesus undergo such pain, shame and loss because that alone would suffice to convince us that he could transform not only our deepest sufferings, but also our most disgraceful sins?
Mel Gibson may have been crude and uncharitable in his responses to his critics. He may be simplistic and unsophisticated in his faith. His theology may be deficient. His father may have doubts about the Second Vatican Council or the Holocaust. But his movie has touched the lives of countless people.
In this he has done a great service. Has there ever been a Lenten season in the United States when men and women of faith have been so focused on the mystery of Christ’s death? If it leads us, as well, more fully into the mystery of Easter and the teachings of the risen Lord, it could yield a healing beyond all tears and torture.