The Passion of the Christ
I have found that when I see long expected and overly publicized or hyped movies (hype not in a pejorative sense, just meaning everyone has an opinion about it), my enjoyment or appreciation of the movie is greatly diminished the first time I see it. I found that true with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I found the second viewing, two months after the first, immensely satisfying. While the first viewing was not a disappointment, it was diminished because of my reaction throughout the movie to all of the pre opinions. The second time I just watched the movie.
I feel the same about The Passion of the Christ. I spent most of the movie reacting to the criticisms that I had read: it was it too dark, too violent, too demeaning, too whatever. In addition, in the theater I was in, a number of African American Pentecostal women would interrupt scenes with exclamations of "Praise you Jesus!" While I admire their heartfelt emotion, it did take something away from the movie. Even so, I was powerfully moved and I look forward to my second viewing when I can just "see" the movie without processing all the extraneous baggage. Some thoughts on the movie follow.
Anti-Semitism. Hardly. Anti-Jewish religious leadership, absolutely. We sometimes forget that there are only Jews and Romans in the story and movie. Judas, the religious leadership, and the kinds of people who make up and participate in mobs come off terribly. However, there are Jewish heroes too, including the two Marys, his mother and Magdalene, and several other women, the Apostle John, and Simon, who ends up helping Jesus carry his cross. At one point Simon assaults the crowd and the Roman soldiers in Jesus' defense, beating them back, pleading for them to act with basic human decency. Only the self-serving come off badly. For a detailed look at my views on who killed Jesus, see my essay on the subject.
Violent. Yes and no. The actual physical and visual violence is much less than I expected from the reviews and definitely less than say, the twenty minutes on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan or much of what gets dished out in horror films these days. However, what separates this violence from other movie violence is that it is all directed toward one person, Jesus Christ, and it is relentless. That is not surprising, considering the actual events and that both scourging and crucifixion are involved. To say that Jesus was abused is an understatement. The evil of mankind is focused and directed at him in an unrelenting effort to break and dehumanize him, culminating in his cry near the end of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But he refuses to yield. At one point during his scourging, if he had stayed down, it would have been over, but he gets up. The Romans see that as a challenge and take it to the next level. However, Jesus never gives up, and in the end only his body betrays him, never his will or spirit. I am reminded of the movie Cool Hand Luke where Luke refuses to break and the punishment continues to escalate. It is the same here. Jesus will not be broken. Instead it is he who will break evil.
Ego-driven. Duh. This is the most farcical of the charges against the movie and Mel Gibson. Every movie of substance is the vision of the director with input from the writer, and the creative ego is what drives all art of substance. This charge is oxymoronic at best and dishonest by definition. The same charge has been leveled at most directors of note doing films of substance. It goes with the territory, but at least here I see the expressions of artistic ego both energized by passion and tempered by humor and humility. It was very informative to the see the one hour Making of The Passion of the Christ on PAX in giving insight into Mel Gibson and his movie. Sometimes extreme passion for a subject is mislabeled and in this case I believe it applies.
Accuracy. Those who label the film inaccurate also label the scriptures inaccurate. The movie is an accurate rendition of what is in the Gospels. It follows the original script with only minor additions for clarification and to flesh out the situations, such as when Jesus falls and Mary has a flashback to him falling as child. Did it happen? Who knows, but it is effective and true to the actual emotions of the moment. The real quibble is with Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John and to a degree with Mel Gibson for believing their veracity. These type of critics remind me of Pilate, asking "What is truth?", yet not willing to accept anything that challenges their presuppositions.
Verdict. It is a good. if not excellent movie, one that you will probably appreciate better the second time you see it. It is a movie I plan to own and view many times over the coming years, one that I plan to see again in the theater, at least two more times. The acting, sets, photography, effects, and presentation are outstanding. And, without giving you a spoiler, I will say that the resurrection is an exceptionally powerful scene. Go see it, but be prepared to be emotionally engaged and wrenched to your core. You should expect nothing else of the passion of our Lord.
Grace and peace. 2-26-04