The Passion of The Christ review
"Enjoy the film," said the guy who'd just sold me a ticket to Mel Gibson's controversial movie The Passion of The Christ. I grimaced slightly (on the inside). After all I'd heard, would it be possible to enjoy a film described by some viewers (Christians as well as pagans, I should add) as basically a splatter movie or a gore-fest? Would it make me ashamed to be a Christian (as some Christians have suggested), or would it provide the ideal vehicle for evangelising the neo-pagan West (as have others)? As it happens, neither option quite fitted the case. It didn't make me ashamed, but nor did it greatly move me.
Now, it may well be that lots of people will decide to follow Jesus after seeing The Passion, but if so, I'd put that down to the prompting of the Holy Spirit rather than to the acting of Jim Caviezel (who is admittedly impressive as Jesus) or to the undoubted courage of Mel Gibson in trying to film again the most influential (and probably the most filmed?) story of all time.
If you're gonna come around here and say those sort of thingsI continually wanted the violence to stop, so that the film's brief flashbacks to other incidents from Jesus' life came as a huge relief. But I think that's a right reaction.
Regardless of how bloody our atonement theology needs to be, it is never right for one human being to wish suffering on another, a fact reinforced by the gospels' refusal to dwell at any length on the details of Jesus' suffering.
They are certainly at pains to record that it happened, and it may well have been as bloody as Gibson portrays it. But it's curious that a focus on the bloodiness of the passion is something that has developed largely outside the pages of the New Testament. And if the gospels don't dwell on it, the epistles also generally move quickly from Jesus' suffering to consider what it means for the world.
he questions of how bloody Jesus' suffering needed to be, and how bloody our atonement theology needs to be, are probably larger than we can ever answer for sure. But we do need to be aware that our answers will be closely connected to our understanding of God. Thus, we need to be careful about assuming that the quantity of violence is the important thing about the passion, or that Jesus' divinity somehow made it easier for him to bear the suffering.
Certainly, people have suggested to me that any normal human being subjected to the suffering experienced by Jesus in this movie would have died long before the cross. I don't think Gibson means to imply any docetic heresy (by which Jesus only seems to be human), but the film's violence tends, arguably, in that direction, by suggesting that Jesus had superhuman strength to resist it.
I wonder whether there was more of this tendency, too, in the way that Jesus stands up after enduring the first round of beating from the Roman soldiers, almost as if he is asking for a second dose, which the soldiers obligingly (and far more horrifically) deliver. Finally, while carrying the cross through Jerusalem, Gibson's Jesus rather cryptically utters the words of Revelation 21:5, "See, I make all things new!" Arguably, this implies a kind of divine mind, separate from his human suffering, with which I'm not altogether happy.
Again, this is another huge topic, but I'd prefer the suggestion that "everything . . . Jesus does is both fully divine and fully human action."1 In other words, our tendency to separate the divine from the human attributes of God may be because we understand God wrongly, as remoter and more 'other' than the God of the Bible actually is, without fully accepting the scandalous revelation that God is revealed to us in Jesus.
recently heard the earth-shattering suggestion that in fact, Jesus' divinity probably made him less prepared than anyone else to suffer as he did, not least when the mental and spiritual dimensions of his suffering are taken into account. At any rate, I'd suggest that all of these possibilities and all of Scripture's diverse atonement metaphors need to be held together in trying to gain an adequate understanding of the cross, which is why it's not ideal to set too much faith in one retelling of it.
Having said that, I should acknowledge that Gibson's film doesn't channel thought on the atonement in only one direction. It gives, for example, a central role to its Satan figure. Satan, a pallid look-alike of the Emperor in The Return of the Jedi, stalks behind the Jerusalem crowds in silent, goading delight as Jesus is led to the cross. His presence is so surreal that his influence on events could be understood in a Walter-Wink-exposing-the-powers sort of manner, or it could be understood more literally.
But either way, Satan's chilling presence in the film conveys the sense that the humans involved are really only actors on the surface of an event that is being enacted at deep, cosmic levels. At the moment of Jesus' death, Satan erupts into the frenzied, demonic laughter of apparent triumph. This seems to cohere with one of the oldest atonement traditions which stresses the idea that Jesus acted as the devil's ransom (compare Mark 10:45) in order to free us from sin.
Satan's presence in the film also helps to cast the charges of anti-Semitism into relief. Against the background of Jewish and Roman characters, Satan's pale, blue-eyed appearance looks particularly Aryan, and his directorial role in events could be taken to absolve the Jewish leaders from ultimate responsibility for Jesus' death.
Having said that, the film is still harder on the Jewish leaders than on the Romans. Caiaphas is portrayed as a self-important and conniving individual, while Herod looks like a hedonistic escapee from a fancy dress party in an Evelyn Waugh novel. In contrast, Pilate appears urbane; certainly much more humane than historians suggest.
Admittedly, the rank-and-file Roman soldiers are brutes, but their centurion shares Pilate's humanity, thus depicting civilised Romans as basically decent and noble people. I don't think this amounts to full-blown anti-Semitism, but it's good to remember that these portrayals involve a fair bit of historical interpretation.
here's also a lot of interpretation at work in the film's portrayal of the women, but it's interpretation which I rather liked. Surrounded by the brutality and hysterical power-games of men, the film's female characters join Simon of Cyrene and the disciple John as just about the only people to respond to Jesus' suffering with the compassion and sorrow it deserves.
Veronica, a character from the Stations of the Cross ritual who wipes Jesus' face and tries to slake his thirst, is graceful and courageous in the face of soldierly cruelty. Though some Protestants might balk at the iconography involved in the portrayal of Mary, her central role generally fits well with the gospels' insistence that she is present throughout the carnage until the moment of Jesus' death.
There are some well-timed flashbacks to Jesus' home life with Mary, too, including a surprising moment of humour between them. It's not exactly high comedy, but it's a poignant reminder that Jesus was the son of a caring mother, and that there is a side to his biography of which we know nothing, into which the violence of the crucifixion is a savage intrusion.
ortraying Jesus' suffering in any form, of course, raises all manner of questions about the relationship between God, suffering and the world, none of which can be portrayed without involving theological assumptions. If that's true of the gospels, it must inevitably be true of Mel Gibson's Passion (gosh - I'd argue that it's even true of Little Red Riding Hood).
Not least because there are four versions of the story in the Bible, rather than simply one, we must remember while watching any Jesus movie that it's neither an innocent nor an objective interpretation, least of all the definitive one. But for reasons I've tried to indicate above, I think the film acknowledges this throughout.
The gospels are literary documents into which every generation of Christians must enter imaginatively, and with which every generation must wrestle in order to tell again the story that brings the world the good news of what God is like. It's therefore vital that it's interpreted and retold constantly, in film, fiction, poetry and pubs.
Gibson's film is a welcome part of that exercise; of presenting "the word made strange".2
Given the multiplicity of movies about Jesus, I'm confident that Gibson's emphases won't take exclusive hold of the Christian imagination: unlike The Lord of the Rings, it's not likely that we'll have to wait a hundred years for another cinematic retelling.
1 Colin Gunton, Act and Being (London: SCM Press, 2002), pp 149-150