I recently got to see an early screening of Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion of the Christ. During Medieval times—this was before cable—people used to gather around and to perform and watch “Passion Plays,” which detail the suffering, death, and occasionally the resurrection of one Jesus Christ.
Passion actually used to mean suffering. And suffering was and still is the point of these things. The audience is supposed to suffer along with Christ as the play goes on. Where Mel Gibson comes in is that he is a really big Catholic, and he has spent over forty million dollars of his own money to make a movie version of this Passion Play.
The film generated an enormous amount of buzz, coming chiefly from influential people who have said this is the greatest film ever, controversy surrounding charges of Anti-Semitism and from a movie trailer available online. (You can see it here, but it is a little bit graphic, so fair warning.)
The screening I went to was part of a 9-Day/12-Showing tour of the film all across Canada for church leaders. And while I am not a church leader, I do know a few, and thus secured my own ticket.
The event itself was something of a singular occasion for me in watching movies. We arrived quite early and I felt like I was at a Star Wars or LOTR premiere. There weren’t any Hobbit groupies or anything, but anyone who gets up that early to go stand in line to watch a movie belongs in some class of geek. (As apparently, do I.)
We were herded into the sanctuary of the host church by some local guy who told two of the worst “Jesus and the 5000” jokes I’ve ever heard. We were given a bunch of promotional literature explaining how the local churches could be ready for the expected response from the public.
We were told that the version of the film we were seeing was 98% complete (minus a few special effects and some work on the credits and music), and that there were to be no professional reviews. But, seeing as how most of you people have yet to give me any money, I think we’re okay there.
As this is an intense film, and will no doubt provoke quite a few responses, what I have elected to do is to ask my friend, Pastor Matt Saunders (who saw the film with me) to share his own personal take. He delivered me the following (which I have not and will not read until I’ve sent it out to you). Here is what he thought:
I was privileged to see a screening of The Passion of Christ on Friday. I hadn't read or seen much information about the movie, except for a couple segments on news and entertainment shows on TV. Through them, I've picked up some rumblings that Mel Gibson is receiving some flack for making it. So I entered the viewing with the thought in the back of my head that this film is going to be quite controversial.
I'm not a great film critic. I consider myself to be pretty straight forward if not a bit simple minded, and so I tend to enjoy a lot of films that others say were a complete waste of time and money. That being said, I also know how I have rolled my eyes in embarrassment over most "Christian" movies that have been promoted in the past. (How in the world did Left Behind make it into theaters?) And even though I knew Gibson was behind the production of this film, I also entered the screening with the slight anticipation that perhaps I would once again see a low budget, low quality, poorly acted film. Having several promoters stand on stage and give a sales pitch about the film before we watched it didn't ease my fears that we may be called to "mobilize the Church" for the sake of getting good ratings for another "Christian" film. But my fears were soon alleviated:
On to the movie...
The Passion of Christ is a moving portrayal about the last hours of Jesus' life on earth. Drawing from biblical text, both New and Old Testament, the story unfolds in a gripping chronological sequence intermixed with flashbacks of significant events in Jesus' life. The audience is given a perspective of the spiritual realm as we see Jesus grapple with his divine call to be a sacrifice for humanity and his physical body bracing for the torture that would eventually lead to it.
As a youth pastor, I am quick to spell out to my students our theological belief that Christ was fully God and fully human. But often times the way pastors teach or preach about Christ, we tend to neglect the human element, setting up a sort of "Super Jesus" in the minds and hearts of our congregations. The movie reveals a very human Jesus. During flashbacks we are treated to glimpses of a Jesus with a sense of humor, a Jesus who had strong friendships, and a Jesus who was moved emotionally by others. Of course the scenes of torture revealed a Jesus who experienced an unbelievable amount of physical pain and ridicule. This is probably a good place to point out that The Passion of Christ is not a movie to take the wife and kids for an evening of family entertainment. I am considering taking my youth group (7th - 12th graders) on opening night (Ash Wednesday), but only with a parental permission form, due to the movie's graphic nature.
I think it is an important movie to watch for three reasons:
1) Jesus is portrayed as a real human being, who identifies with our human condition. I have already touched on this above.
2) The viewer is moved by the graphic portrayal of Christ's suffering. This is a raw portrayal of what Christ probably went through in his last few hours. It is not sanitized or cleaned up. I know I will never think of Christ's sacrifice or receive communion again without considering what Christ did for all of us.
3) The movie creates an opening for dialogue. People of faith (or non-faith) will have a lot to talk about at the conclusion of this movie. The dialogue I'm talking about is not whether or not the movie is anti-Semitic, nor is it about whether or not these events actually happened (although, I'm sure these discussions will take place). Rather, I believe people will be moved to grapple with the idea of Jesus, a person, who felt a divine call from his Heavenly Father to sacrifice his life for all of humanity.
My thanks to Hyperion for allowing me to be a guest columnist for this issue.
Back to me.
Before I tell you what I thought, let’s address the charges of Anti-Semitism. (This section alone used to be over 6000 words, but I’ve since realized the impossibility of discussing the polemical nature of the Gospels in a forum like this.) It all boils down to “the Jews” being blamed for part of Jesus’s death, and how historically accurate this assertion is or is not. Regardless of the factual veracity, though, what is inarguable is that down through the centuries this text has been used to persecute Jews.
I doubt seriously Gibson himself—who works in an industry that is largely Jewish—set out to malign anyone. He wrote the screenplay almost entirely from the four Gospels, and was just scrupulously following the text. However, given not only the portrayal of the relevant characters in the film, but the misery inflicted upon Jews over history because of the accusations themselves, I can’t blame those angry one bit.
As to the film itself: unlike virtually all of the reviews I have read since seeing The Passion (including accolades from no less than Billy Graham and the Pope himself, who is quoted simply as saying, “It is as it was.”), I did not think this was a masterpiece of filmmaking. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Passion of the Christ borders on being a terrible film.
The movie is in Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic, which we were told were the languages spoken of the day, but I since learned that the reason for Latin is that it is the traditional language for Passion Plays. The movie works best without the dialogue, and I had no problems with the cast, who seemed to do a fine job in their limited roles. Maybe I’m naïve about how much movies cost these days, but for the money Gibson reportedly spent, the production values didn’t seem much better than some NBC Easter-time mini-series. I’m not trying to be picky, but any other movie; I would not hesitate to point this out.
The film starts off promisingly in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying, asking to be let out of his coming fate, while still willing to do his Father’s (God’s ) will. Satan is introduced as a reoccurring character, in what can only be construed as a theatrical conceit, but an effective one, in my mind. (There’s even a baby, but I’ll let you be surprised.)
From there the movie shifts into Jesus’s arrest, his “trial” before the Jewish Court, and then on to Pilate, Herod, back to Pilate, scourging, condemnation, the trip to Calvary, and finally the cross.
This is virtually the sum of the movie. Not a whole lot happens, especially once Jesus starts getting beaten, except for the physical punishment, and various people’s reactions to it. Chief among these is Mary, who at first seemed way too young to be Jesus’s mother.
Those knowledgeable will point out that Mary was most likely only 13 years older than Jesus, so it’s not unreasonable that they would seem close to the same age. But that’s another problem of the film: it assumes you know an awful lot about the characters, background, and so forth. It would have been nice to have them labeled, at least at first.
Let me approach this a different way: imagine you are asked to see a movie in several foreign languages (not one of which you speak) about some historical figure, that is almost entirely about a guy getting tortured to death for two hours. Would that sound appealing? I don’t want to minimize this: Jesus really does get tortured for almost the entire film. From a theatrical point of view, this was one of the most disappointing things. The character of Jesus is established so greatly, I was very interested in what he was going through. However, once the torture begins, one of Jesus’s eyes closes up, and with all the blood and gore, not much “acting” or emoting takes place.
The beating scene in the court only lasts a few minutes, but the scourging of Jesus is close to a half an hour. You actually see them beat Jesus—first with canes and then with a device called a cat-o-nine-tails, for over 25 minutes. We then move to the path to the cross, another 20 minute + scene of almost all beating, and then finally the crucifixion itself, which, after all that other stuff seems short by comparison.
The goal is for us to suffer along with Christ, and you do feel every blow. However, call me desensitized, but I got inured after a while. It wasn’t really shocking, and in my mind, what should be the ultimate scene, the crucifixion, seemed anticlimactic.
I found myself frustrated by the lack of plot. That may be what Gibson wants. After all, if his goal is to “stick to the script,” well, that’s what he does. But from a movie perspective, I wished for more. There are some great flashbacks that bring humor and help relieve the torture a little bit. One such is when Jesus starts his trek with the cross on the path to Calvary. Gibson flashes back to show us Jesus coming down that same path just five days earlier, to tumultuous praise and palms strewn at his feet. I found myself wondering what the hell (literally) happened in five days to make the public go from hailing someone as King to wanting him dead.
I also wish there could have been more on Jesus’s mental anguish. As a human, Jesus would have to be considered mentally ill. Persecution issues, talking to Angels, Devils, and God, who by the way, he thinks is his father, and let’s not forget the Messiah complex. You think I’m being flippant, but you have to concede that no matter what your ideology, from the world’s point of view, this guy seemed crazy.
Alas, while the movie hints at these things, it never delivers. Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, gives an impassioned performance, but barely a fourth of the way in he turns into a Wiley Coyote-type cartoon character, in the sense that he’s beaten mercilessly, and after that it’s just how much abuse he can take. (The answer: quite a bit.)
I can’t really fault Mel Gibson in the larger sense, as his goal is to give an accurate portrayal of Christ’s last 12 hours, according to the Biblical text. But cinematically, there is not a lot that makes a great movie here. As one of the pastors who saw the movie with me admitted later, “If it weren’t about Jesus, I’d never see it.”
Now, he was talking about just how difficult it was to watch (as I imagine, it will be for many), but it works the same. There is no way the general audience would ever sit through a foreign film of some guy getting beaten to death.
But it’s not some guy. It’s Jesus, the most important historical figure in history, and for hundreds of millions, the center of their religious life. This is why I ultimately can’t tell you whether this is a good or bad film. Because it is about Jesus, and for many, this is history, and that changes things. For most, I think this movie will garner profoundly personal reactions.
As for my personal reaction, I can say I am gratified that for once Jesus was not treated like a super hero. This is a soapbox issue for me, and I’ll stay off for now, but I get a little tired of people treating Jesus like he wore a cape and everything was easy as snapping his figures. Gibson does a fantastic job of showing the humanity of a man, who, at the very least, didn’t deserve such treatment. And, obviously if your religious beliefs go that way, that suffering was for you, and thus the personal impact.
The million-dollar question: will you want to see the film? If you aren’t religious, probably not. Unless you have interest in Jesus as a historical figure, it’s asking quite a bit to sit through this.
However, if your life includes Jesus in a meaningful way, you may well want to see this. I do heartily recommend you know what you’re getting into, though. If that trailer bothers you at all, this movie is not for you. If Schindler’s List bothered you so much you could hardly stand it, I would think twice.
But if you’re game, give it a shot. I will admit that the images have stuck with me now going on a fifth day. I can’t seem to get them out of my mind. Maybe that’s what Gibson really wants. For us to think about just a little bit what Jesus went through.
If that’s the goal, mission accomplished.
January 21, 2004
Thanks to Koz for major help revising this down from over 5000 words
Thanks to Melty and Tootsie for editing Matt’s portion
Thanks to Aviendha for talking me out of including the whole polemic section
Thanks to Kimbo for getting me a ticket
Thanks to Matt for sharing his thoughts
Thanks to Mel Gibson for giving me something to write about