The Passion of the Christ
By the time this is posted no sentient creature in America can be ignorant of the fact that Mel Gibson sunk oodles of millions into this picture, that current Jewish leaders are up in arms over alleged anti-Semitisms in the film, that evangelical Christians have brought large blocks of tickets to propel the film into the second largest grossing film in history for its first five-day run, that child psychologists have given dire warnings about the effects of this much violence on children, and that even a Wichita woman fainted and died after seeing the movie.
With that in mind, I thought I should go see what all the ruckus was about. Though there are some subtleties and even occasional flashes of brilliance in the film, I have to conclude that Mel Gibson, like the Christ that he portrays, repeatedly fell on his face throughout the movie. First, the subtleties of the film or the marketing of the film.
1) The most surprising event is how the evangelical Christian audience welcomed the film. Forty years ago these same Christians (or their spiritual forebears) would have doubted whether the traditional Catholic Gibson was a Christian; in 2004 they love him.
2) The opening image of the film, a quotation from Is. 53, says that Isaiah was written about 700 B.C. Mainline scholars all believe that Is. 53 comes from about 550 B.C. By saying that Isaiah is from 700 B.C., the film subtly embraces the literary conclusion of a small cadre of conservative scholars.
3) The image in the Garden where Jesus stomps the snake has a deep resonance with the so-called "Protoevangelion," the promise of Gen. 3:15 in which God says to the serpent, "He (the descendant of the woman) will strike your head, and you will strike he heel." Thus, the stomping of the snake is a subtle sign that victory is already assured. Nice touch.
4) The significant role for Mary, which goes beyond the Gospel portrait, but not so much that Protestants will be offended but that enough that Catholics will be affirmed.
Now, the falling on his face. In order for Jesus to be captivating, he must be an alluring person. In order for a person to be alluring, there must either be character development or indications that there is a sense of depth to the person. Gibson realizes this and builds in occasional flashbacks to Jesus' earlier life during the scourging and crucifixion scenes. One of the most engaging flashbacks is where a young, strapping Jesus has just finished building a table. He jokes with his mother, throws some water on her in jest, and follows her into the house. One almost has the sense that Jesus not only was human but also was a person that one would like to get to know.
But no sooner does Gibson do this but he wrenches the viewer back to the lugubrious, monotonic and monotonous picture of the suffering. It is almost as if he was afraid that the person of Jesus might swallow up the notion of Jesus the sufferer. Instead, it would have given considerable depth and appeal to the suffering Jesus to linger on his earlier life but Gibson is hellbent on showing Jesus as a monodimensional sufferer of ignominious indignity and excruciating pain.
Fair enough. From all we know from the Gospels, Jesus did suffer in ways that most of us could never comprehend. But if I were a person without a previous Christian faith, I think I would look at the film and the portrait of Jesus more with an inclination to pity Jesus than either to worship him or be outraged because of the injustice directed against him. By the end of the film I was wondering what special effects were needed to keep the blood congealed in such patterns on Jesus' body, or how the red streaks of blood down his torso seemed like candy canes in some way. When I started thinking these thoughts, I realized that Gibson's imagination had faltered. In the final analysis, then, Passion is not a film of deep imagination or even powerful vision. It never escapes its pallid monochromatism.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long