Thursday, February 26, 2004

My review of "Passion of the Christ"

My senior year in college I took a one-month, concentrated English course on movies and movie criticism. We watched four or five movies every day, including mandatory viewing of every Alfred Hitchcock film ever made (except his final one, which he had not yet made) and had to write scholarly papers on two movies. Most of the films were silent, many of them very obscure, including some Eastern European silent flicks.

Despite all this training, I confess that I am not a skilled movie reviewer. Roger Ebert's job is safe from me. So what follows about The Passion of the Christ is less a real review, really, than my impressions and thoughts.

I tried hard to dismiss all the buzz, pro and con, that we've been force fed for months, especially in the last two weeks. Maybe I succeeded. So here goes:

  • Jesus' mother, Mary, is a meta-narrator of the movie. In fact, the events are almost told through her eyes. She is present at every moment of Jesus' suffering. She is also the only character except Jesus who knows, theologically, what is going on. Hence, she alternates between shock and grief at what is happening to her son, and acceptance of its necessity. I found very powerful and moving a scene when Jesus falls while carrying the cross, evoking a flashback memory of Mary. At the end, when Jesus is lowered dead from the cross into her arms, Gibson reproduces Michelangelo's Pieta, one of the most sublime works of sculpture in Western art.

  • Is it anti-Jewish? Well, neither my son nor I (he is 18) left the theater angry at Jews or thinking that "the Jews" were - or are - responsible for Jesus' death. Anger simply is not an emotion I experienced during or after the movie, and I saw and heard no indication that any other viewer did.

    That being said, the Jewish hierarchy is presented almost uniformly flat-charactered. In Jesus' arraignment just after he is arrested, two or three members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, protest vehemently that the proceeding violates both Jewish law and common sense. They are quickly marginalized by the others. After some reflection, I have to agree substantially (not completely) with one of my former professors, Dr. Susan Bond, who told The Tennessean, referring to the visual presentation of Jews in movies,
    Historically, Jesus movies have done a very bad job of this by caricaturing the Jews. One of the ways you know who the bad guys are is that you see the guys with the big hats, guys with too many jewels on their robes. Mel managed to make the religious leaders in this movie even more grandiose than in other movies, which I would interpret as an anti-Jewish spin on it. He made the additional artistic decision of giving them all bad teeth, and making them less physically attractive as a distinct group. ...
    OTOH, these are also stock ways that movie makers help the audience identify the antagonists to the hero; the Jews who sympathize with Jesus or who attempt to show him compassion are visually more appealing than those who oppose him. The Roman soldiers are visually as repulsive as Jesus' Jewish foes - except for one who is compassionate toward Mary. He's a handsome fellow.

    It also needs to be recognized that Jesus himself is not visually presented as a Jewish man - he wears no fringes that I saw (as the Gospels explicitly say he did), no headcovering, has no phylacteries, worn by every male Jew more than 13 years old.

    While I see why critics claim anti-Judaism on Gibson's part, I think it is just as likely that he simply used a stock movie-maker's paradigm to help the audience keep track of the sides, even if a little crudely or insensitively done. Does that mean he thinks the audience is too stupid to keep track on its own? Well, yeah. Directors generally think that. (Alfred Hitchcock said that actors and the audience alike were "cattle.")

    (However, a writer in Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, observes, "... concerns about The Passion stirring anti-Semitic attitudes in the American movie-going public have been largely misplaced, but I do not for a minute hold these fears to be misbegotten or disingenuous." Read the whole thing.)
  • Is the movie accurate to the Gospels? On the whole, yes, in the main events: Jesus was arrested, tried, condemned, probably flogged, condemned and crucified. But the movie conflates the Gospel accounts together and dramatizes them strongly. Gibson tried to make a single, coherent film narrative out of four accounts that don't always match.

    Gibson obviously picked some scenes and not others from the Gospels. The result is a movie that, while generally according with the Gospels, isn't really a movie of the Gospels. Gibson is Catholic, as critics have endlessly reminded us, and Catholic tradition about the passion influences the screenplay quite a bit: the Gospels, for example, do not relate Mary following Jesus along the Via Dolorosa but some Catholic tradition does. Again, it makes for some compelling drama and I have no problem with it, but it is not in the Gospels. Neither do the Gospels relate that Caiaphas the high priest himself went to Golgotha as he does in the movie. The scene where Caiaphas personally accosts Jesus on the cross is not in the Gospels, although Matthew says other priests were there:
    41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.a 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, "I am God’s Son."
    However, one authority of the Jewish practice of the day whom I trust emailed me that the presence of Caiaphas himself at the cross was quite unlikely because the high priest was never to contact corpse uncleanness (even by accident, I might add),

    In addition to including scenes in the movie that aren't in the Bible, Gibson does omit some things that are: Judas does hang himself, but does not fall and burst open upon the rocks, for example, and the centurion at the crucifixion does not proclaim, "Surely, this man was the son of God" (a really curious omission, I think). At Jesus' death we do see the earthquake that splits the veil in the Temple, but the Gospels do not say the Temple itself was wrecked as the movie shows. Nor do see the dead of Jerusalem come forth from their tombs. The crowd around the cross disperses before Jesus cries out to Elohim, but in the Bible the crowd debates the meaning of what Jesus is saying.

    So IMO, the quote attributed to the Pope about the movie, "It is as it was," is problematic because it presumes we know with certainty exactly how it was in the first place.

    I personally did not care for the satanic figure who hovered over many of the scenes, though I know what Mel was trying to do dramatically with it. There are a lot of other invented sequences, a necessity since a movie made strictly according to the Gospels' narrative would be pretty short. Hence, this movie is not a documentary of any kind. It is Mel Gibson's imaginative retelling of the passion story.

    The movie ends with a very brief resurrection scene. While I found the scene very powerful, it is not biblical. So as not to ruin its impact for you, I'll not describe it here. It is a wonderfully imaginative scene, but strays from the book.

  • The flogging scene was overdone and dramatically overshadows even the crucifixion. Three Gospels say Jesus was flogged but provide no details. In the movie, Jesus' beating begins with rods, severe enough in themselves, but they are discarded at a count of 32. Then the Roman flagellum is used, which shreds his flesh. However, the Gospels don't agree on the context of the flogging. If the flogging was done after Jesus was condemned by Pilate, then using the flagellum would have been expected, because the Romans generally wanted prisoners to die quickly on the cross. The scourging alone would half kill a man.

    But if a man was not condemned, just sentenced to be punished, a flagellum would not have been used because it was potentially lethal itself. Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus was flogged before being sentenced to die, but John says he was condemned after being flogged. Gibson's movie goes along with John, but he has to account for the discrepancy of the Gospels. Hence, when the soldiers see that Jesus isn't properly subdued by the rods, they turn to the flagellum. The centurion enters and halts the flogging precisely because Jesus was not condemned. By then, however, Jesus has been flogged to a bloody rag of a human being.

    Luke says, though, that Pilate said he would have Jesus flogged, but the crowd insisted he be crucified. So Pilate caved and sent him straight to die without being flogged.

    A longstanding Christian tradition says Jesus received 39 lashes. The precision of the figure springs from the fact that Jewish law (Deut. 25:3) forbade more than 40 lashes; by stopping the count at 39, the possibility of a missed lash was accounted for. But Jesus was flogged by the Romans, not the Jews. Roman law had no count limit. We do not really know how many lashes Jesus really received; in the movie it is close to 100.

  • David Whidden wrote that this movie badly needs a prequel. I somewhat agree. It does appear to me that Mel presumed that viewers would know Jesus' story before the point his movie begins. Yet this assumption is not justified, I think. Huge numbers of Americans do not.

    What viewers never discover within the movie is just why some Jews were so enraged by Jesus as to call for his death at Roman hands, apart from Jesus claiming he is the son of God - but this happens after he is arrested, not before. Clearly, the Sanhedrin (most of it, anyway) believes he has committed blasphemy, but crucifixion for that? Even Pilate rolls his eyes at that one.

    In fact, Jesus had a substantial record of challenging the Jewish power structure of the day; he called some Pharisees, a socially powerful laity group, children of hell one day, certainly not something that would make them feel kindly toward him. Jesus drew large crowds as well; Pilate had sent cavalry to ride into other leaders' crowds with swords swinging. The details of all that are more than I want to go into in this post, but there is reason to believe there was a fear on the part of the high priest and others that Pilate would see Jesus as an insurgent leader and falsely think he was sponsored by the hierarchy. They seemed to fear that Pilate's well-known bloodthirstiness would fall upon them and the people because of Jesus. (John's Gospel is clear that a large number of ordinary Jewish people, not just the hierarchy, were hostile to Jesus because he claimed divine identity. Luke 4:18-29 relates that even the people of his own synagogue tried to throw him off a cliff - because he promised God's blessings not only for Jews but equally for Gentiles.)

    Again, though, none of this presents in the movie, and I believe that lack is a major shortcoming. Just why do they want Jesus dead? We aren't really told. (Pilate kills him just to placate the Sanhedrin.)

    Remember, though, that Gibson is emphasizing not the historical explanation for Jesus' death but a theological one. Jesus' death is presented more as a self-sacrifice than a murder. He is undergoing his passion deliberately. Arising from the ground along the road to Golgotha he tells Mary, "Behold, I am making all things new." However, this saying of Jesus comes from Revelation 21:5, not the Gospels, and refers to the coming again of Christ into the world. This isn't a criticism per se, just a clue that the historical question is not of primary interest to Gibson. A theological interpretation of Christ's suffering and death is.
  • I found the use of flashbacks very effective. Several times in his suffering, a glimpse of something reminds Jesus of an event in his ministry. A Roman sandal, for example, takes him back in memory to his foot washing of his disciples recorded in John's Gospel. Some of the flashbacks are of Jesus' moral teachings, such as to love one's enemies, not just friends. Others are of his teaching about himself. I thought the sequencing and selection of the flashback scenes were exquisitely well done; they deeply moved me.

  • About the violence: apart from the overdone scourging, there are scenes where Jesus is beaten by Temple police en route to the Sanhedrin, they even throw him off a bridge and Jesus is painfully stopped just short of the ground by his chains. Neither the blows nor the fall are biblical, although it's believable that his captors struck him since Jesus' disciple Peter had offered armed resistance. But the bridge toss isn't credbile at all and serves no purpose other than to bring Jesus face to face with a disciple hiding under the bridge. What's the point? None. Gratuitous violent scene? Unquestionably.

    Jesus is struck and spat upon at the Sanhedrin hearing. That's biblical. Roman soldiers strucks and whipped him along the Via Dolorosa, en route to die. Not specifically biblical but completely credible. These blows are not very graphic. The crucifixion is graphic and indeed illustrates why even Roman political leaders worked for decades to abolish the practice. Said Seneca,
    Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man by found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly wounds on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross (Dialogue 3:2.2).
    What the movie does not show, though, is just why crucifixion was so, well, excruciating. Painful with the nails and all, no doubt, but why were even its ancient advocates agreed it was the worst death a person could suffer?
    The crucified person could not exhale properly and this eventually would lead to painful muscle cramps. Furthermore, adequate exhaling required the crucified to lift his body by pushing up on the feet and rotating his elbows. This, of course, resulted in searing pain in both feet and hands. ... On the cross every breath would be an agonizing affair and finally in combination with exhaustion would lead to asphyxia. This also explains why the legs of the crucified were often broken, as was the case with the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus (John 19:31-33;). ... Without the support of their legs, the crucified were unable to raise up their bodies, which in turn made it impossible for them to exhale properly thus greatly speeding up death, often within minutes. All of this means that the seven sayings of Jesus were uttered with great difficulty, for speaking takes place during exhalation. [link]
    There can be no question that hanging on the cross was the greatest suffering Jesus endured, yet the movie mostly glosses over his cross agony. Yet, as Gibson has said, unblinkingly showing Jesus' suffering is a major dramatic intention of the movie.

    Roger Ebert says that the movie is the most violent film he has ever seen. I simply don't see how. Saving Private Ryan was by far more violent and more graphically, revoltingly violent in my view; Ryan had a far more powerful effect on me emotionally than The Passion. In fact, I think Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) was considerably more violent. Other commentators have mentioned last year's Kill Bill as more gratuitously violent than The Passion, but I have not seen it.

  • Where does the movie leave me? One day in class, Dr. Bond told of a classmate in her undergraduate days who had never been to church, never read the Bible. She loaned him a Bible and advised him to start with the Gospel of Mark, it being the shortest and simplest to read. She said that he told her later that he opened Mark not long before bedtime and became so engrossed in it that he couldn't put it down. He read through the passion with increasing dismay at what was happening to Jesus.

    When he read of Jesus' death on the cross, he said he was too shocked to continue. He put the book down and went to bed.

    But, he said, he discovered the story did not end there. The next morning he learned that death did not conquer Christ.

    Tonight, as the credits rolled (we stayed until they ended) I was filled with a deep sadness - indeed, shame - at the profound deficiency of my own discipleship. Gibson has said that the movie's answer to the question, "Who killed Jesus?" is, "We all did." That is not what I felt at the end. Instead, I felt a deep sense of having betrayed the great trust given me by Christ, a enormous awareness of my own sin and sinfulness and my total reliance on God's gracious mercy.
    Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
    that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
    By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
    O most afflicted!

    Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
    Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
    'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
    I crucified thee.

    Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
    the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
    For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
    God interceded.

    For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
    thy mortal sorrow, and thy life's oblation;
    thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
    for my salvation.

    Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
    I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
    think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
    not my deserving.
    "Ah, Holy Jesus," Johann Heerman, 1630

    Update: I meant to include this little episode: As my son and I entered the theater, we met a classmate of his coming out. She had just seen the movie. She told my son that she had read the Gospels but did consider herself a Christian. But she said the movie made her understand for the first time what Jesus' story meant.

    Update: The United Methodist Church's General Board of Discipleship has published a special web site devoted to issues related to The Passion of the Christ. The GBOD's site is called, "The Passion - Opportunities for Discipleship." A review published by the UMC's communications agency is here.