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My Thoughts of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ

I penciled down some thoughts when I first saw the movie. Now that it's out on DVD, I thought I'd put them down here:

1. This was not nearly as bloody as the press had been making it out to be. In particular, the scourging scene--which I had been lead to believe was nothing but a 10 minute blood bath--was full of flash backs, focuses on Mary, and whippings focusing more on the guards and their laughing faces than on Jesus. Of course a few of the strokes were brutal and the violence is intense. But I had heard lines like "the goriest movie ever" which are quite erroneous.

2. It was a well done film. Very well done given the limitations of a one-day time period and a set (for the most part) dialogue. The acting, music, and settings were very well done, though I thought Barabbas was over-the-top.

3. Historical accuracy. Hoping I do not start a firestorm of controversy here, Mel chose to follow his Catholicism instead of what is historically likely on a number of points. The nails in the hand, Jesus carrying the full-cross, Pilate speaking in Latin, the sympathy of Pilate's wife to Jesus, are the most obvious examples. On the other hand, the Aramaic was very effective and made me feel closer to the Narrative, not more estranged. I could have done without any subtitles, though I understand why Gibson added them. The sheer brutality of the Roman and Jewish guards seemed very likely.

4. Biblical accuracy. Bearing in mind that this was not a rendition of the Gospels, but a dramatization of the Gospel events, I'd say Mel's respect for the Gospels texts is quite apparent. I tend to prefer renditions that follow one Gospel, such as the one rendering Luke. Trying to reconcile the portraits painted by all four gospels may actually work against the message. Mel avoided trying to make this a unity and slavishly following all of them. I thought he did well dramatizing the Narrative.

5. Theological issues. This movie is very Catholic. I understand much of the detail is based on the visions attributed to Anne Emmerich, a Catholic nun of the 1700s. There is some issue as to whether the person who published her visions limited himself to her own version of them. This is problematic for me theologically, as I place no value in the recorded visions (which include some rather racist statements towards blacks and some questionable events related to the Passion). On the other hand, when viewed as a source for dramatization I can enjoy the film without passing judgment on the reality of very action based on Sister Emmerich's vision (such as Jesus falling of the bridge and Mary's attire). On a whole it added to the film, though I thought Mel may have gone a little to far out of his way depicting the 13 stages of the cross. Once again though, understanding that the Stations have reached a high level of acceptance among Catholics, I can respect Mel's desire to depict them and hope that my Catholic brothers and sisters found them encouraging.

6. Anti-Semitism. It appeared to me that from the beginning attacks on Mel's film as anti-Semitic were actually attacks on the Gospels as anti-Semitic. I had heard from a few Jewish commentators that this was not so because Mel's movies went beyond the Gospels to cast Jews negatively. I found these charges to be baseless. In fact, I called into the Al Rantel show to correct a "Jewish Historians" claim that what the gospels wrote about Pilate was contradicted by what King Herod wrote about Pilate. Of course, we have no surviving writings of King Herod about what he thought of Pilate or anything else. Admittedly, this was an extreme example, but there were several other misplaced accusations against The Passion.

The Sanhedrin -- the Jewish governing body -- is depicted negatively. The Passion gives us little insight into their motivations. They seem stern and resolute that Jesus must die. But why? The Passion does not make them pettily jealous of Jesus. Or appear to be concerned about losing their own positions of power over the people. For all we know they may really be convinced he was a blasphemer and deserved to die. Although some Sanhedrin members are shown soliciting false testimony, are we really so naive to think that such corruption was beyond them merely because of their station? Moreover, two members of the Sanhedrin are forcibly removed after vocally sticking up for Jesus.

I had heard that Pilate was portrayed as a very sympathetic figure who did not want to execute an innocent man but was forced into it. I found this characterization misleading. There is a glimmer of potential sympathy from Pilate, and certainly a lack of personal animus towards Jesus. But it is Pilate's wife who has a conscience, not Pilate himself. The Passion makes it clear that Pilate's decisions will be guided solely by that old Roman directive of keeping the peace. At one point he tells his wife that if he does not kill Jesus Caiphas "will" start a riot and that if he does kill Jesus then his followers "may" start a riot. Given the choice of will versus might, Pilate goes with might, only after seeing Caiphas' followers threatening to start a riot. In fact, Pilate is the one who is truly condemned because he orders the execution of a man in whom he could find no fault. The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, is at least given the benefit of thinking that Jesus has done something deserving of death.

The Jews. Many Jews are shown demanding Jesus' death and taunting him on the way to Golgotha. But there were also many Jews shown greatly saddened by what was happening and trying to help Jesus. Every Jew we get to meet close up is very sympathetic to Jesus and shown in a good-light. Peter, though of course he denied Jesus. John is steadfast in helping the Marys. The Marys are without a doubt two of the most sympathetic characters in the movie. Simon, who carries Jesus' cross starts off trying to remain aloof, but is soon consumed with compassion for Jesus and a very real desire to help ease his burden. The woman who bravely sidesteps the Roman guards to give Jesus a drink and wipe his face is yet another sympathetic Jew. Jesus himself is a Jew and the protagonist of the film. The Temple Guard whose ear Jesus heals is also shown to be in awe of Jesus. Compared to the shouting mob scenes and the indistinguishable Sanhedrin members, the most memorable Jews from the film are all heroes, or sympathetically disposed towards Jesus. Notably, the only person I remember even being called a "Jew" was Simon--so described by a Roman soldier while carrying Jesus' cross.

The Romans. The Roman soldiers who beat and crucify Jesus are without a doubt the most vile humans depicted in the movie. They deliver their punishment with much enjoyment and amusement. Their evil exceeds anything any Jew is shown as doing throughout the movie. Two Romans are eventually shown to be sympathetic to Jesus. One of the guards who accompanies Jesus while he carries the cross is somehow touched by the Messiah. He allows Mary to the foot of the cross at the end. Also, Pilate's right hand man seems to be touched by Jesus at the very end, though this is not entirely clear. The rest of the rabble flees in fear as the sun goes dark and the ground shakes.

A final note about Passion Plays. I've heard it argued that though the gospels as a whole may not be anti-Semitic, the re-enacting of only the Passion of Christ is problematic because Passion Plays were used to rouse anti-Semitism during the dark ages. This is true to an extent. But a few comments are in order. The passion plays of ancient times were very different than Gibson's film. The Jews in the ancient passion plays were caricatures of the Jews of the times. They dressed like Jews in those times, rather than in Jesus' time. Their mannerisms were those thought to be Jewish in those times, rather than in Jesus' time. Their language was that of those times, rather than of Jesus' time. Not so with Mel's movie. It so clearly places these events in their historical context that no reasonable person would take the narrative as suggesting any collective guilt for Jews then, much less for now. But perhaps even more important is that Christian-Jewish relations are completely different. Today, it is the conservative Christians who are friends to Israel and Jews. To the extent there are echos of previous anti-Semitism, it resides on the left side of the political spectrum.

It is violent. It is not anti-Semitic. It is Catholic. It is also worthwhile.

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