Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Anything Goes II: Thoughts on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

Check out my remarks in a February post called "Pre-Passion Musings." This post also contains links to some other very good reviews of the film.

I realize I'm late in the game with this, especially now that both Easter and "Low Sunday" have come and gone (Low Sunday is the joking term coined by pastors to describe the dismally low church attendance the Sunday following Easter), but since I managed to see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" this past Sunday, I thought I'd kick some "Passion"-related issues around a bit. I want to divide this essay into several sections:

1. Is "The Passion" Antisemitic?
2. Some Other Political & Cultural Considerations
3. Catholic Elements
4. Cinematic Elements
5. Dramatic Elements
6. My Own Thoughts and Feelings During the Film


This has been a hot-button issue since at least last year, and people who hadn't even seen the film were already convinced they knew the answer to the question posed above. I can't say I blame them: if you assume that Gibson is trying to offer his vision of the gospel account of Jesus' suffering and death, then you realize right away that the gospels themselves don't paint the most flattering picture of the Jews of Jesus' time.

Keep in mind a crucial point of New Testament hermeneutics, though: people do not "do theology" based on the gospels, as if the gospels were nothing more than raw, neutral data. No-- the gospels are themselves theology. This means that, as you read the gospel accounts, you would do well to make yourself aware of the various agendas of the gospel writers, each of whom seems to have a different angle on who this man Jesus, also called Christ, was.

The gospel accounts are not the first writings of the New Testament (NT). Chronologically speaking, that honor goes to the writings of Paul, probably from the late 40s to the early or mid-50s of the first century. The gospels were written and redacted several decades after Jesus' death; it's questionable (though not impossible) that any of the gospel writers would have been present to witness any of the events they describe. And since Jesus himself left no physical evidence of his existence-- we have none of his hair, clothing, or bones-- there has arisen a school of thought that aggressively questions whether Jesus even existed. At present, this school is only a minority in academe, but its argument against Jesus' existence is based on the simple lack of data outside the NT accounts (and a few textual hints from Josephus and Tacitus). All of this means we need to approach the scriptures with what scholars term "a hermeneutic of suspicion."

Jesus is often portrayed in the gospels as debating with legalistic Jews, generally the Pharisees. The phrase "the Jews"-- hoi ioudaioi in Greek-- appears most notably in the gospel of John, where it's often used pejoratively and in a polemical manner. Certainly passages like these have been used to forward an antisemitic, anti-Jewish agenda throughout Christianity's history. I think that's hard to deny.

At the same time, however, modern scholarship reveals that many of these scriptures have been taken very much out of context. Hoi ioudaioi, for example, might not be a brute, general reference to all Jews. It may, in fact, have been a polemical reference to a specific set of Jews in competition with the Johannine Circle. Or it might have signified something else. Based on what we now know, the phrase's meaning isn't as clear as was once thought.

But antisemitism is, arguably, wired into a theologically supersessionist viewpoint. Supersessionism, as the word is used in academic circles, is the idea that a later revelation trumps an earlier revelation. There are plenty of Christian scriptures that support a supersessionist stance, and it's hard to deny that a supersessionist looks upon the members of the old-school faith with a certain measure of pity or concern or condescension: old-school adherents are, after all, mistaken to remain in the old school!

Islam has come along and given Christianity a taste of its own medicine by declaring Muhammad to be the Seal of the Prophets, i.e., that prophet beyond whom no other prophet can come. The Koran is therefore God's final and definitive revelation. This is just as supersessionistic as the Christian revelation, and causes just as many interreligious problems.

Which brings us to the sociocultural issues associated with the charge of antisemitism. The not-unreasonable fear of many Jews has been that Gibson's film will stir up anti-Jewish feeling. My own reaction to this fear is complex. On the one hand, I think it's a justified fear. Jews have been, throughout their history, a persecuted minority, and in historical terms it's only recently that Jews have enjoyed a great measure of comfort and prosperity in America, without concomitant massive oppression (as was-- and is-- the case in Europe, for example). A buddy of mine reports that, in the States, there was indeed a rise in anti-Jewish activity after Gibson's film was released. This is unfortunate, and it confirms that Jews have reason to be nervous when a film like "The Passion" makes an appearance.

On the other hand, I think it's highly unlikely that we'll be seeing mass lynchings of Jews in the States as a result of this one film. Nor will we be seeing monthly reports of synagogues being firebombed, as seems to happen in France every so often, especially recently. The problem Mel Gibson's film poses is more significant when you step outside the United States and observe Muslim reactions in predominantly Muslim countries.

It's doubtful that Gibson's film will cause antisemitism. It's more likely, as these Muslim countries are proving, that the film will awaken or intensify antisemitic feelings.

Apparently, Muslims are gobbling Gibson's film up. They're watching it in droves, often through bootlegged copies on DVD, tape, or video CD. The movie also offers them a taboo thrill: the visual portrayal of the greatest Christian prophet, something that Muslims are generally not allowed to do with Muhammad (there are exceptions: I've seen some old Muslim artwork that does depict Muhammad, including his face). The Muslim excitement that has greeted Gibson's film is, to me, deeply unsettling for what it bodes for Muslim-Jewish relations. Muslims don't see Jesus as the greatest prophet, but Jesus (called Isa in the Koran) is mentioned with greater frequency than Muhammad in their holy scripture, and also figures prominently in Muslim cosmology: Muslims, believe it or not, subscribe to a version of the Second Coming.

Another antisemitism critique stems from the portrayal of the Jews in Gibson's film. I think there's some evidence for this: the Jews shown in crowds aren't flatteringly portrayed, and given the scriptural accounts on which "The Passion" is partially based, the Temple priests from Caiaphas on down simply can't be portrayed sympathetically. Because Gibson's art is rooted in a biblical story, it's difficult to separate the issues of Gibson's and the scriptures' antisemitism. You're on your own with this. If you're a Christian, you might feel inclined to argue that the movie isn't antisemitic at all. From the Jewish standpoint, that argument is unsurprising: of course a Christian will feel that way!

[NB: The Christians of a few centuries ago probably would have yawned at charges of antisemitism. "Yeah, so what?" Some Christians today would likely react that way to such a charge.]

My own view on the antisemitism question, then, is that the movie, in part because of the scriptures that inspired it, contains elements that are antisemitic. But the question is complicated by the fact that, as a reviewer at noted, the antisemitism almost certainly wasn't Gibson's primary focus-- it's more a function of the biblical narrative than anything else. To accuse the film of antisemitism is to bring the discussion back to the scriptural account (and the mystic AC Emmerich's journal, which I haven't read, upon which Gibson is said to have based his version of the Passion narrative).

When scripture itself is filled with prejudices and exclusivistic truth claims, what do you do? I doubt there can be any settlement of such deep issues as the fundamental rightness or wrongness of scripture and scriptural claims. The best we can do is stay engaged, stay in dialogue, and try to work these things out together, even when no clear end or goal is in sight.


So the movie is doing decent business, even after Easter, and is secretly beloved of many Muslims, who probably see it as further evidence against perfidious Jewry. One of the more interesting consequences of Gibson's film is Hollywood's realization that, yes, religious conservative sensibilities are a potential gold mine. Gibson says he's thinking of making more religious films (again with physical violence as a running motif... give the man credit for knowing-- and not flinching from-- what the people want). Quite a few items from the making of "The Passion" have acquired a chintzy sacredness of their own as people fight over, for example, the nails to "Jesus' cross." Gibson and his Icon Productions are making money from "Passion" baseball caps and other merchandising. "Passion" is plugged firmly into the Hollywood machine. It's proof once again that God and mammon have always walked hand-in-hand in the human consciousness, no matter how hard the saints have preached against such a union.

I'm not necessarily looking forward to a new wave of biblical movies, but at the same time, I don't think that unabashedly religious films are inherently evil. South Korea, for example, has produced some amazing Buddhist films: the most notable two being 1989's "Why Did Bodhidharma Go East?" (English title may vary) and the recent "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring." Why shouldn't films whose theme is monotheism be produced with the same alacrity?

Even in films that aren't explicitly religious, religious tropes inform the plot and the visuals. The most obvious examples come from science fiction-- films like the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies. The American people are, on the whole, very religious in outlook. When you couple the American religious temperament with Hollywood's new desire for more fiscal-religious-filmic fusion, you've got the recipe for more God films in our near future. At a guess, I'd say the Left Behind series will be made into a TV miniseries.

Some questions revolve around Mel Gibson and his motivations in making "Passion." Having seen the film, I have no doubt that Gibson felt himself divinely inspired. A lot of care and sincerity went into this project; it's a well-made movie, and Gibson wants you to take it (i.e., the story the movie brings you) seriously. But Gibson's angels have had to make room for his money-imps. Gibson is as much an acolyte of Hollywood as he is of his splinter-group Catholicism. He put his career and reputation on the line in making this film (it probably didn't help him for people to discover what a nutcase his father Hutton is), but the controversy certainly padded his pocket, and I'm sure he knew it would.


I thought about leaving this section for last, since I relish discussions about movie symbolism, but to hell with it. "The Passion of the Christ" is a very, very Catholic movie. It helps to be Catholic to understand what you're seeing, especially as relates to Gibson's so-called obsession with gore and violence. Here's what I wrote in an earlier post (with very slight editing):

My understanding of Catholic sacramentality is that it is very much the opposite of what you find in Christian Science or Jehovah's Witnesses: for Catholics, sacramental reality implies the nonduality of the divine and the material. This is what makes such phenomena as transubstantiation plausible. There is no dichotomy. There's no clear distinction between spirit and flesh; earthly agony isn't merely an analogue for spiritual agony: it is spiritual agony! Gibson's focus on gore will be understood by Catholics in this sense. Non-Christians might look at it and see only an "obsession with violence."

I'm not in total disagreement with the Catholic idea (which, BTW, does have some scriptural justification), if for no other reason than that it seems odd to posit "supernature." Catholic sacramentality is ancient and earthy and, in a real way, brutal: to participate in the eucharist is to participate in more than a merely "symbolic" feast: that is the blood of Christ; that is the body. Sacramental reality affects the Catholic notion of "symbol" as a result: a symbol, for Catholics, participates fully in the event; it's not merely a sign pointing elsewhere or standing in for something. To take part in the liturgy is to enter an organic, divine/material/unitary reality.

I don't know whether any of that makes sense; I hope it does, because it makes a lot of things clearer: for example, the whole deal about carrying around rotten "holy relics"-- body parts of saints, usually things like bone or hair. Even for Protestants, it's a bit weird to think of the spiritual as tangible, but for devout Catholics, that's not the case. Those relics have meaning because the divine and material realms are unified within them.

So when you look at gore & suffering & all the rest, and you realize it's a Catholic filmmaker's vision of what happened to Jesus, it becomes clear that Gibson's vision does make sense from a certain point of view-- that of Catholic sacramentality.

Symbol and sacrament are vitally important concepts in Catholicism. Whereas we mainstream Protestants (I'm a Presbyterian of the PCUSA) might get away with considering symbols and sacraments to be merely representational-- and I'm not saying all mainstream Protestants do think this way-- that's not possible for Catholics. Christ's Passion isn't merely some fusion of divine and human: a fusion implies two formerly separate elements! In the Catholic view, the sacramental reality is a fundamental unity, so there's nothing to fuse. How would a Catholic view the biblical moment (also depicted in the film) where Jesus' side is lanced, and blood and water come pouring out? It's a powerful affirmation of the blood of sacrifice and redemption, and the life-giving water of baptism (itself a ritual traceable to proto-Hebraic times).

But the film's Catholicity rests on more than the symbol/sacrament tropes. Do you know your Stations of the Cross? This is a series of scenes depicting the Easter event. For centuries, there were only fourteen Stations; as of a couple years ago, a fifteenth Station, Resurrection, was added (do a Google search on "fifteenth Station of the Cross").

Here are the Stations:

1. Christ condemned to death;
2. the cross is laid upon him;
3. His first fall;
4. He meets His Blessed Mother;
5. Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross;
6. Christ's face is wiped by Veronica;
7. His second fall;
8. He meets the women of Jerusalem;
9. His third fall;
10. He is stripped of His garments;
11. His crucifixion;
12. His death on the cross;
13. His body is taken down from the cross; and
14. laid in the tomb.
[15. Resurrection. --recently added]

You can see that a good part of the above sequence is devoted to Jesus falling. The Stations depict him falling three times. In the movie, I think Jesus fell six times, and I wasn't sure what Gibson was up to. Six is a multiple of three; it's quite possible Gibson was trying to say something by staging exactly twice the traditional number of falls (there were originally fourteen Stations, 2 x 7). But whether or not Gibson was having problems with numerology, he, like the above Stations, made sure to highlight the moments when Jesus fell. Each fall in "Passion" is prolonged in slo-mo.

The movie follows the Stations faithfully. Everything you see listed above happens, step by painful step, in the film. The film itself can be seen as Gibson's way of "doing" the Stations of the Cross, his cinematic act of Catholic devotion.

Finally, I'll note that the movie's Catholicity is also evident in its Mariology (or, as some less charitable Protestants say, Mariolatry). In my opinion, some of the movie's most touching scenes were those between Jesus and his mother, because any grown child can recognize the complex emotions that pass between them. Various scenes portray this very clearly:

1. When Jesus is initially led away and chained in a dungeon, we see Mary walking on the stone floor above him until she somehow finds the exact spot where Jesus is, directly below her. She drops into a prone position and puts her ear to the stone floor, listening for signs of her son suffering below.

2. A flashback shows Jesus, still a carpenter and not yet charged with his holy mission to spread the news of the Kingdom of God, finishing a table. Mary proclaims the table too tall; Jesus jokes that he'll just build tall chairs to go with the table. Mary asks Jesus if he's hungry; he says yes, and she orders him to wash his hands. As she pours out the water, Jesus playfully splashes her with it, then runs inside for dinner.

3. During one of Jesus' falling moments while bearing his cross to Golgotha, there's a flashback to when Jesus was a little child, running and falling. Mary runs over to dust him off and console him.

4. Perhaps the most significant moment of all is Mary's forlorn gaze at us, the viewers, when Jesus lies dead in her arms. It's a Pieta in which the "fourth wall" of the theater is broken: Mary steps outside the bounds of the movie to judge us, all of us, for our complicity in Jesus' death. We sat and watched, and did nothing. Only Saint Mary, the Blessed Virgin, could possibly sit in judgement of the world like that.

I have to apologize to all you non-Catholic viewers out there, but unless you're somewhat familiar with Catholic theology (and I can't say I have more than a superficial grasp of it), you're probably not going to understand Gibson's movie. This movie is heavily, heavily Catholic. Protestants might come away feeling somehow enriched or cleansed by the experience, but my bet is that most will miss the Catholic tropes that give this film its heart and brain and soul.


As I did in my long-ass review of "The Matrix Revolutions," I want to devote some space to a discussion of the cinematic elements of "Passion."

There was a lot that was baroque about Gibson's film. The music struck me as wildly over-the-top at times. Much of it sounded like a bad rehash of the amazing soundtrack Peter Gabriel provided for Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Gabriel's CD was titled "Passion"). I wasn't happy with this aspect of the film.

Other sound effects were just as heavy-handed as the music, and in many cases seemed to be aimed at startling the viewers. An early example is the loud sound of Jesus crushing the head of a satanic serpent in the garden of Gethsemane (more on this later; the movie begins with the Gethsemane scene, and Jesus is in prayer). We all jumped in our seats, even though most of us probably knew what was coming. Later in that same scene, after Judas has betrayed Jesus and is hiding under a bridge, Judas is visited by a feral demon that leaps out of the bridge's stone and zips off into the darkness. This too, is accompanied by sound effects whose purpose is mainly to make us jump. I didn't appreciate these attempts at turning certain scenes into miniature horror movies.

CGI was another issue. The problem with CGI is that, once you know where to look for it, you see it everywhere and find it hard to suspend disbelief. Jesus' pupils dilate at death; I remember seeing the same effect while watching another Gibson flick, "We Were Soldiers." Yes, this post-mortem dilation is anatomically correct, but it's weirdly distracting. Jesus' wounds as he's being flayed are another CGI moment, albeit a painful one. The first raindrop of the storm that visits Golgotha when Jesus dies is another such moment. The subterranean Hell in which Satan writhes and thrashes is a bit too reminiscent of what we see in movies like "Spawn" or the caverns in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." (Strangely, Gibson's vision of Hell contained no flames, from what I saw of it.)

Gibson also has a childish affinity for slo-mo camera work, something I've never appreciated because (1) I think he overuses it, and (2) he uses it at inappropriate moments. This was true in "Braveheart," which featured far too many Mel Gibson beauty shots for my taste (I imagine you ladies would beg to differ). While I understand why Gibson chose to focus so intimately on Jesus' suffering, I don't think Gibson needed slo-mo to make his point. Slo-mo can be cool and even subtle when used the right way, but slo-mo in a didactic context is about as subtle as a cudgel.

Hats off to Gibson for trying to evoke the period, though: the sets, the costumes, the cinematography-- they all form a magnificent whole. The same goes for the actors, who speak their lines in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. Many scholars believe Jesus would have known several languages given the amount of trade that probably passed through and around the Galilee region. In Jesus' case, Latin is a toss-up, but he's likely to have known koine Greek, the Greek spoken by traders, along with vernacular Aramaic and the liturgical Hebrew that would have been his birthright. Not all the actors appeared comfortable with foreign languages, but I thought Jim Caviezel did a great job with one of the most difficult dramatic roles for anyone, that of Jesus. His Jesus is gentle, compassionate, and evokes sympathy. Caviezel's Jesus is also a strong rebuttal against the charge of filmic antisemitism because Gibson, whatever his flaws, is careful to remind us that Jesus was Jewish-- a point often overlooked by Christians through the ages.

It was a nice-- if strange-- touch to have Jesus speak in Latin with Pilate when they were alone. I didn't catch it from the Korean subtitles, but I heard Pilate ask Jesus, "Quid est veritas?" What is truth? And I think I understood the Latin when Jesus said his reign wasn't earthly.


What about that Satan figure, eh? And how about that lovely, hairy Satan-baby? Satan-baby makes an appearance during Jesus' scourging; the same midget who plays the baby is seen earlier in the movie as a demon-child tormenting Judas. In that scene, I was strongly reminded of Peter Jackson's vision of Smeagol.

Satan's presence at this point in the gospel narrative is completely unscriptural; I have to assume Satan was added in either for dramatic effect, or because Satan figured in the visions of the mystic AC Emmerich. In the gospels, Satan's big moment is when he visits Jesus in the wilderness to tempt him.

But Satan makes dramatic sense in this film, whatever the theological reasons might be for his/her presence. Gibson's Satan is quiet, menacing, and androgynous. This Satan is usually depicted standing in the background, which is reminiscent of where you'd find spiritual powers placed in some medieval morality plays. Did anyone see the "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel? Remember the blonde Cylon in the tight/evil/sexy red dress who keeps appearing to Baltar? It's the same effect.

You realize early on that this figure is Satan and not someone else: s/he appears at the very beginning of the film, a sneering witness to Jesus' agonized moments of prayer. A maggot crawls out of one of the Devil's nostrils, then back in. Satan's evil is associated with death, physical and spiritual; with decay, corruption, and filth. As Jesus is brought to his knees by the force of his dilemma, Satan smells victory and releases a snake from his/her robes, which crawls toward Jesus. But Jesus finds himself, and with firm resolve, smashes the snake with his heel.

Quick theological aside: Jesus, like the Buddha, has many names and titles given to him by scripture and tradition. The one most relevant here-- and this is why Satan's presence makes dramatic sense for the movie-- is Second Adam. Jesus is undoing the primordial damage done by Adam in the Fall when he accepted Eve's apple. Here, in Mel Gibson's Gethsemane, we see traditional theology unconventionally realized: Jesus is in a garden just as Adam was; Jesus encounters a serpent just as Eve did-- but, unlike Adam, who succumbs to temptation, Jesus emerges from the encounter victorious. Adam and Jesus represent open and closed parentheses bracketing humanity's low state as unredeemed creatures.

Satan plus Satan-baby are an obvious counterpoint to Mary and Child (even though the movie never shows us the Christ-child). There's a moment when Jesus, bearing his cross, is being tracked by Mary, who's following his progress along the Via Dolorosa. Mary looks across the crowd and sees Satan. A staring contest between two mothers begins. Gibson leaves no doubt that the cosmos is at stake.

Gibson's Judas is a downright pitiful figure, an image suggested by the scriptures. The movie symbolizes this by portraying him as hounded by demons in various forms: the frightening CGI demon which we see for a split second under the stone bridge, then the demon-children who pursue Judas to the tree from which he hangs himself.

The scriptures contain apparently contradictory accounts of what happened to Judas. Most people are familiar with the gospel narrative, in which a remorseful Judas hangs himself (Matt. 27:5). But did you know that, in the first chapter of the book of Acts (written by the same person/people who wrote Luke), Judas is said to have fallen headlong into a field, "and... he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out" (Acts 1:15-20)?

So: did Judas hang himself or did he explode?

Donald Sensing stitches the passages together to suggest that Judas hanged himself, but that the tree branch snapped and Judas "fell headlong" into the field and splattered. I think Sensing's interpretation is supported by other theologians, but the scriptural evidence is by no means conclusive. Personally, I veer toward the "contradiction/inconsistency" school of thought on this.

Explosion or not, Judas is one of those characters in the gospel drama who gets my sympathy and makes me think about questions of fate and freedom. God's plan, if you believe in such a thing, seems to have included evil. Jesus can't go to the cross without other people helping him to set events in motion.

As for Sensing and his stitching together of biblical passages... this is a tried-and-true narrative technique, and Gibson does it as well. Many religious dramas conflate scriptural events. If you've ever watched a church Christmas pageant, in which both wise men and shepherds appear and surround the manger of the baby Jesus, you've seen a fusion of the birth narrative from Luke (shepherds) with the birth narrative from Matthew (wise men). Gibson's handling of the moment of Jesus' death tosses the gospel of Mark completely aside in favor of a combination of Luke and John.

Luke 23:44-46--

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.

John 19:28-30--

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Gibson does the John moment first: Jesus says "It is finished," and bows his head. Then Jesus lifts his head up and says to the skies, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." Jesus dies with his head unbowed, his eyes open (pupils dilating, as noted before).

Anyone who wants to portray the crucifixion dramatically is stuck with l'embarras du choix: Each gospel has a different take on Jesus' final moments. Mark's account is the most wrenching: Jesus' final utterance is a scream.

Mark 15:33-38

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o'clock Jesus cried, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

[Matthew offers an account similar to Mark's, but with the addition of the graves being opened, and the dead ("saints") coming to life and preaching.]

I think Gibson made decent dramatic choices, here, in how to portray Jesus' final moments. I suppose some might argue that picking and choosing creates a distortion of the various gospel accounts. There's truth in that claim, but remember that we all interpret while we read. No one is exempt from the charge of picking and choosing: some simply choose to recognize that they do it, while others refuse to be so honest.

I already covered the Catholic reasons underlying Gibson's choice to portray Jesus' suffering as graphically as he did. If you're not a Catholic, those reasons will probably be meaningless to you (I encourage Catholic readers to write in with corrections or elaborations; I'm no expert in sacramental theology). I don't agree with Andrew Sullivan's repulsed reaction to Jesus' torture. To me, it wasn't "pornographic" as Sullivan uses the word. Much of the Korean audience I was with was in tears, men and women alike. They weren't morbidly fascinated by every gouge and stripe on Jesus' tortured body. For myself, maybe I wasn't as repulsed as Sullivan because I'm a gross dude with a high tolerance for cinematic gore. Who knows?

Nevertheless, one dramatic element was simply too much: the eye-pecking scene, in which a crow lands on the cross of the unrepentant criminal after he's spouted his invective against Jesus, and pecks one of his his eyes out. The scene involved more of those heavy-duty sound effects and a good deal of blood spatter. I had to wonder whether Korean censors cut out a quick glimpse of the eye actually being removed; as it stood, the scene showed a lot of pecking and blood-spurting action, but no actual eyeball. Can any "Passion" viewers in the States confirm whether or not an eyeball made an appearance on American screens? Hey, don't look at me like I'm weird. I'm just curious, is all.

Gibson made the choice to focus on Christ's Passion. The internal logic of the Passion narrative doesn't allow us any time to focus on Jesus' earlier ministry, which is why Gibson provides us with no more than a few glimpses of it. So I reject the complaints of the critics who felt they were left at sea: there really wasn't any way around this problem. Either you're familiar with the Passion story and can relate to it, or you aren't and you can't. Gibson wasn't about to waste time doing expository narrative to establish situation and character. The images leap out at you or they don't.

Gibson provides us with barely 60 seconds devoted to Christ's resurrection. We see the tombstone rolled away (by whom? we don't know); the camera pans around the inside of the tomb; we see an empty shroud deflating, as if a body had just magically disappeared from within it; we see a clean, unflayed, resuscitated Jesus stand and walk out; as his right hand passes the camera, we see a huge nail hole in it-- the Stigmata. Fade. Ending credits. If Gibson's a pre-Vatican II Catholic, then he'd have no reason to pay much attention to a fifteenth Station of the Cross. The resurrection is just icing on the cake, baby.


Was this a good film? Yes, it was. I came away... entertained, if not exactly enlightened. Was this a great film? No, I'm sorry, but it wasn't. I attribute most of the problems to Gibson's directorial style. I don't blame the actors, props people, cinematographers, or even AC Emmerich and her bizarre visions. No; whatever artistic flaws the film has are entirely Gibson's responsibility. Beyond that, you're dealing with scriptural questions and Catholic theology, not Gibson.

Was the violence numbing? Yes, it was, but I had to wonder whether that kind of torture-- the beatings, the flayings, the crown of thorns, the castigation, the nailings, and the crucifixion-- might not in some way be numbing in reality. I have no desire to find out, of course, so I'll leave this in the hypothetical, where it belongs, and be thankful that I can type these words from the convenience of my humble Seoul abode, fat and happy and quite uncrucified.

I was impressed by a moment during the crucifixion when Mary, on her knees in misery, grabs handfuls of earth. It was a moment of cinematic inter-referentiality for me: I was reminded of Willem Dafoe's Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ," down on the ground at Gethsemane, grabbing handfuls of earth and giving us the Gnostic-sounding utterance, "This is my body, too."

Another touching performance was from Jarreth Merz, the actor who played Simon of Cyrene, the man who is made to bear Jesus' cross with him. Simon goes from wanting nothing to do with Jesus to looking into the man's eyes and seeing the suffering of a fellow human being. Simon helps Jesus bear his cross, reassures him that "we're almost there" as they approach Golgotha, and screams in anger at the Romans who taunt Jesus.

Pontius Pilate was something of a puzzle for me. His encounter with Jesus, their conversation about "What is truth," wasn't really scriptural. Pilate was portrayed a bit too compassionately for my tastes. Scholars tell us the man was probably foul-tempered and quick to send people off to execution, not the pensive philosopher we see in Gibson's retelling.

A lot of people seem to approach this film as if it were a religious experience. The line between art and religion has never been clear, so maybe that's appropriate for some people. For me, Gibson was too Gibson-ish, and this kept me conscious of the fact that I was watching a movie. That's a shame, because Jim Caviezel, as Jesus, puts his heart into this performance.

Was this movie showing us high or low christology*? There's evidence for both, I think: Jesus utters the high-christological "it is accomplished" and doesn't scream (Jesus' final utterance in Mark is a scream), but the brute fact of Jesus' mortal suffering is the entire point of Gibson's movie, which skews more toward low christology. The union of the two is very Catholic. For Gibson, and for Catholics in general, there's no dualism to be found in Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection.

When I compare this film to other Jesus-related films, like "The Last Temptation of Christ" (a movie that's grown better with age for me), I find it wanting, but Gibson's "Passion" also has its good moments. As I mentioned before, the bond between Jesus and his mother is poignant. Mother and child offer us some of the best moments of the film: Jesus was somebody's son; a mother suffered with him. Simon of Cyrene is also touching, and while the Satan character is a jarring presence, s/he makes dramatic sense. I think that, if you're undecided about Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ" is worth a single viewing. For myself, I don't think it merits a second viewing. One time was plenty.

Now go and sin no more!

[*These are terms referring to different conceptions of Jesus, with low christology focusing on Jesus' humanity, and high christology focusing more on Jesus' cosmic, christic nature. In John, when Jesus says "It is finished" right before dying, this is a high-christological moment: this is a Jesus who planned everything, knew everything. Compare this to Mark's death scene, in which Jesus screams and then dies. It's a low-christological moment: the Jesus on the cross here is very human. Another high-christological moment is the beginning of John's gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us full of grace and truth."]

UPDATE: Just to post a correction: Mel Gibson's Hell does include flames, but they're well-behaved and don't dominate the scene.