Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

The Passion of the Christ – Pt.1

These first two posts are a movie review, not a Bible commentary. Therefore I am publishing it on my personal profile.  This review was first written in Lent 2004 at the request of members of my Sunday school class. It sets the stage for several themes that I intend to develop over the next few weeks.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – Pt. 1


Mel Gibson is a talented artist. He has written, produced and directed a better than average remake of the traditional story of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. If what was at stake had only to do with filmmaking, Gibson’s achievement would be worth all the public notice it is receiving. However, the cinematic quality of this movie is not the only question spinning in the news. Ironically, it is just because Gibson has made such a powerful movie that we who style ourselves as progressive Christians must have a serious problem with it.

All things being equal, this is a well produced “indie film” that one would expect to appeal primarily to those with a particular respect for the Catholic tradition. I have seen the movie in theatres two times now – first, this past Ash Wednesday night and then again last Friday night. Because Gibson’s movies dance with the extreme, the first viewing was a lot like jumping into an icy swimming pool. The experience is primarily shock, even if one anticipates what is coming.  But once one is over this initial discomfort, the second entry into the cold water is a bit easier.

This second time through, I was also more prepared, for following a friend’s advice, I had spent some time reviewing the spiritual construct of the Stations of the Cross. This is the underlying rationale for the last half of the movie, a fact that was absolutely lost on my parochial Protestant consciousness the first time through.

Gibson has spliced his version of the dolorous stations, details from mystical visions of a 19th century nun, his personal preoccupation with the almost psychic bond between Jesus and the Mother Mary, and a cut and paste editing of the four separate biblical stories into a screen play whose primary meditative center is what is for me the inherently unstable doctrine of substitutionary atonement.   Herein is revealed the troublesome fact that Gibson has marketed his essentially Catholic movie by manipulating the loosely aligned evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant communities usually identified as the “religious right.”

Like the movie, Independence Day, with its Fourth of July opening, Gibson has used similar commercial techniques by scheduling an Ash Wednesday release of his picture. By self-consciously choosing this important religious day he has given his movie a sort of halo. It has almost become a “Lenten religious obligation” fulfilled at $8.75 a ticket.

A.  Now perhaps I am being too hard, but I can not help but notice how Gibson has chosen to portray himself as a victim, a victim with at least $30 million dollars personally available to make the project.

In January of 2003, Gibson announced on Bill O’Riley’s so-called fair and balanced “No Spin Zone” that there were forces who want to prevent him from producing this movie, even though there had been no public criticism raised at that time.  In April, however there were a series of events that provided the necessary “critics” that this marketing strategy required. A copy of an early draft of the screen play was given to a staff member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops apparently for review. Several prominent scholars were assembled who wrote an 18 page response to the screen play. The team of scholars was under the impression that Gibson welcomed this scrutiny and produced a “not for publication” document with their recommendations and gave it to the director.

Almost immediately, members of the committee came under severe public criticism. It was alleged that the script was stolen. It was reported that “liberal” scholars intent on rewriting the Bible were out to block Gibson from making his movie. After the Anti-Defamation League joined the public debate, the culture war lines were drawn. Supporters quickly came to poor Mel’s defense with harsh rhetoric and slurs. For example, when David Limbaugh speaks about the report, he is quoted as saying that it “disapproves of the movie’s treatment of Christ’s passion as historical fact. The moral is that if you want the popular culture to laud your work on Christ, make sure it either depicts Him as a homosexual or as an everyday sinner with no particular redeeming value (literally). In our anti-Christian culture, the blasphemous The Last Temptation of Christ is celebrated and The Passion is condemned.”

In interviews and press releases, Gibson began to portray himself as unjustly persecuted by these “secular forces” who want to deny his American right to make a movie. They want to censor free speech. They want to keep him from interpreting scripture because he did not have enough letters after his name. Gibson was living his own passion story, but he forgave his enemies, “at least on 8 out of 10 days.”

Portraying this movie as a tool for evangelism, Gibson engaged the leadership of the religious right, who felt solidarity with his cause as they were convinced of their own persecution by the same forces attacking Mel. Together they began to create the image of the possibility of a unique new awakening in this nation besieged by evil secularism. Whole series of private showings were arranged leading up to the release of the movie on Ash Wednesday creating a band wagon movement so strong that it indirectly implied that any criticism is unChristian.

Gibson’s $30 million investment has produced an apparent block buster. He did not lose money. Gibson purports that he feels that he has been led by the Holy Spirit – I can not say this is true or false – but I do know that others have made the same claim and were later revealed as con men. (see Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees by Amy-Jill Levine in Religion in the News: Vol. 6 Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 13-15, 23.)

B. Gibson’s movie falls into three distinct parts. This is a remake, we know the story or at least we think we do. The first part includes initial scenes of Jesus in the garden, betrayed by Judas, later brought to what appears to be Caiaphas’s palace and falsely accused of blasphemy.

The second part of the film centers on Pilate, who in this movie is characterized as a deeply conflicted leader obsessed with questions of truth. Pilate seeks to avoid being manipulated by the Jewish leaders into ordering the execution of an innocent Jesus.

Pilate tries to escape the inevitable burden of the decision three times. First, he seeks to evade complicity by passing off the decision to Herod. Is this not Herod’s jurisdiction? Is this not Herod’s business? That ploy having failed, next Pilate tries to circumvent the irretrievable sentence by imposing the terrible, but not so final punishment of scourging. Maybe this will satisfy the crowd. Yet even after a most brutal beating, the increasingly rabid mob demands that Pilate crucify Jesus. Pilate’s third attempt to avoid personal blame is to give the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Surely they would take a holy man over a murderer! Anyway, it is not Pilate’s choice but the mob’s – “I wash my hands of it all.” After one final declaration that he will not crucify an unjustly accused man, and facing the increasingly restless mob, Pilate unwillingly orders the execution.

In the third part of the movie, Gibson moves the action step by step, station by station, to Golgotha and Jesus’ death and burial.

Some elements of the movie were very interesting to me. Some things struck me as tacky. Gibson included a series of flashbacks that break the tensions built deliberately throughout the entire movie by the graphic depiction of brutish violence and the almost cultic preoccupation with blood. The flashbacks are mostly well constructed. I found his technique of focusing in on a particular object or recognizable action as a kind of gateway back into more pleasant or edifying scenes to be quite interesting, often moving. For example, as Mary watches in horror as Jesus falls under the burden of the cross, we are transported to a scene from her past where she rushes to cradle the child Jesus who has tripped during play and skinned his knees.

There are other remarkable scenes. The episode portraying Barabbas’ growing consciousness of his pending freedom is exquisite.

Gibson’s remake is not epic in style, but intimate. It is often compelling. At the same time, his characterization of Peter is weak. I found his depiction of Satan confusing and distracting. The cinematography was amazingly beautiful, but the upside down shots simulating Jesus’ view while being tortured are inconsistent with the style of the rest of the movie – a bad choice of editing. During the scourging scenes, the actors playing the Roman soldiers struck me as stand-in characters borrowed from WWW wrestling. While the performances of the actors portraying the Jewish high priest and his assistants are adequate (in spite of the story they tell) whoever chose the costuming for these actors created an almost cartoon-like parade of traditional stereotypes.

Franklin Sherman, reflecting on some of the changes is the Oberammergau Passion Play, speaks about some of these stereotypes, “The priests and other Jewish leaders formerly appeared in outlandish robes and hats with horns, signifying alliance with the devil. Meanwhile, Jesus and his disciples were dressed normally, their Jewish heritage obscured. [Quoted in www.thelutheran.org (June 2000, Is the Passion Play anti-Jewish)]

C. There is much talk about the violence in this film. Some have suggested that an R rating is not enough. Is not the almost fetish attention to blood – blood in slow motion, blood flying though the air, blood dripping from the cross, blood pooling in the courtyards – is not this really pornography? One writer has suggested that this movie is a two hour “sacred snuff film.” [see Leon Wieseltier in Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon: the Worship of Blood (the New Republic Online: www.tnr.com, 2/26/04). Wieseltier’s complete quote reads, “It is a repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film, and it leaves you with the feeling that the man who made it hates life.”]

The temple guard beats Jesus with a rope. The High Priests punch and spit at Jesus’ face. He is scourged with rods by the Roman prison guards, and scourged again with glass and stone tipped leather thongs, and then scourged again. On the “via dolorosa”, every step is punctuated with the crack of a whip. We watch in horror as Jesus is nailed to the cross, a process that requires the dislocating of his shoulder in order to reach the pre-drilled holes. We are stunned as the cross is jarringly dropped into its place.

Gibson says he wanted to shock his audiences, for by pushing the envelope, the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice would be highlighted. Or, as one evangelical pastor proclaimed – the “R” rating should really be for reality. For is this not the way it really was?

Well…certainly crucifixion is a brutal, messy affair. But, Gibson asks reasonable persons to suspend common sense and leads us to contemplate violence that goes on and on and on and on for questionable spiritual purposes. His repeated scenes portray a level of violence that would certainly kill several times over if these scenes were not found in a Mel Gibson movie. William Safire, conservative New York Time’s columnist, is direct and unforgiving. [see Not Peace, but a Sword in The New York Times (March 1, 2004)]

Mel Gibson’s movie about the torture and agony of the final hours of Jesus is the bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen. Because the director’s wallowing in gore finds an excuse in a religious purpose – to show how horribly Jesus suffered for humanity’s sins – the bar against film violence has been radically lowered. Movie mayhem, long resisted by parents, has found its loophole; others in Hollywood will now find ways to top Gibson’s blockbuster, to cater to voyeurs of violence and thereby to make bloodshed banal.

This should not surprise us. This is Gibson’s trademark style. In the spirit of Braveheart, he has made a spectacle that might be better titled BraveLord II. His portrayal of Jesus, a meditation on the scriptural passage, that “no one takes my life, but I lay it down,” (John 10:18 ff.) is as one writer has suggested, a depiction of Jesus as his new cultic figure who never yields to oppression.

Here, reflection on the logic of the three-fold beating is instructive. Having been sentenced to receive a scourging, one which Pilate suggests should be vicious, but not vicious enough to kill; Jesus is shackled to a stump and beaten to the ground with rods. This is what Gibson does best! We watch in horror as the gentle Jesus is reduced to a shaking mass of bloody flesh. Yet in a strong gesture, Gibson has Jesus stand up in silent defiance of the brutal guards. This then occasions a second beating, this time with a much more deadly weapon. If this were not enough, after an unbelievable number of torturous blows (I have forgotten how to count in Latin), Jesus is flipped from back to front and the whipping begins again.

Paul Tillich noted in his discussions in his landmark book, The Courage to Be, that Christian faith’s most serious competitor is Stoicism. In his movie, I am troubled as to whether Gibson paints a picture of a person of faith or a caricature of a new action hero? In what may be the most outrageous scene in the film, we see a bloody, suffering Jesus slowly but resolutely climb on to the cross – “No one takes my life, but I lay it down.”

Finally, most problematic for me is the fact that we are never really told why Jesus is considered such a trouble maker. The Roman soldiers say that the Pharisees hate him, but we meet no Pharisee (or none identified as such) in the movie.

Photo from movie website – Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved

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