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March 7, 2004
Passion of the Christ: Brutal, Brilliant Art

After two weeks of release, I finally went to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ this afternoon. Until now, all I had done was read some of the reviews, both professional and in the blogosphere, as well as the various interviews from some of the principals like Gibson and Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus. I have also kept up with some of the attacks on the movie, Gibson, and his motivations, such as Andy Rooney's late last month.

Now that I have seen the film, I understand the passion about the Passion. Either a viewer will love this film or hate it; there is little room for middle ground, and that's precisely the point. One of the images in the film that stuck with me the most -- one that is present in most of the advertising as well -- is a slow-motion shot of Jesus drawing a line in the sand, which occurs in a flashback to the incident where Jesus tells the crowd, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The only way you can understand Gibson's Passion is to understand that Gibson also draws a line in the sand, and everything that happens in the movie comes as a result.

The threshold is in the concept of Jesus as the Son of God. It has been said before that contemporary depictions of the New Testament blur the line between Jesus as a philosopher and Jesus as the Messiah, with some justification. Jesus becomes the ecumenical Misunderstood Good Man instead of the Son of God, sacrificed for all, as a way to make the New Testament more palatable to the mass market. Gibson's interpretation -- and of course, that's what it is -- challenges us to face the brutal reality of the last twelve hours of Jesus in order to make clear exactly what Jesus was.

This starts with his arrest and his interrogation by the Sanhedrin. Jesus is delivered after the betrayal of Judas, which opens the movie, and after protests by a contingent about his treatment, Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah. When he acknowledges that he is, Caiphas tears his own robes and sets out to destroy him. While some have complained that the film lacks any context for Caiphas' singlemindedness in this regard, Gibson makes clear that Jesus left no room for interpretation. Caiphas had to choose whether Jesus was the Messiah or a blasphemer -- there was no third choice. Caiphas, in the middle of a campaign to undermine the Romans, seized on Jesus as a pawn in a political game, satisfying both his political ends and also delivering the punishment for which blasphemy calls. Other Jews, most notably the women, take a completely different view of Jesus, and even a decadent and dissipated Herod bears no animosity towards Jesus. Only Caiphas and his followers are determined to see Jesus crucified.

Pilate is surrounded by lines in the sand; on one hand, according to Gibson's vision, he's facing an ultimatum from Rome to keep Judea calm, and on the other hand, Caiphas represents a real threat to that peace. His wife begs him to release the Galilean based on a nightmare she had. Pilate attmpts to appease Caiphas' followers while not giving in and turns Jesus over to his soldiers, knowing what would happen -- he even warns his centurion to make sure they don't kill him. In the end, Caiphas won't be deterred, and Pilate cravenly chooses the path of least resistance, ostentatiously washing his hands of a deed for which he can't escape responsibility. He kills a man who he knows is innocent to buy himself a career and a few more moments of peace.

The violence represents another, more personal line in the sand, this time to the audience. Either we accept that Jesus was scourged and crucified or we don't, and what Gibson does is to present a realistic and horrifying spectacle of these Roman customs. I heard audible gasps when the whips stuck in Jesus' flesh and then were torn out, and crying when the nails were driven into his hands and feet. These disturbing images and sequences are not for everyone, and in fact were almost too much for me to watch; I had to force myself to keep my eyes open. However, the violence in this film pales in significance in relation to your average Quentin Tarantino film, with the only difference that it all happens to one person, and to one who presents no physical danger to anyone.

In other words, The Passion of the Christ is not NBC's Jesus of Nazareth (which I have on tape), nor is it meant to be. It's meant to be a challenge, and like most challenges, it will cause some to accept it and some to reject it. In my opinion, there's nothing in this movie that is excessive or over the top, or especially anti-Semitic. In fact, the only caricatures I saw in the entire film were of the Roman soldiers who took great glee in scourging, beating, and crucifying Jesus, and in general were protrayed as bloodlusting animals.

It's not a perfect picture, though; the decision to make the film in Aramaic and Latin rather than the vernacular makes Passion an art-house film, albeit maybe the most successful one ever made. Unfortunately, it means that the First Mate won't be able to see it in the theater, as she is blind and wouldn't be able to follow along. Somehow it seems inappropriate to make a film about a healer of the blind inaccessible to those who are visually handicapped. As has been pointed out before, the dialect of Aramaic used is highly unlikely to be that spoken in Jesus' time anyway, making the effort pointless from a historical perspective. Undoubtedly, though, the language in the film adds to the artistry of Passion, as well as its cinematography.

The use of Satan, especially in the beginning, and those demons in relation to Judas Iscariot also take the film from verit to vision, belying the notion of "It is as it was." It still worked for me, although it definitely won't for others. The one time it didn't was the scene where Satan held an oddly aged baby, which symbolized, I suppose, the world to come. That to me was one reach too many, and almost a David Lynch moment in a film that did best when it stuck to hard reality. The crow attack at Golgotha almost felt like apocrypha to me; if that's part of the Gospel, I must have missed it. Finally, Pilate as a weak functionary may not be the most historically accurate rendering of the Roman procurator, but it was an interesting and somewhat sympathetic choice. It doesn't get him off the hook for the death of Jesus, but it does make him more understandable.

Otherwise, The Passion of the Christ presented a powerful, horrifying, and utterly gripping interpretation of the last hours of Christ. While I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, I recommend it for those who are open to its message.

UPDATE: For the idiot who linked to this post and suggested that blind people should find something else to do other than go to movies, thank you for your intelligent and compassionate insight. Guess what: blind people DO go to movies, and usually enjoy them, as is the case with my wife. What they DON'T do is attend subtitled movies. Sorry if my wife's disappointment that some alternate-audio technology wasn't included in this release of the film somehow offends you, but I'd say that was your problem and not hers or mine. If you've removed me from your bookmarks, well, you won't be missed, pal.

Before assuming that all blind people can do is stay at home and listen to the radio in the dark, you might use the Internet to learn something about people.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 7, 2004 10:07 PM

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Tracked on March 27, 2004 6:00 PM

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