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Last Post on The Passion, I Promise

So, I finally saw Mel Gibson's much maligned film The Passion of the Christ on Monday, which should allow me to put the last piece in the puzzle of the Ionarts commentary on the movie. The movie is uneven and definitely has some flaws, but most of the criticism of the movie, I can now say with informed conviction, has been terribly misguided. First, as to the question of antisemitism, The Passion follows quite literally the narrative of the Gospels in the matter of why Jesus was betrayed: one section of the Temple elite accuses Jesus of blasphemy, not without reason, considering that he did claim to be God's son. The movie shows Jews from all walks of life, Jesus and his followers, common folk, and members of the council of Temple priests, both those who want Jesus condemned and those who try to stop it. To say that it shows all Jews in a negative light, or that it has anything to say about Jews in our own time, is absurd.

Read the other Ionarts posts on The Passion:

· Mel Gibson (August 7, 2003), on seeing Mel Gibson at the Knights of Columbus conference, where he showed some clips of the movie

· The Passion (December 26, 2003), on the reports of the Pope's private viewing of The Passion

· La Passion du Christ: Violence and Art History (February 29, 2004), on understanding the violence in the movie in the context of art history, especially Caravaggio and Grünewald

· More Thoughts on the Passion (March 5, 2004), with more on Grünewald's crucifixion scene in the Isenheim Altarpiece

· What's the Beef with The Passion?, by Jens Laurson (March 17, 2004), an atheist's view and an excellent review of the wide-ranging commentary on the movie in the media

· The Passion Opens in France (March 31, 2004), and for another view on how the movie was received in Europe, see Heather Mathews at Hem|mungen, 'Passion' starts in Germany, March 21
Neither are the Romans shown at all positively. Although Pontius Pilate is depicted in the Gospels as being reluctant to crucify Jesus, historians have shown that the Roman rulers of Jerusalem were hardly lenient or unwilling to punish criminals in the worst way. He is a fascinating character in the Gospels, and many have speculated about his reasons for killing Jesus and the mysterious dream of his wife (Matthew 27:19), from pseudepigrapha in the early Christian centuries to a poem by Charlotte Brontë, Pilate's Wife's Dream, published in 1846. I would tend to agree with the narrator of the latter work:
I do not weep for Pilate—who could prove
Regret for him whose cold and crushing sway
No prayer can soften, no appeal can move;
Who tramples hearts as others trample clay,
Yet with a faltering, an uncertain tread,
That might stir up reprisal in the dead.
Pilate comes across in the movie pretty much as he does in the Gospels, but the other Romans are presented far less favorably, from the sadists who carry out the scourging to the drunkards who crown Jesus with thorns, drive him mercilessly to Calgary Calvary [thanks to Seth for catching this typo], and carry out the horrible sentence. I'm surprised that Romans are not up in arms about this slanderous depiction.

Next, the movie has been decried as too violent, a charge which strikes me as ridiculous in terms of where we are at this point with violence in movies. As I tried to show in previous posts on this subject, Christian artists have been focusing on Jesus's violent death for centuries (see posts in the inset at right), showing his suffering in brutal detail and with the most gruesome and graphic means. This is an artistic manifestation of the devotional practice of sharing in that suffering, seen in the prayers known as the Stations of the Cross and praying before altarpieces and other works of art, by which people are able to join their own suffering in life with the suffering of Christ. I do not see that there is any good reason, as some critics have written, that Gibson should not have made a movie only on this part of Jesus's life or that he should have shown the death only in the context of Jesus's ministry and resurrection. Artists have been focusing exclusively on Christ's suffering and death that for centuries.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Available at Amazon
If you want to see a cinematic representation of the whole life of Jesus, the best movie on that subject, in my opinion, is still Franco Zeffirelli's 6-hour miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, made for television in 1977, with Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) given top billing for the screenplay. The scourging, carrying of the cross, and crucifixion are still pretty horrible to watch in that version, too. What happened to Jesus was not a cakewalk. However, because it was for television, the amount of blood and gore is nowhere near what Gibson shows in The Passion, with the result that The Passion is a much more realistic portrayal. (Having just rewatched Zeffirelli's movie to give myself some perspective on Gibson's film, the same section of material, from the agony in the garden to the crucifixion, takes about 90 minutes, which Gibson expands to only a little over two hours, with significant flashbacks to the last supper and other earlier scenes.) In fact, I suspect that Gibson has studied Zeffirelli's movie closely: his Jesus (James Caviezel) has a look similar to Zeffirelli's Robert Powell. The same is true of Gibson's Virgin Mary (Maia Morgenstern), although she cannot possibly hold a candle to Zeffirelli's Olivia Hussey, who will be forever the Virgin Mary in my mind.

The real problems with the movie, which have not been much criticized in the mainstream media, are the extra-Biblical elements, which belie Gibson's claim that he has tried to present the story directly as it is told in the Gospels. The character of the devil adds nothing to the narrative, in my opinion, and is responsible for one of the moments when I actually laughed during the movie. The devil is portrayed, I guess, as male but is played by a woman, Rosalinda Celentano. She is dressed similarly to Mary, Jesus's mother, and at the point in question, carries a baby-like dwarf in mockery of her. This was so ridiculous that it made me laugh, which is surely not the reaction one should have in the worst part of the scourging. During the crucifixion, a crow pecks out the eye of one of the thieves dying with Jesus, apparently as retribution for his mockery of Jesus's suffering. This was such a gratuitously grotesque moment that it also made me laugh, and there was just no reason to include it in the movie. One other moment seemed silly, at the moment of Jesus's passing, Gibson gives us a view from the sky high over Calvary, and we follow a raindrop as it splashes noisily to the ground at the foot of the cross. A friend told me he heard it was supposed to be God's tear. If that is true, then this was more egregious than just simply an unnecessary bit of cinematic trickery, as was the reverse overhead shot of the devil screaming in agony because of the crucifixion. All cinematic retellings of any story, including the Gospels, are likely to involve the personal views and quirks of their directors, screenwriters, producers, actors. These were the parts of the movie, for me, where Mel Gibson got in the way of the story, not his attempt to show what is probably a true enough depiction of the horror of what it meant to be scourged and crucified by the Roman army in Palestine.

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