- I can look at “The Passion of the Christ” only as a woman who defines herself as Catholic, who also defines herself as someone for whom the creation of story has been a crucial locus of self-understanding, and as someone for whom the Gospels have been crucial texts. So I respond to it as a person formed by my history, as Mel Gibson has been formed by his.
I’m older than Mel, but not by much, and we were both brought up by Catholics who would define themselves as conservative. And yet our visions of both the nature of history, the role of story and the experience of Jesus are miles apart.
So, no, I didn’t like the movie. But I didn’t like Mr. Gibson’s “Braveheart,” either. I don’t do spectacle. I don’t do graphic violence. I didn’t lose any sleep, though, about not liking “Braveheart.” I didn’t care about “Braveheart”; I didn’t care who liked it because nothing important was at stake. I didn’t imagine that “Braveheart” could do any damage in the larger world. The story of “Braveheart” wasn’t precious to me. But “The Passion” has been, for me, a cause of deep distress.
My distress has two sources. The first is my anxiety that it will have the effect of fanning the flames of a growing worldwide anti-Semitism. I accept Mr. Gibson’s assertion that he didn’t mean to make an anti-Semitic film, but he has to be aware of the Passion story’s role in the history of the persecution of the Jews, a story whose very power to move the human spirit has been a vehicle for both transcendence and murder. To be a Christian is to face the responsibility for one’s own most treasured sacred texts being used to justify the deaths of innocents.
….Mr. Gibson’s defense is that he tells it like it is. Or like it was. But that is not precisely the case: the film’s screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, has added extra-Scriptural details: the character of Claudia, Pilate’s wife, is much amplified from the Gospel hint; Pilate is given a sympathetic psychological complexity that is nowhere found in the Gospels; details of Jesus’ childhood have been invented for dramatic purposes. Caiphas, the high priest, is a cipher in the Scripture; in the film he is, compared with Pilate, a one-dimensional monster, a shrewd rabble-rouser who rejoices in the shedding of his enemy’s blood.
It is true that the Roman flagellators are portrayed as viciously sadistic, but there are two good Romans, Pilate and Claudia, to add a counterweight to our understanding of Romanness. There is no counterweight to the portrayal of the Jews.
….The second cause of my distress is that Mr. Gibson’s portrayal of the Passion story seems to me a perversion of the meaning of the event and its context. When I spoke to Mr. Fitzgerald, he told me that for him and for Mr. Gibson, the Passion was the most important part of the Gospel and that that was why they had focused on the last hours of Jesus’ life, giving short shrift to his ministry and his ideas. But if, as Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Gibson have done, you take the Passion out of its context, you are left with a Jesus who is much more body than spirit; you are presented not with the author of the Beatitudes or the man who healed the sick but with a carcass to be flayed.
….Theologically, the meaning of Jesus’ death comes with the triumph of the Resurrection, arguably the weakest scene in the film, in which Mr. Caviezel looks not victorious but stoned. Yet St. Paul says, “If Christ has not risen, then vain is your faith.” Psychologically, the power of the Passion is that it acknowledges the place of suffering, particularly unjust suffering, in human life. It is a vessel for our grief. If you listen to Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” there is very little violence in the music; the overwhelming tone is one of mournfulness and a kind of crushed sorrow. In the film, to be sure, there are shots of women weeping along the Via Dolorosa, but the dominant tone in the film is one of rage-inducing voyeurism.
I understand that people of good faith might be moved by the film. I was in Boston the day of the premiere, Ash Wednesday. A woman interviewed on local television said that she thought the movie was not about violence but about love, that when she saw Jesus’ struggle with his cross, she saw her own. A minute later, though, a woman with ashes on her forehead looked into the camera and said, “At least we know who really killed Jesus, and I don’t have to say who.”
…. In the Beatitudes, Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst after justice. I can’t imagine that Mr. Gibson’s vision or his film will add to the balance of this world’s justice. But as he has told us, that’s not the part of the Gospel that interests him.
This version of the film – Gordon’s – puts more emphasis on anti-Semitism than most of the others I have read. I do not assume that the woman who said, “At least we know who really killed Jesus, and I don’t have to say who,” got her worldview from the film, but the film also did nothing to dissuade that view.
At this point – and no I haven’t seen it and can’t imagine seeing it for a very long time – my deeper problem is with the film’s view of what is most important about the life and death of Christ, and I agree exactly with Gordon when she writes, “Theologically, the meaning of Jesus’ death comes with the triumph of the Resurrection.” I can even buy the theoretical need to show the “reality” of Christ’s torture and execution, but what of the need to show the “reality” of the Resurrection, and to give this joyous, redemptive yang to the murderous yin of the Passion?
What seems to be desperately missing is balance: while the peace, love and Resurrection part of the story might be incomplete without the blood and guts, surely the reverse is even more incomplete. At least one Catholic agrees.
And I did like Braveheart.