‘The Passion’ is the Medium

‘The Passion’ is the MediumJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I hadn’t intended to write this today, but a student stopped me after class today to talk about the movie, and I just got an e-mail from a colleague asking my opinion, so I might as well write this down.

Yes, I had to look away during the torture scenes — but no, not for the reason you probably suspect.

Portrayal of Jews

Because Gibson had 2 hours to fill, the Jews get much more screen time than they do in other movies on Christ. I’ve read complaints that Pontius Pilate and his wife were portrayed too sympathetically, but the wife’s sympathy is scriptural, and in the movie, the Roman torturers were disgusting brutes. By contrast, the Jews were presented as sincere in their beliefs. Further, it’s established that this is a clandestine meeting of only a portion of the Jewish leadership, and one priest who objects is forcibly ejected from the Temple.

I’ve seen plenty of movies or plays that depict members of the Catholic hierarchy, dressed up in their religious finery, twirl their moustaches or rub their hands greedily, while chuckling about how easy and fun it is to deceive the faithful. (See my blog entry on “Join the Clubbed“). It can’t be a comfortable experience, if you’re a devout member of any faith, to see actors pretending to be your religious leaders, imitating the beautiful ceremonies and icons that mean so much to you, while performing un-beautiful actions.

Still, I thought that the final scenes of the movie, where the Jews stumbled around the damaged temple, were calculated to show that the old order was irrelevant now. I can see that would be offensive to Jews, but is that, by itself, anti-Semitic? Hmm.

I think there are few artists who feel they are obligated to avoid offending people who won’t feel comfortable with their message. The Romans were depicted as being just as confused, and with the exception of John (who silently and bravely accepts Jesus’ gift of his mother), Jesus’ disciples — the first Christians — are confused at this point, too. So, as a moviegoer I didn’t feel invited to hate the Jews.

There’s a scene where Jesus spots the foot of one of his torturers, and flashes back to the foot-washing scene at the Last Supper — that’s the model for how we are supposed to respond.

In the Catholic Good Friday service, the congregation and a small group of readers re-enacts the events leading up to the crucifixion. There’s usually a handout or a missal that reads like a playscript. The congregation takes the part of “Crowd.” That’s how it’s presented. Not “Crowd of Jews” or “chief priests and temple guards,” but “Crowd.” (Maybe it’s “People.” I forget.) We are the ones who, when given the chance to release Jesus, call out for Barabbas; we are the ones who answer Pilate with “Crucify him!” Since I am relying on my religious upbringing to help me interpret the movie, it’s possible that people who don’t have that upbringing will interpret the same movie differently. I never once got the idea, in any part of my Catholic upbringing, that the Jews were to blame; every year the dramatic reading underscores the theological message that Christ died for my sins. So I think we have to take Gibson seriously when he says he doesn’t see the movie as promoting hatred.

Special Effects

The over-reliance on sound effects and make-up distracted me; I looked away during parts of the torture scene. As a Catholic, I am familiar with the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary and the Stations of the Cross — so it wasn’t as if I was surprised by the content of these scenes.

I have seen real people with black eyes and bruises; while I haven’t seen gunshot victims, I have seen footage of gunshot victims on TV, so I think I know what a gunshot victim looks like. I have never seen anyone brutalized in the manner depicted in the movie, but it seems to me that with all those wounds there should have been more blood. The cat-o-nine tails is designed to bite into the victim’s flesh and tear off pieces; in one shot there was a simulated tearing of skin, but since the movie isn’t really going to gouge out the actor’s skin, they had to instead build up the areas around the hole.

I looked away because I wanted to stop critiquing the make-up.

Form and Content: The Verdict

While the bungee-jump Jesus, the cartoony sound effects, and the over-reliance on makeup distracted me, critics who complain about such things as the shoulder dislocation and the other non-biblical elements are missing the point. The bit about the Roman soldier chastising his underlings because they drilled the hole in the wrong place, and the use of ropes to stretch Jesus, dates from at least the York Crucifixion of Christ. In that play, the introduction of the non-biblical ropes were doubtless an excuse to secure the actor to the cross so they could lift him and the cross up safely, but since everyone watching the movie would have been bracing themselves for the nailing, putting this extra bit in early was a good technique — it’s employed regularly in the horror film genre, and it works.

This is not a movie that one “enjoys,” but I’m glad I saw it.

The bit with the snake in the Garden of Gethsemane is simply a visual enactment of the scriptural curse against the serpent in Genesis; likewise, the crow pecking out the bad thief’s eye is a representation of the scriptural warning that, if your eye causes you to sin, it is better to pluck it out than for all of you to be damned. After having seen those lessons in motion picture format, I’m glad Jesus walked the earth in the days before cinema. The graphic representation of those lessons calls more attention to the medium than to the message, but I can see why they are there — if the crucifixion scene didn’t contain any new material, the sequence of events wound have been too predictable.

I think Gibson miscalculated at some points, but I disagree with people who see these moments as gratuitous. You may not agree with what he was trying to do, and you may not respond to being disturbed the way that Gibson intends you to respond.

I felt a huge emotional rush during the brief shot of Satan, howling in a bone-strewn wasteland, knowing that he has failed. Part of me wished for a Lord of the Rings style harrowing of hell; the vision of Jesus in heavenly armor, divinely kicking ass would have been a great antidote to watching all that suffering — but the movie doesn’t go there, because Gibson doesn’t want to purge all those feelings, he wants you to take them with you out of the theater and into the world.

There simply isn’t enough material in the Gospels for a 2-hour movie that won’t draw on sources outside of the Bible. Think about it — the Bible doesn’t say precisely where people were standing, what they were wearing, what their facial expressions are, etc. Yes, some of the most important scenes are described in more detail, but artists have embellished and expanded upon the Bible before; writers of hymns rewrite Biblical passages to make them rhyme, for instance. So there’s a long tradition of artists using non-Biblical material in order to adapt the message to a different medium. Protestants think of church as the means of bringing people to the Bible. Historically the Church has seen music, statues, stained glass, and drama as valid media for the transmission of Gospel truths and the salvation of souls. The R.C. tradition does hold, with mainstream and fundamentalist Protestatnts, that only the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but in the Catholic tradition, the purpose of the Bible is to bring people into the Church, which is where they can receive the sacraments — rituals involving physical things such as bread, wine, water, oil, hands. These sacraments can be described in words, but take on their full meaning only when they take on physical form.

Gibson was trying to reach (one might even say, deeply disturb) an audience used to all kinds of images of carnage. He wanted to unsettle the audience in such a way that the final glimpse of the resurrection would leave people hungry for more.

Mainstream Christianity will benefit from an artistic vision of the meaning of religion that does not focus excessively on eschatology — that is, the Rapture, the Apocalypse, end of the world, you name it. Now people have something else to talk about.