The Right Coast

February 26, 2004
The passion of watching the Passion
By Tom Smith

I wanted to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, so I stood in line at the Edwards multiplex nearest my house, something of a cultural center for my part of the county. Obviously the theatre was going to be packed, so I took my seat early and spent most of a hour fiddling with my Clie and cell phone, trying to make to do lists, return my-little-life phone calls, and so forth. The crowd seemed to consist largely of hard-core born-again sorts, with a sprinkling of Catholics such as myself. I saw quite a number of Ash Wednesday ashes on people's foreheads, which I think is just a Catholic thing. I had wiped mine off, as I always do, because I don't want to be fed to lions or otherwise made fun of. If it's more than one hour on a Stairmaster, I would have let the world go to hell. Good thing I'm not God. Though I would take the job rather than let it go to Frank Rich.

I hardly know what to say about the movie. Oddly, I find myself agreeing with much of what both the movie's supporters and critics say, except for Frank Rich, with whom I refuse ever to agree with about anything. If you are any sort of Christian, it's hard to see how you could not find the movie a moving experience, the way a punch in the stomach is moving. To call the movie violent is a ridiculous understatement. It should have been rated NC-17, not R. Yet, I think there is something legitimate in depicting sadistic violence as being as evil as it is, even apart from any religious significance.

Another reaction I had to the movie is difficult to explain. I felt at once there was something good and something wrong about the exposure of Christ's suffering as explicitly and graphically as was done in the movie. Old Japanese Christians, I have read, used to carry their crucifixes around in little boxes, which were covered with curtains. They would not expose the figure of the suffering Christ to prying eyes. I do not think, as some have said, that Gibson is exploiting the Passion for money. (I do think, however, he ought to consider giving every penny in profits from the movie to some charities dedicated to the alleviation of suffering, and there are a lot to choose from. For example, I bet it takes millions just to care for people who have had limbs blown off by suicide bombers. Just a thought.) Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the crucifixion is meant to be contemplated in private, not shown on a screen, or so it seems to me. I felt a little violated by the movie. One could say, well, how do you think it felt to be scourged or nailed to a cross? True enough, but I felt there was something questionable at least about the display of things that partook uncomfortably of the evil of the original act. If it was wrong to strip off Jesus's cloak and beat him, how is OK for us to watch? If you were there, would you not have covered your face for shame and grief? So why now watch it, in horribly intimate detail, on a movie screen? This may seem ridiculously pious to non-Christians, but I felt somewhat the way I feel when looking at pornography (not that I do that a lot) which is, these are things not meant to be looked at in this way.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the movie tells the story of Christ's passion powerfully from a traditionalist Catholic point of view. There are lots of little touches I wont get into that suggest Gibson has thought deeply about the event. As there are scenes of unbearable cruelty in the film, there are also some moments of great beauty and tenderness, for example those between Jesus and his Mother.

Much controversy, of course, has surrounded the question of whether the movie is anti-Semitic. To say that it is would be too simple, I think. The movie does not imply that Jews suffer from bad racial or ethnic traits. To the contrary, Jesus, his disciples and family are portrayed as very Jewish. The one overtly anti-Semitic remark in put into the mouth of a sadistic Roman soldier, implying that this is the sort of beast who uses "Jew" as an epithet. On the other hand, Ciaphas is portrayed as a devious, bloodthirsty, dishonest, manipulative and self-righteous thug who forces the Pilate's hand, coercing him into crucifying Jesus to avoid a rebellion. Ciaphas is portrayed as having the saducees well in line, except for a few dissenters who are hounded quickly out of the Temple. On the other hand, the Jewish mob is portrayed as having been rounded up by Ciaphas for the show trial, rather than as some spontaneous outburst of widespread anti-Jesus sentiment. Once the march to Calvary leaves the Temple precincts, the ordinary Jews encountered seem a more mixed lot, some horrified by the spectacle and begging for mercy, some courageously, for Jesus, others getting in on the fun.

That being said, I think any religious Jew and probably most non-religious Jews would have to find the movie both offensive and difficult to sit through. It would perhaps be like my sitting through a movie which depicted in horrifying detail the persecution of some Protestant sect (and there would be many persecutions from which to choose) by Catholic authorities, complete with the wheel, the rack and the pyre. It would be hard not to view such a movie as anti-Catholic, as I watched bishops handing over obviously sincere Christians to flames, and as little Catholic boys and girls made an outing of it. Jews very legitimately fear the inflammatory nature of the story of the Passion. They don't share the belief in its all-important religious significance. To them, it is yet another reason to hate the Jews. Six million dead in the holocaust and 900 from suicide bombings gives you the right to be paranoid, if paranoia it is, and I'm not sure it is.

I would like to have a bottom line on my reaction to the movie, but I don't have one, at least not yet. I think for the vast majority of Christians, it will be a deeply provocative experience, not like seeing a film as much as an unexpected, even invasive religious encounter. For some self-proclaimed Christians, it will be fuel for their crack-pot ideas about the Jews. For Jews, it will be an unwelcome intrusion of a fierce kind of Christian piety into their lives. I have no doubt that this movie will be around for years to come, shown in church halls and the living rooms of fervent Christians. Whether that it is good thing, I do not know.

UPDATE: Interesting take on the movie at Crumudgeonly Clerk. I still think, however, that The Passion was more violent than, say, Saving Private Ryan because of the length, detail and realism with which extended sessions of torture were depicted. The scourging scene, with little bits of flesh flying everywhere, was unlike anything I had seen before. There were scenes in SPR that depicted bodies been blown apart, but those were shocking and brief. The scourging went on and on and on. This is perhaps a silly detail, but I don't see how anyone could possibly have carried a 100 lbs + cross (how much did it weigh, I wonder) up 300 or so feet in elevation, after having been effectively flayed. Indeed, though I am no physician (and my wife who has seen plenty of real, horrible injuries, doesn't want to see the movie), I think the scourging depicted would have left any man in deep shock and shortly thereafter dead. Last night I read the scourging scene in Sister Emmerich's Dolorous Passion, and it seems that was where Gibson got the account of the scourging he followed, though she doesn't say anything about Satan lurking about, carrying a grotesque infant, a touch I found quite medieval and horrifying, which may have been the intent.