THE PASSION OF
A Review of ?The Passion of the Christ?
Robert J. Schneider
Ash Wednesday morning a former student asked me if I was going to see ?The Passion? movie. I said, ?Yes, this evening.? ?Are you excited?? he asked. I shrugged and mumbled something like ?We?ll see.? Later I thought of what I might have said: ?Watching a man being tortured to death for an hour or more on the screen is not my idea of excitement.? But, he probably had little idea what he was in store for. I did go with a friend, and our discussion afterwards helped me gather my thoughts about the movie and my reactions to it.
Opinions about this film have varied widely. Many have praised it; some said that it has evoked a positive spiritual experience; others have been repelled by the degree of violence and/or saw the movie as dangerously anti-Semitic, whether intended as such or not. Christian viewers have ended up on both sides. My analysis and comments are not intended to change anyone?s mind, but I hope to prompt the reader to think about how Gibson?s version of Christ?s passion compares with the four accounts found in the canonical gospels. In fact, Gibson?s film has done this for me: I have gone back and read the four passion narratives with greater attention to their detail and to the different emphases in each.
During an early interview, in reaction to criticisms of the film based on an early script and pre-released showings, Gibson said that he had taken his story from the gospels. And in a book written to accompany the movie, Gibson wrote: ?Holy Scripture and accepted visions of the Passion were the only possible texts I could draw from to fashion a dramatic film." As it turns out, in addition to the four gospel passion narratives, Gibson relied heavily upon what for him were apparently ?accepted visions of the Passion,? namely the writings of two Catholic women, Sr. Anne Emmerich (1772-1824), an Augustinian nun and visionary, and Mary of Agreda (1606-1665), a Spanish Franciscan nun and visionary; both are credited with a series of detailed visions of Jesus? passion they claim to have experienced. A number of both major and minor scenes in the film are derived directly from or influenced by their writings. (For an extended analysis, see the helpful list compiled by the ?Beliefnet? staff, ??The Passion?: What?s not in the Bible? at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14097.html). I should add that the visions of Sr. Anne were actually written down from interviews by the poet Clemens Brentano, and much in the text has been shown to be the latter?s own invention. There are also scenes that are the script writers? own inventions or are based on traditional materials such as the legends incorporated into the spiritual practice of the Way of the Cross. But, before I get to these comparisons, let me begin with things I liked about the film.
I would not be surprised if the cinematographer gets some sort of awards nomination. I think the story is brilliantly filmed. Some scenes, such as the brief flashback to the Last Supper, are done in chiaroscuro, the dark/light technique so brilliantly exploited by the 17th century artist Caravaggio, which makes darkness a central mood-creating feature and focuses the viewer on the lighted portions. The same is true of the way scenes are framed: some are structured in a tableaux technique that owes more to the stage, especially outdoor drama. This is especially evident in scenes with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus together. An added feature is their dress: a white veil covered by a dark shawl making them look like medieval nuns in their habits. Reminiscences of traditional Christian iconography appear throughout the film.
Another interesting feature is the use of Aramaic and Latin for the dialogue. While I don?t know Aramaic, and understand that it is a difficult language to speak (I was amazed to learn recently that there are still a half million Aramaic speakers in the world), the cast seemed to speak it smoothly. I do know Latin quite well, and I was impressed with the fact that while upper-class characters like Pilate, his wife and his centurion spoke a fairly proper Latin, easy for me to follow, the grunts in the Roman army spoke a more colloquial and at times sloppy Latin that wasn?t always easy for me to follow. Both seemed authentic.
Now to the story; how does it compare with the gospel accounts of the passion? Gibson takes liberties with the canonical versions that in a few instances make sense and seem appropriate to the dramatic tale he is telling, but in others depart significantly from the gospels. For example, the movie opens with Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, praying to the Father. The opening of this scene is well staged, but then it loses its authenticity. In Gibson?s version, Satan appears and tempts Jesus to give up the terrible fate awaiting him. This addition is based on the Emmerich (Brentano) meditation ?The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ? (you can read for yourself on line at http://www.emmerich1.com/DOLOROUS_PASSION_OF_OUR_LORD_JESUS_CHRIST.htm). And the devil keeps turning up at other points in the film, thanks to this writing: among the temple authorities at the trial before Caiaphas, at the scourging of Christ, along the way to the crucifixion, at the moment of Christ?s death. None of these are gospel. In Luke, Satan is a background presence: the devil ?entered into Judas? to tempt him to sell Jesus out (22:3-5); and Jesus tells Peter that ?Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,? to see who will be faithful and who deny him (22:31); but the evangelists do not depict the devil in Jesus? presence, as the Emmerich version does.
Then following his arrest--the struggle between Jesus? disciples and the temple police well done, I thought, Jesus is bound in chains, dragged along and subjected to brutal treatment on the way to the High Priests? palace, including being pushed over a bridge and suspended there. This abuse is not found in any of the Bible?s narratives, and is another scene drawn from ?The Dolorous Passion.? The trial before Caiaphas and the temple authorities in the gospels is an effective piece of drama; in this film the drama is overplayed. The trial is held not inside the High Priest?s residence but in the courtyard in front of a jeering crowd, with witnesses bribed, presumably by the temple authorities, to falsely testify against Jesus?another touch drawn from ?The Dolorous Passion.?. In fact, the movie is filled with crowd scenes, and one must ask why? Is Gibson suggesting that the whole people of Judea were complicit? Do the crowds represent humankind and express the theological notion that all are responsible for the death of Jesus? It is not clear, but as these elements build up in the drama, along with the Jewish authorities (dressed in black) portrayed as heartless and lacking any genuine indignation at this false messiah (as they saw it), it is understandable why some viewers have seen Gibson?s portrayal as anti-Semitic; and there are already some signs that it has caused this sort of negative reaction in some viewers. (At a recent meeting my wife attended in Greensboro, some Jewish parents reported that their children were taunted as ?Christ-killers? by other kids at school.)
Next, the trial before Pilate. Again, Gibson takes liberties with the biblical accounts. While all the gospels portray Pilate as a reluctant participant, Luke especially, Gibson carries this portrayal farther, in my opinion, than is warranted from the originals. Here?s where more criticism from reviewers arises. Historical sources outside of the New Testament depict Pilate as a ruthless governor contemptuous of his charges and of Jewish customs, who didn?t hesitate to use brutal force against Jews. He was eventually recalled to Rome because of complaints by Samaritans. Jesus and the two bandits were not the only Jews he had crucified, and even in one of the gospels, Luke refers to an incident in which Pilate slaughtered a number of Galileans when they were offering sacrifices presumably in the Jerusalem Temple (13:1); this may have caused the tension between Pilate and Herod Antipas referred to in Luke?s account of the passion. These facts have led many scholars to judge that the evangelists, especially Luke, writing at a time when Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman Empire, wanted to soften any criticism of Pilate to avoid hostility from the Roman government, as they sought to portray Christians as good citizens. These kinds of historical facts have a bearing on understanding the intentions of the gospel writers, yet Gibson not only ignored them in his film but dismissed them as irrelevant in interviews.
There is an important issue here: since Christians insist that Jesus was a historical figure who was put to death at a particular historical time and place, then any historical information outside of the Bible is certainly relevant to understanding not only the historical context of Christ?s passion but also the theological purposes of the evangelists. As a film maker and dramatist, Gibson is free to ignore these, but should he as a Christian? Perhaps in reading the gospel accounts devotionally, there is reason for a believer to concentrate solely on the texts, though Gibson has not done so in this film. My point is that the viewer should not take this portrayal of the Passion as anything more than the act of devotion that it is?personal, and in many respects not historical.
Now to the scourging: in the gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke say that Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, while Mark and John say that he had Jesus flogged. That?s all, no description. What follows in Gibson?s film, however, are fifteen minutes of utter mayhem: Jesus is whipped and beaten by sadistic Roman soldiers in a most brutal fashion, as they count off the blows???undeviginti (19), viginti, viginti et uno, viginti et duo?.? At forty they stop, take a breather, than resume with even nastier weapons. The whole event is a sadistic torture scene that the screen audience is forced to watch. Again, some of the details seem to have been taken from ?The Dolorous Passion.? Roman law permitted no more than 39 lashes, but the Jesus of this film suffers more than twice that number; in the vision they are described in gruesome detail. The scene also strikes me as being all too reminiscent of some of the more violent episodes in films that Gibson has directed or starred in.
Next Jesus is mocked by the Roman soldiers (in the gospels, transferred to Herod?s soldiers in Luke), crowned with thorns and spat upon. The scene is underplayed, compared to the accounts in Matthew, Mark and John, and Gibson missed an opportunity to develop the irony that suffuses this scene. Jesus is then returned to Pilate and the fury of the Jerusalem mob. By now Jesus? flesh is flayed and splattered with blood from head to toe. The figure barely standing upright next to Pilate reminded me of a 16th century statue of a whipped and bloodied Christ I saw in a Spanish Franciscan convent: a Christ whose suffering perhaps was meaningful to the traumatized survivors of the Black Death and subsequent plagues and wars in late medieval Europe. I wonder if Gibson had some such art in mind; he could not have drawn this image from the gospels.
Then Jesus is led off to be crucified. The gospel accounts give only a few details of the walk to Golgatha, including one significant contradiction: the synoptic gospels state that Simon of Cyrene was impressed into carrying Jesus? cross, but John?s gospel (19:17) states that Jesus carried the cross himself. To add details to his drama, Gibson goes to an extra-biblical source familiar to most Catholics and some Episcopalians?the Stations of the Cross. This ancient devotional practice was popularized by the Franciscans in the late Middle Ages and is still practiced today. During Lent and Holy Week the faithful parade to 14 plaques or stations (in churches or out of doors) representing the ?Via dolorosa,? the Way of the Cross, and recalling both biblical and legendary moments in Christ?s journey from Pilate?s headquarters to Golgatha to the entombment. Many of the stations were dramatized in the film?Jesus falls three times, Jesus meets his mother, a woman (the legendary Veronica) wipes the face of Jesus with her veil, leaving the imprint of his face upon it. In one station, the cross-bearing Simon rebels at the abuse which the soldiers are visiting upon Jesus and threatens to not continue unless they stop; the scene is taken directly from ?The Dolorous Passion.? The conclusion to this scene, however, I found touching and moving: Simon, struggling with Jesus to drag the cross, holding Jesus upright; they gaze at one another in a brief moment of intimacy. But this is a movie that could have used more such scenes, more compassion along with the passion.
I have yet to see a movie about the life of Christ that is able to wrestle successfully with the different emphases and nuances in the four canonical passion narratives. Gibson?s is no exception. The various elements from each account he weaves together sit uneasily with one another to this viewer. But the incongruities and difficulties become even more evident in the crucifixion scene. More torture (I?ll spare you the gory details, but they appear to be taken from Emmerich and Mary of Agreda). At this moment in the passion narratives, each of the four gospel writers brings his theological agenda to a climax. The Jesus of Mark and Matthew dies alone, abandoned, crying ?My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?? Luke?s Jesus is portrayed as the innocent martyr who forgives his executioners and promises paradise to one of the two bandits. John?s Jesus goes to the cross almost serenely as he is ?lifted up? to the Father. Where these distinctions lost on Gibson, or did he choose to ignore them? Whatever the reason, he wove all of these scenes and sayings together, as preachers do on Good Friday. But I think he is no more successful than other film makers; in fact, they really cannot be integrated without destroying the varied messages of the four writers. The moments and the sayings as Gibson has arranged them do not fit well together, in my view, and he brings the death of Jesus to a close with a final appearance of Satan and an earthquake that damages the Temple, not merely the curtain over the entrance to the Holy of Holies (another touch from the Emmerich/Brentano text). There is a brief bow to the iconography of the Pieta, as Jesus is taken down from the cross and held by his mother.
In fact there were several scenes in ?The Passion,? some dramatically effective I think, where Mary the mother of Jesus appears, usually with Mary Magdalene: at the trial before Caiaphas, at the scourging, with Pilate?s wife, on the Via Dolorosa, at the removal of his body from the cross. Only one, however, is based on the Bible: the appearance of Jesus? mother at the foot of the cross (John 19:26-27). The rest were inspired by the Emmerich/Mary of Agreda visions, and the legends that are part of the Way of the Cross.
There are scenes amid ?The Passion? of flashbacks to earlier moments in the life of Jesus and Mary: Mary recalls rushing to help her fallen child, as she now rushes to meet her adult son on the Via Dolorosa (a dramatic touch). Other flashbacks show Jesus teaching (in the Sermon on the Mount) love of enemies, or at the Last Supper offering bread and wine as his body and blood, and assuring his disciples that he will send the Comforter to be with him after he has gone to the Father (biblical). But these moments are all too spare and brief. Had Gibson expanded them, they might have given some balance to the film and made Jesus? death all the more poignant. More importantly, they would have emphasized that what Jesus did and said in his life and ministry is as important as how he handled his death. The movie ends with an all too brief scene of the stone rolling away and Jesus sitting on the bench in his tomb, clean and whole and fresh--except for the one wound you see on his hand, rising to greet the resurrection day.
But Gibson?s movie was not about the resurrection but about the passion. I come to the question, was the torture of Christ portrayed here appropriate? In the gospels it is understated. Perhaps the gospel writers saw no need to give the gory details because their first-century audiences would know very well what a crucifixion is like. Perhaps they muted them because they thought this to be a more effective literary device, or because the scourging and stripes were only a part of their theological purposes, not the whole of it. For whatever reasons, they underplayed it, while in my view Gibson overplayed it. While watching nearly two hours of almost unrelenting violence, I realized that I was viewing this depiction of Christ?s passion with a degree of detachment. I could not engage with this Christ, as I can with the Christ of Mark or Luke.
Perhaps Christians in the third world, suffering poverty, AIDS, repressive governments who arrest and torture them, war and conflict, sometimes with rival religions, perhaps they might be more able to identify with the bloodied innocent victim portrayed on the screen. American evangelicals have tended to read into the film their emphasis on a theology of atonement through the blood of Jesus, and certainly the New Testament emphasizes the sacrifice of Jesus as a propitiation for the sins of the world. But there is another element in the New Testament theology of the cross that I believe does not get enough attention. Mark implicitly, and Luke more explicitly (especially as imitated by his disciples in Acts) show Jesus as the innocent martyr whose suffering gives meaning to all of the innocent suffering that those who follow in his way may undergo. The notion that suffering innocently for Christ?s sake is to share in Christ?s suffering is found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Peter 4:12ff.). I believe that Jesus? suffering also needs to be seen as redemptive for all human beings whose innocent suffering and deaths might otherwise seem meaningless.
I said in an earlier note to some friends that I wondered how seeing this film might affect me emotionally, hopefully in a way that might enhance my spiritual life during Lent. I have to say, in this respect, it failed. I did not come out of the theater spiritually uplifted. One reason is partly intellectual: I think Gibson, in the final analysis, missed the main point of the passion narratives. They were written not to glorify the sufferings of Christ but to give these sufferings meaning in the light of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and in light of the Resurrection and the newness of life that was promised through the work of Christ. The evangelists all viewed the passion of the Christ through the lens of resurrection faith. For that reason, perhaps, they described the scenes of Jesus? suffering with some restraint. Now, there is an appropriate time to separate the passion and the resurrection liturgically?it?s during Holy Week. But this is not a practice a general audience is likely to be familiar with and understand. By concentrating almost exclusively on the passion, and depicting it in such a numbingly brutal form, Gibson has produced a film that depicts a suffering Christ out of context.
The other reason is that in focusing almost exclusively on the torture of Christ, the story in the film had the effect of turning my emotions off. That?s not an unusual reaction in one witnessing torture: it?s a kind of psychological defense mechanism to the horror of brutality. There may be various reasons that some have differed in their views on this question about the appropriateness of a full-blown depiction of a Roman crucifixion. But in my opinion there are ways of creating an effective psychological mood that arouses horror at torture without showing every whip blow and spraying of blood. In the end, I?m left wondering, what is the psychological framework within which Mel Gibson views the world, and how has it shaped his telling of the passion story. Whatever it is, I find it not attractive but disturbing.
There was one flashback scene that I thought was the most beautiful and moving scene in the entire film: the memory of the adulterous women brought to Jesus (John 7:53-8:11?Gibson wrongly identifies her with Mary Magdalene). The camera, at ground level, shows the top of the prostrate woman?s head, her arm reaching out to touch Jesus? foot. In the background we see the crowd of men backing away, tossing their stones to the ground and leaving. The women reaches her arm up toward Jesus, and Jesus reaches down, firmly grasps her hand, and begins to pull her up. This piece of iconography, powerfully evocative, brought me to tears. I wish there had been more of these scenes.
This film was not about the passion of the Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John but about the passion of the Christ according to Mel Gibson. I prefer the gospel accounts.