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Monday, March 29, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

At long last I was able to see The Passion of the Christ last night while in Orlando. Prior to seeing the film I had discussed the movie with family, friends, and my wife (who saw it last week while I stayed home with the kids) as well as read and seen some of the commentary in the press and so was not surprised in the general way the story unfolded. If you haven't seen the movie you may want to stop reading as this post will certainly give some of it away. A few points:

  • Although some had suggested that the flashbacks were not adequate to show the life and teachings of Jesus, instead focusing only on his death, I found them to be appropriate in terms of length and content. After all, the storyline of the movie was the final twelve hours of Jesus' life and movie goers hardly needed a first introduction to Jesus. The flashback that was perhaps most interesting was the scene of Jesus and his mother at home while Jesus works on a "high" table. It shows Jesus' humanity as a fully grown man as few other movies have and reflected a joy in his work that connects the theanthropus (God-man) to ordinary men.

  • Contrary to some I didn't find the depictions of either Pilate or his wife Claudia to be overly sympathetic. While several of the Romans including Pilate's lead captain are more sympathetic to Jesus' plight than the Jewish elite, there is Biblical precedence for the view given Claudia's dream recorded in Matthew and Pilate's questioning and responses to the elites recorded in John. The scene of Claudia presenting the cloth to Mary of course was not Biblical however but did serve to bring closure to Claudia's character in the context of the story.

  • On the subject of anti-semitism the movie made clear that Jesus had many supporters, even some in the Sanhedrin including Nicodemus and others who spoke out against the arrest and were subsequently turned out of the assembly. If anything the movie paints Caiaphas and his small band of henchman as the primary villains (along with some sadistic Romans to be sure). The movie makes clear that it was this small group that incited the handpicked crowd into chants of "crucify him" and shows how as Jesus carries the cross toward the outer part of the city more and more Jews are aligned with Jesus. One could argue that the Gospels are not historical but the argument that the movie intentionally skews the Gospel accounts to be somehow anti-semitic doesn't hold water.

  • Regarding the violence, from the little commentary in the national media I had watched and read I was actually expecting it to be more violent than it was. I doubt that an actual scourging and crucifixion could have been much less horrifying. To those that argue that Jesus would have been dead long before he reached Golgatha, the movie conveys the idea that Jesus, trying to complete his task, again and again mustered the strength to take a few more steps before once again falling to the ground. Certainly a person not driven to do so would not have had the will to go on. The use of the scourging device with bits of bone and metal tied to the ends of leather straps was historical as was the fact that he was scourged. I've blogged before about the use of violence in films and like others that I mentioned the violence in The Passion was not only integral to the story, it was the key component. Having said that I think the scourging scene was too long and the point at which they turned him over would have been a reasonable place to end the scene. As a side note the scene of Judas being driven to suicide by the demon children also has a basis in the Bible where it notes that Satan entered him at the Last Supper as he was about to betray Jesus.

  • As expected many aspects of Roman Catholicism were brought out in the movie including the focus on Mary who received as much camera time as Jesus and who seemed to have a deeper understanding of the spiritual significance of the event than other characters including the ability to see the Satan character on the road to the cross. In addition, the focus on the stations of the cross and the power of the actual blood of Jesus (ala transubstantiation in the Catholic mass) brought out in the woman who collects Jesus blood on a piece of cloth, Mary wiping up the blood of Jesus after the scourging, and the transformation of the Roman soldier sprayed with the blood after piercing Jesus' side, all server to highlight Mel Gibson's beliefs as a Roman Catholic.

  • The character of Satan I thought was well executed in the movie and served to show more dramatically for viewers the reason Jesus chose to die. The conversation in Gethsemane was the crucial dialog in the movie which brought out the penal or substitutionary view of the atonement - the idea that Christ as the perfect man had to suffer for the sins of mankind and die the death that we could not (click here for a discussion of the view of atonement in the movie from our Pastor at Mill Creek Community Church and here for a nice description of several views of atonement). The scene in the garden in general I thought was well done because it showed a vivid struggle in Jesus' humanity that is often glossed over by Christians. I'll admit that the scene of Satan with the "baby" (demon?) was strangely out of place and the expression of the "baby" almost comical. If there was any symbolism there I'll admit that it passed right by me.

  • Some commentators, notably Newsweek's Brian Meecham, have argued that the use of subtitles serve to give the movie a documentary feel and gives Gibson more power as the interpreter of the story. I found the reverse to be true. Rather than create a more sterile or documentary experience, the use of the original language served to engross me in the story even further and develop a more emotional connection with the characters, who I could more easily believe were actual Romans or Jews through the use of their language. The language of course was only one aesthetic component but I think it was the one that integrated the visual and musical components to create an internally consistent film.

  • To add a note about the viewing experience itself, I was shocked when I attended the movie in Orlando because of the rudeness of many in the theatre. The theatre was small, about ¾ full with several groups of teenagers. Throughout the movie cell phones would ring, people would talk in normal voice to friends, and get up and move about the theatre to various seats. Not having been to this part of Orlando to see a movie before I was waiting for a local (an older couple sitting near me for example) to act annoyed and perhaps get the manager. No one appeared disturbed by the behavior so I assume it is a normal occurrence. The contrast between the irreverent behavior of the teenagers and subject matter of the film could not have been greater. I hate to sound like one of those people who think everything is going to the dogs but I'll have to admit I was a bit discouraged by what I saw.

    In the final analysis if you are a Christian I can't imagine that you won't find the movie both enlightening and an impetus for taking stock of what your Christianity means. It is easy for a Christian to give intellectual assent to the idea that Christ had to die for my sins, it's something else to be given a glimpse (however flawed) of how that translated into a real event in space and time. After all, Christianity is not a religion based merely on moral platitudes and high minded ideals. As C. S. Lewis said, its' central fact is that God became man so that men could become sons of God. This process was carried out not only or even merely in a spiritual sense but through the sacrifice of a flesh and blood man.


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