February 28, 2004

The Passion of the Reviewers

My friend Jon recently asked if I was going to see The Passion of the Christ. Honestly, I don't know. Not because of any pro or con attitude, but merely because I don't get out to see a lot of movies. Last year, the only two movies I saw in a theater were Finding Nemo and The Return of the King. If the opportunity presents itself, I probably will go see it however. But that's not really what this post is all about.

Reading all the reviews and different writer's perceptions about the film has been interesting. Since I haven't seen it yet, my observations are more like an interpretation of the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. Nonetheless, I hope they may be illuminating. Thus far, there are five primary objections to the movie, in increasing order of seriousness -- too violent, historically inaccurate, emphasizes the wrong message, he's just in it for the money, anti-semitic -- and two primary endorsements -- achievement as art, emotionally powerful retelling of a well-known story. I will try and treat each of these in order.

Clearly, the movie is violent. But complaints about the violence seem somewhat misguided to me. What I believe is really offending or disturbing most people isn't the violence but the suffering. Rather than shoot for easy targets such as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the sake of comparison, I don't think it is difficult to make the argument that The Return of the King has as much, if not more violence than The Passion of the Christ. But what The Return of the King lacks are displays of pain and suffering, especially extended "real" instances of blood and guts suffering endured by either the good guys or the bad guys. Certainly, many more blows were struck and many more people and other critters perished, but all the deaths are relatively quick and lack gore or empathetic sufffering. The longest scene of suffering that leads to death I can remember off the top of my head is King Theoden's, and that lasts under a minute. I suppose an argument could be made for Gollum suffering the most and the longest, but that's something of a digression from the point I am trying to make. Overall, it seems eerily reminscent of the aphorism attributed to Stalin, "The death of one man is a tragedy; The death of a million is a statistic." by distributing all the mayhem to so many, it just isn't noticed, or at least felt somuch. But in the case of The Passion of the Christ, the suffering is relentless and, more importantly, it is concentrated on someone with whom many in the audience are automatically and deeply empathetic. The pain and discomfort those in the audience feel is real, but, as others have noted, how they deal with it and how they interpret what they feel depends greatly on the assumptions they held before they entered the theater.

The charge that the film is historically inaccurate seem almost laughable to me. Oh, I have no doubt that this isn't exactly how it happened, but how can it be? Compare more recent attempts at "historical" films like The Reagans or JFK to see how very, very hard it is to reach any consensus on what really happened and why. And we know a whole lot more about the Reagans and the assasination of JFK than we can ever know about Jesus Christ. And I have little doubt that scholars can nitpick aspects of the use of language or customs of the time, but given the incredible artistic and commercial risks associated with using ancient languages, I think you have to be far and offer a little leeway here. It's a film, and lots and lots of editorial decision have to be made about what to include and how to convey information for non-scolars as well as scholars. I am quite certain that The Passion of the Christ is substantially more historically accurate than Braveheart which far too many people seem to accept as historical. I'm not trying to excuse any historical accuracies, but I will note that scholarship is itself always evolving, so the question of how to interpret certain events is necessarily more subjective than is frequently allowed for.

But the complaints about historical accuracy pale in comparison to the silliness of complaints that the film should spend more time emphasizing Jesus' message of love and peace. It's Mel Gibson's film about the Passion of the Christ. It's not Mel Gibson's film about the life of the Christ. If you want to remake The Greatest Story Ever Told, well, have at it. Who knows, maybe Mel will do that next, but criticizing him because he didn't make the movie you would want him to make is the height of presumption in my book.

The charge that Mel Gibson is only doing it for the money, the most noted indirect allusion of this kind was perhaps made by Andy Rooney, is pretty damn repulsive on its face, as well as ludicrous. To make a charge like this is to say that Mel Gibson is exploiting his belief for cash. That's a very strong statement and one that is not justifiable in my mind. If there was any truth to this at all, does anyone really think it wouldn't have been filmed in English? The impression I've had all along was that Mel Gibson -- and everyone else -- expected this to be a financial loser, and that Mel Gibson's sole motivation for this was as an expression of his beliefs, which his vast fortune allowed him to indulge. And I wonder, would this charge be made if Mel Gibson was a Jew?

Which brings us to the charge of anti-semitism. There is no question that parts of this story have been used to condemn and persecute Jews throughout the history of Christianity. That history demands that we be sensitive to the concerns of those who have found themselves on the receiving end of so much unjustified grief and agony. But I believe it is asking a bit much of Mel Gibson, and Christians in general, to ask that they expunge the offending elements from any telling of the stories in the Bible because they have been misused in the past, and no doubt, will continue to be misused in the future to justify heinous acts. The problem is with those who look for and find rationales to justify their rasicm. Frankly, if it wasn't this, they would find something else because the racism is what drives them to look for rationales, not the other way around. The fact that there is some overlap between what Mel Gibson has said and what some racists believe does not in and of itself make Mel Gibson an anti-semite, nor does it make The Passion of the Christ anti-semitic. As I have noted before, I've heard that David Duke likes vanilla ice cream, but that doesn't make everyone who likes vanilla ice cream a racist. Blaming Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ for the acts of anti-semites is somewhat akin to blaming the Wachowski brothers for the Columbine massacre. I cannot do that.

Incidentally, I'm not saying that Mel Gibson isn't an anti-semite. I really have no idea whether he is a closet anti-semite or not, but I haven't heard him say anything to lead me to believe that he is. Since I haven't seen the movie, I can't say whether it is anti-semitic or not, but I'm guessing that if I do see it I probably would not pick up on the details that are leading some to call it anti-semitic. If you are looking for anti-semitism I have little doubt that there is some ripe fruit there for the picking, but that doesn't mean Mel is trying to be anti-semitic. Mel Gibson has said repeatedly that the message of The Passion of the Christ is not that the Jews killed the Christ but that we all did in the sense that the Christ died for our sins. Of course, Mel's dad does seem to be a bit of a nutter, and whether Mel is really an anti-semite or not I'm not surprised that he refuses to denounce his father. I guess that what I'm trying to say is that I will keep my mind open for factual evidence that Mel Gibson is an anti-semite or that The Passion of the Christ is anti-semitic, but thus far I have not been convinced of either.

As to the good points, since I haven't seen it it will be tough for me to say much about it as a work of art, but I will take the word of many who think it is powerful and very well done. Many of the criticisms I have read are in fact strong endorsements of the film as an artistic acheivement. It is only because it is so well done that it has inspired strong opinions and fears that it may be used to incite anti-semitism. I am very impressed by the decision to use the ancient languages. That is a real bold risk that seems to have paid off. I wonder if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will nominate it next year for best foreign language film. I really look forward with some sense of schadenfreude to how the Academy deals with this film next year.

As to the emotional impact this film has had, there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that this film has inspired stronger feelings from more people than any film I can remember. On this level, The Passion of the Christ has to be considered a major success. It has got people talking, thinking, rejoicing, complaining, yelling, condemning, and pontificating like no movie I can remember. I certainly remain sensitive to the concerns expressed by those worried about the film sparking a resurgence of anti-semitism, but I am just as sensitive to the casual dismissal of the positive feelings so many Christians have expressed after seeing this film for what seems to be no reason other than that they are, well, Christians. Many Christians are having phenomenal reactions to this film and that has to be taken into account when judging the film's success, intent and impact.

I hope I do get to see it. I promise a shorter review than this pre-review. Here are some links and links to links to different perspectives that I found informative and useful:

Rev. Donald Sensing
Judith Weiss
Roger Ebert
Andrew Sullivan
Kevin Murphy

Unfortunately, it has become difficult to talk about this is some circles. The charge of anti-semitism is a killer from the word go, as is the charge of facism (facism!) by Christopher Hitchens. Personally, I find it strangely worrisome, but also curiously enlightening, that so many of us who share virtually identical feelings about the War on Terrorism still see so many other aspects of the world around us so differently.

Posted by Charles Austin at February 28, 2004 01:51 PM

This is one of the best "meta-reviews" I've read regarding how the film has been viewed and reviewed over the past week. I live in France, and according to Drudge, we will have to wait a month before we can see the film. Though, I tend to think the reasoning given makes sense.

Posted by: matt at 03:42 PM

Sounds like you go see about as many movies in the theater as I do. I suspect I will go see The Passion. I just don't know when. Maybe I'll go see it on April 9. Seems more fitting then. I may be going alone to see it. I don't plan to bring my kids (oldest is 13) and my wife told me recently that she is not sure she wants to watch The Passion. It wasn't so much the graphic violence or any of the other criticisms that is making her apprehensive about seeing it, (she also recognizes the absurdity in much of the current criticism). She is expecting the movie to be well made and it is the thought of seeing a vivid, realistic portrayal of Mary watch her Son suffer and die that has her apprehensive.

Good post. I scanned the review links you included and I have to restate what I've said earlier. Andrew Sullivan has become unreadable. I think Sullivan is still a self professed Christian (Catholic) but I have serious doubts that he grasps the point of it anymore. Catholic theology, with its vast store of spiritual wisdom encoded into impenetrable jargon, puts it this way: "concupiscence darkens the intellect." Sounds to me like the Church still understands Mr. Sullivan even if the reverse is no longer true.


Posted by: Jon at 05:09 PM

I actually didn't find the violence as bad as I thought it was going to be. During the scourging, Gibson does cut away quite a bit. Don't get me wrong, it's still tough to watch. Sometimes you'll jump and your head will jerk away whether you intend it to or not.

But this movie did something that I can't remember another movie doing nearly as well. As one example, the walk toward Calvary seems to go on forever and I remember thinking, "This is way too long and it needs to stop now." Then it occurred to me that Jesus probably wished the same thing. That's when I realized that I wasn't watching The Passion, I was in it.

Posted by: Christopher Johnson at 09:12 PM