Sunday, February 29, 2004

Review of "The Passion of the Christ"

I saw Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” on Friday night. Normally, I don’t see R-rated movies because usually I feel I have nothing to gain by seeing them. They usually contain too much violence, nudity, and profanity, which irritates me rather than entertains me. I have made a few exceptions when I felt that the movie would be inspiring and enlightening in spite of the R rating. I saw Schindler’s List and Saving Private because I wanted to better understand the experiences of Jews during the Holocaust and American soldiers during D-day. In seeing “The Passion of the Christ,” I desired to better understand the Catholic view of the Passion and also to be uplifted by the reminder of Christ’s atonement for mankind.

This movie was an outstanding work of art in my opinion. It was spiritually very moving, beautifully filmed, and the actors’ performances were remarkable. I found myself thinking about what I had seen all day yesterday and today, pondering its message and analyzing its symbolism.

As far as anti-Semitism, I could detect none, but I am not Jewish and I therefore can’t say what a Jewish person might have thought. There were examples of both Jewish villains and Jewish heroes, and not all were followers of Christ, e.g. Simon of Cyrene. In my opinion, anyone that finds the central doctrines of Christianity and the Gospels offensive would be offended by this movie. I don’t think this is a movie that everyone should see, especially children under the age of 18. I would only recommend it to those interested in Christianity from a theological and philosophical standpoint. It’s not a movie that one would see in order to have a good time at the movies. It is a “thinking” movie, full of Christian doctrines, allusions to religious art, and symbols. It also helps to have a good understanding of the New Testament. Afterwards, I found I didn’t want to talk about it, but wanted to quietly ponder the meaning of what I had just seen. After digesting it for 48 hours, I now am excited about discussing it with my friends that also saw the movie this weekend.

As far as the historicity of the film, it is not really a historical film. Most of the comments from historians that I have read or heard complain about various non-historical aspects of the film. The movie follows the Gospels pretty closely, yet also adds in some Catholic traditions, such as St. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Many Biblical scholars claim the gospels aren’t historical for various reasons, but usually I tend to take their pet theories with a grain of salt since history and archaeology are inexact sciences where theories are constantly being revised based on new evidence. Several historians said that they felt Pilate was portrayed too sympathetically, since he was a harsh ruler that executed thousands of Samaritans and Jews during his rule, and thus would not have balked at condemning Christ to death. However, I disagree. As procurator, Pilate’s primary roles were to maintain order in the province, collect taxes, and issue judgments. Just because his punishment of criminals was harsh, does not mean he was unjust. The individuals he executed were primarily criminals or those involved in acts of treason. Jesus had not broken any Roman law, and Pilate, probably not realizing how serious an offense blasphemy was to the Jewish leaders, did not think he merited the death penalty.

The penalty Jesus received, scourging, was brutal. From the account of the Gospels, it appears Pilate wanted him to be beaten and then released. I’m not sure the scourging would have been as severe as it was depicted in the film. If Jesus had already been condemned to death by crucifixion, then I think such a severe beating would have been more expected. But I think that Gibson wanted to show that Jesus was pushed to the limits of human endurance and beyond. I think most people, after been tortured like that would have lain down and died, but Jesus was not like most people. The scourging scene was too gory for my taste, but I don’t think it was as outrageous as a lot of critics made it seem in their reviews. Of course, we’ll never know how severe the actual scourging was.

I really liked the fact that the characters spoke in Aramaic and Latin. It gave an authentic feel to the movie, like I was right in the crowd along with Jesus’ mother and his disciples. It was also fun to recognize a few of the words that Jesus would have heard and spoke such as his Aramaic name, Jeshua, Adonai (Lord), and Abba (Father). I also enjoyed hearing some of the familiar Latin words spoken by the Romans, although a lot of the Latin spoken by the Roman soldiers was untitled and probably consisted of crude jokes and epithets.

Gibson used symbols quite effectively in my opinion. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Satan appears in the form of a woman, a corrupt counterfeit of his mother, Mary. A serpent slithers from under his robes and Jesus crushes it under his feet, symbolic of the triumph of the atonement over Original Sin. Jesus’ blood is also used symbolically throughout the movie. In a flashback scene while Jesus is on the cross, John recalls the Last Supper where Christ tells his apostles to partake of the bread and wine that symbolize his body and his blood. As John watches Jesus’ blood drip down his body, he finally begins to understand what Christ was referring to the night before. Mary also kisses the feet of her son as he suffers on the cross and some of his blood stains her lips, symbolic of partaking of the Eucharist or sacrament.

After Jesus dies, there’s also a great earthquake which splits the temple in half. Although in the Gospels, only the veil is said to be torn, the destruction of the temple is a metaphor of the death of Jesus’ body, his temple that he said he would destroy and rebuild in three days. It could also foreshadow the complete destruction of the temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D.

The imagery of the movie was also like viewing many classical Christian works of art. The demons that tormented Judas after he betrayed Jesus reminded me of paintings that depict the torment of souls in hell. A bleeding Jesus standing before the crowd in a red robe at Pilate’s palace is reminiscent of many different renaissance paints on the subject. The scene where Mary is cradling Jesus on her lap after removing him from the cross evokes Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Apart from an appreciation of the artistic beauty of the film, I was also deeply moved emotionally by several scenes. The scenes that affected me the most included Peter’s denial of Jesus and several flashback scenes that depict the close relationship between Mary and Jesus.
At times I felt helpless, probably like his mother Mary felt and wished that Christ could die quickly (as morbid as that sounds) so he could be free of his pain and suffering. And the resurrection was a powerful scene, although too short for my taste. I felt intense joy at seeing Jesus’ face whole and peaceful once again. He did not linger in the tomb, but upon rising immediately strode out into the sunlight almost as if marching off to fight his next battle.

The only criticism I have is that beating and scourging of Christ was excessive. I was disappointed that one of Jesus’ eyes was swollen shut for most of the movie because I thought that Jim Cavaziel’s eyes have so much power, especially as he gazes on Judas and Peter in rebuke, and his mother and John in love. That power was diminished by only one eye being visible. But I think Gibson was probably “keeping to the script” as found in Isaiah 52:14.

As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:

As a believer in the divinity of Jesus Christ, this movie was an important reminder to me of how imperfect I am and how much harder I need to strive to be a better follower of Jesus. The doctrines of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Mormonism differ somewhat, but this movie emphasized how much we have in common. We all believe that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all mankind because He loves us. Mormons do not wear crosses or crucifixes because we prefer to focus on the atonement as a whole to include his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, rather than one aspect, the crucifixion. Mormons are also often classified as non-Christians, which is silly because the proper name of our church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What people really mean when they accuse Mormons of not being Christian is that we’re not their kind of Christians. But the key doctrine of Christianity, that Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, is what unites us and “The Passion of the Christ” bears this out.

Update: Here's an article discussing the portrayal of Pilate in "The Passion of the Christ" by NRO's John O' Sullivan. Basically, he says that Pilate, as portrayed in the film, is worse than Caiphas because he believes Jesus to be innocent, yet does nothing to save him. Caiphas believes Jesus to be guilty of the sin of blasphemy, which was an offense punishable by death. Pilate, in essence, is a coward and does what he thinks is politically expedient.

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