Saturday, October 09, 2004

One man's passion

I waited for The Passion of the Christ to come out on DVD before seeing it. In terms of psychology, there is probably some difference between viewing the film in a dark crowded movie theater, where you see it through the eyes of your fellow moviegoers, and viewing it by yourself in the privacy of your own bedroom.

Never did a movie enjoy more pre-release publicity. Movies on the life and passion of Christ are a cinematic tradition. One is made every decade or so. So there was no reason for Mel to anticipate the opposition.

However, the liberal establishment has been gaining ground over the years, and becoming ever more audacious and self-confident. Liberals really believed that by staging a preemptive campaign they could shut the project down before it ever hit the screen. As usual, this only illustrated how out of touch they were with the general public.

But the film not only came under fire from the far left. It also drew fire from one wing of the Reformed community.

However, the result of the attacks and counter-attacks meant that one comes to the viewing of the film with a preconception of what one’s going to see. And I was rather surprised see that the film I saw so often described by others was not the film I actually saw with my own eyes.

Critics told me that the film depicted the Jewish authorities as hook-nosed Shylocks. But I didn’t see any aquiline actors. All I saw were a lot of bearded Italian actors.

Critics told me that the film depicted the Sanhedrin as unanimous in its condemnation. But I saw a couple of characters--presumably Joseph and Nicodemus--denounce the proceedings--before they were hustled out of the chambers.

Critics told me that the film demonized the Jewish authorities. But if anyone was demonized, it was the Roman soldiers.

Critics told me that the film was a commercial for Catholicism. But although there were some Catholic undercurrents, about which I’ll have more to say, these were rather oblique. Or course, something can be all the more influential by operating below the radar.

Critics told me that the flogging went on too long. But it’s not especially lengthy--either in terms of absolute duration (measured in minutes) or in proportion to the whole. If it seems to go on forever and a day, that’s an artistic triumph. Gibson has succeeded in fostering an impression that exceeds what is actually on film. Our imagination fills in the rest.

I cannot watch the film without drawing constant parallels between the Mideast of Jesus' day and the Mideast today. The same blind brutality is on display whenever we turn on the TV set.

I. What did I like about the film?

1. The moonlight garden of Gethsemane works at several levels.

i) It is historically and theologically accurate, inasmuch as the Passion took place around the Sabbath, on a full-moon.

ii) It simulates the illusion of natural lighting.

iii) It also evokes a spooky lighting effect that fits in well with the introduction of the Devil.

iv) The lunar eclipse in the garden forms a natural inclusio to the solar eclipse on at Golgotha.

The ragged torchlight also has a nice menacing quality as the Temple guards approach to arrest our Lord.

2. Gibson’s depiction of the Devil is fairly successful. Filmmakers have difficulty in the portrayal of pure good and evil. They do well enough with the garden varieties of virtue and vice, because that is a commonplace of human experience, but the limiting-cases challenge their imagination. Are absolute good and evil merely an unadulterated extension of ordinary shades of gray, like the primary colors? Or are the extremes of the spectrum sui generis?

The danger in visualizing the devil is to present a villain who is so operatic in his gleeful iniquity that the character becomes unwittingly comic.

Mel’s androgynous devil, which is emblematic of moral ambiguity, manages to thread the needle. The point is not that Satan really is ambiguous, but although he is too evil to project virtue, he can at least conceal his vicious nature.

Later in the movie, the Devil’s gloating over the ordeal of Christ strikes just the right note. This is primordial payback. This is sweet revenge. He has succeeded--or so he believes--in foisting his hurt feelings back onto God, like a spiteful, malicious child who delights in inflicting pain on its parents.

Of course, the viewer knows something he doesn’t--that he has set a trap for himself. The devil loses by winning.

3. I like the Aramaic. For years we’ve been subjected to actors lining out the King James Version with a crisp aristocratic accent. This destroys all credibility.

The use of Aramaic reminds the modern viewer that Jesus is a concrete universal. He is, on the one hand, the eternal Son and the timeless Savior. And in that respect, Christ is ubiquitous in time and place. He is no more distant to a 21C Christian that he is to a 1C Christian.

But in our focus on his universality, we can lose the particularity of the Incarnation. He did not merely become man, but became a man--a man of a particular time and place.

I also like the Aramaic because it has rough, rich, full-throated quality. All-too-often in Christian iconography and Hollywood movies, Jesus comes across as something of a pantywaist. But the guttural resonance of Aramaic exudes a muscular and manly vigor.

4. The scene of Judas groveling to scrounge up the fallen pieces of silver, coin-by-coin, is effective as an unspoken emblem of his moral and spiritual debasement.

5. The healing of Malchus draws attention to divinity of Christ. This is a man, but more than a man. In a film which has left most of his ministry out of view, this divine insignia is a needed counterweight.

6. I like the way in which the Temple guards seize our Lord. They are like a fearful wolf-pack encircling a bear. The bear is more powerful. It can kill with one swipe.

7. Although the role of Christ is humanly impossible to play, Caviezel turns in far and away the best performance I’ve ever seen in this role.

8. His mother is played a wonderful Romanian actress--with a firm, winsome, empathetic face. And this is a film in which an expressive face goes a long ways, for much of it is a throwback to the silent film era.

9. Critics have said that the message of the Gospels gets lost in the myopic focus on the final hours of Christ. However, Gibson uses flashbacks to bring in more of the teaching and preaching of Christ.

Due to widespread Bible illiteracy, many critics miss the Biblical allusions. A viewer conversant with the Gospels can instantly separate the canonical material from the padding. Among other things, we are treated to brief excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount, the Bread of Life Discourse, the Good Shepherd Discourse, the Upper Room Discourse, Isa 66, Ps 22, Palm Sunday, Maundy-Thursday, and so on.

10. The shot of Mary clawing the gravel sticks in the mind.

11. Although I think that the movie is sometimes graphic to a fault, it makes every other film on the subject look like watching the world through smudgy stained-glass windows.

12. Some critics complain that the cameo scene of the Resurrection lacks balance. However, the contrast between the bloody pulp on Good Friday and the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday is quite powerful. The shot of his winding-sheet collapsing like a snakeskin, followed by a brief shot of his renewed figure, offers yet another forceful contrast. The open, but bloodless, wound in his palm bears mute witness to the reality of the Resurrection. This is no docetic ghost.

13. The shot of the soldiers gambling beneath the cross is both Biblical and dramatically effective as it exposes their spiritual blindness. Likewise, their terrified reaction to the eclipse and the earthquake awakens their moral apprehension. They got the wrong man--and more than a man!

The treatment of the two thieves is fine as far as it goes, but somewhat conventional. Having a raven peck out the eye of the blasphemous thief is a bit of black humor, but sheer fiction.

II. What did I not like about the film?

1. If Aramaic is a plus, Latin is a minus. The Latin is sonorous to the ear, especially when intoned in the cantabile lilt of the actors. But the use of Latin as a 1C lingua franca is anachronistic. The choice of Latin is likely a genuflection (pun intended) to the Tridentine Mass and Gregorian chant.

2. Some Evangelicals were critical of the scene in Gethsemane because the formal temptation of our Lord occurred in the wilderness.

However, Luke says that the devil departed until a more opportune season (4:13). So we should not limit his activity to the wilderness. Strictly speaking, the opportune season more likely has reference to the possession of Judas (22:3). I would prefer if Gibson had developed that line of thought.

Because the director isn’t shooting a life of Christ, he brings the temptation forward in time, so that the Passion narrative recapitulates key moments in the life of Christ. Gibson usually does this through flashbacks. This is artistic license, and valid up to a point.

That does, however, have a way of skewing the theology of the original scene, which is not about Christ and the devil, but about the Father and the Son. In particular, it’s about the covenant of redemption, which unites them in purpose, but drives them apart in practice as the Father must smite him who is Son and sin-bearer in one.

It would have been more dramatically and doctrinally effective if Gibson had been able to exploit this tension. But he is not that theologically astute.

3. In the garden, the subtitles have Jesus denote the bitter cup as a "chalice." This is a Catholic touch, and quite out of place, for the cup in question has nothing to do with the Last Supper or Lord’s Supper. Rather, it is an OT allusion to the cup of divine wrath and judgment (Ps 11:6; 60:3; 75:8; Isa 29:9-10; 51:17,21-23; 63:6; Jer 25:15-29; Lam 4:21; Zech 12:2).

Likewise, the scene of Jesus "elevating" the unleavened bread is an anachronistic allusion to the elevation of the "Host" by a priest at Mass.

4. I can’t help noticing that the snake looks like a small boa constrictor. Not only don’t these inhabit Palestine, but they are non-venomous. It would be better to use a viper, which is more malevolent than a baby boa.

5. The suicide of Judas is overwrought. I don’t know the point of the juvenile furies who torment him--like something that walked right out of Hieronymous Bosch painting. Are these his inner demons? As a demoniac, the phrase might apply to Judas with startling literality. Still, it leaves the viewer scratching his head.

6. The scene with Herod is also overwrought--a little too reminiscent of Charles Laughton as Nero.

7. The Roman soldiers are overwrought. No doubt some soldiers had a sadistic streak, but I expect that many were too callous to take pleasure in the infliction of pain and suffering. Killing was routine. They went about their job in the most efficient and businesslike way availble.

In addition, Christ could not have made it all the way to Golgotha if he were whipped like a back-broken mule every step of the way--especially when made to shoulder that absurdly huge and heavy cross.

8. The film has far too many reaction shots. These serve a couple of purposes:

i) They cut away from the figure of Christ, so that we are not always looking at this same thing. This is a legitimate device. It breaks the tedium.

ii) They function as a prompter’s box, tacitly cueing the audience as to how it should feel about what it sees. This is not a legitimate device. Rather, that’s an artistic defect.

A reaction shot is the cinematic equivalent of an editorial narrator who tells the reader what to think. Resorting to this gimmick reflects a lack of trust on the part of the director. He doesn’t trust the audience to react the right way. And he doesn’t trust his presentation sufficiently to do the job on its own.

This is a pity, because Gibson's treatment has more than enough dramatic power to work on the audience and evoke the desired response. Plastering the viewer with reaction shots weakens rather than augments the effect. He should let his presentation do the work without intrusive cues.

9. Another problem with reaction shots is that they turn Jesus into an object of pity. This is a piece of false piety. Christ is not a pitiful victim.

10. There is much too much of Mary. We see her in almost every scene. Wherever we see Jesus, Mary is never far behind.

Here we arrive at a theological divide. For Gibson, there is a dramatic and doctrinal parity between the Mother of God and the Son of God, the Mater Dolorosa and the Via Dolorosa, Redeemer and Redemptrix.

In one scene, Gibson also draws a parallel between the Madonna and child--now a grown child--on one side, with Satan and the Antichrist child, on the other.

That gives the movie a certain aesthetic symmetry. But from an Evangelical standpoint, this is a dramatic distraction and a doctrinal disaster. If Jesus is the only way (Jn 14:6; 1 Tim 2:5; 2 Jn 2:2), then any other way is in the way.

In fact, it even goes beyond parity. In one scene, Peter confesses to Mary; while there are also times when Jesus seems to renew his strength from the inspiration of his mother. At one level, this is rather infantile, while at another level it foments a theological inversion of values.

All these points are made at a tacit, nearly subliminal level. It is possible for this to pass right over the head of the average viewer. So I speak only for myself.

The Pieta scene that rounds out the crucifixion, just before the Resurrection, is another plug for Catholic iconography.

11. There is too much on the idea of unconditional absolution. This involves the combination of selective, one-sided citations, along with a couple of apocryphal addenda as well. However popular the scene of the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53-8:11) may be in the Christian imagination, it is a spurious scribal addition. Likewise, Lk 23:34 is of dubious authenticity.

When the theme of forgiveness is sheared from the corollary theme of judgment, and when forgiveness is also decoupled from the redemption of the elect, it becomes a lame and limp-wristed gesture.

12. Many critics have accused Gibson of turning Pilate into a sympathetic character, contrary to the Biblical and extra-Biblical depiction of Pilate.

There’s some truth to this charge. Gibson has made the figure of Pilate into a more complex character than he was in real life.

However, I don’t see him as a sympathetic character. Rather, he comes across as a man who feels superior to the people he must govern. He is so reasonable, but they are so unreasoning. They are unworthy of a man of his fine intelligence. They leave him no choice. What can you do with people like this? His hands are tied.

This is a valid characterization. Surely there are men in power who think this way. This is how they excuse their actions.

But, of course, it’s no excuse at all. They look down on the people they govern, but no one was forcing them into this position in the first place. If, at the end of the day, you do the bidding of your moral and intellectual inferiors--as you deem them--then you are no better than they. Indeed, you are worse, for in your own estimate, you know better, without doing better. You make yourself the pawn of those you despise.

Having said all that, the movie would be better if Gibson stuck with the original--both because it’s true to history, and because it is dramatically effective. Pilate is a conflicted character, not because his conscience is at odds with his pragmatism, but because he is torn between two opposing fears. On the one hand, he is afraid that the political situation will get out of hand. There will be an insurrection. Caesar doesn’t like a Procurator who can’t keep the peace. Worse, Pilate might be denounced to Caesar as disloyal.

On the other hand, Pilate finds the charge against Christ to be unnervingly plausible. His fear is not that the charge is false, but that the charge may be true. What if Jesus really is the Son of God? He has a certain aura about him.

To be sure, Pilate’s theology is not especially rarified, but even a pagan god is more formidable than any mere mortal. It would be decidedly imprudent to get on the wrong side of a god!

In the end, Pilate chooses short-term expediency over long-term expediency.

13. Critics complain that all the nonstop bloodshed is numbing. The spirit of the Gospel disappears under a thick coat of purple gore.

This charge is a little tricky to sort out. The scourging, crowning, nailing, and impaling, are gory events. That’s a fact. Up to a point, it’s good to see this. The printed page does not pack the same punch as an image on the big screen. It is ugly and brutal, but it happened.

In addition, the principle of blood atonement is a fixture in Scripture. This is the Gospel. It is foreshadowed in the OT, and fulfilled in the New. It is ugly and brutal, but sin is ugly and brutal, and the exaction of justice is also ugly and brutal. No getting around this. Sin has no admission fee--you pay on the way out.

Also, how we react to violence is high subjective and person-variable. Women tend to be more sensitive to this than men. I myself have been exposed to so much simulated violence on TV and film that I'm pretty well inured to it all.

But there were a few moments when I could not help but wince. There is one point in the flogging where the scourge becomes wedged in his tissues like fishhooks, to be dislodged with a savage jerk, ripping free bleeding chunks of living flesh. Another was when his flayed epidermis is dragged across the bare pavement. Yet another was when the nails were pounded into his palms, with the wood shuddering under each blow and amplifying the overall effect.

The spectacle of Jesus falling down, as well as the cross falling on top of him, would have the same effect if it were more real to me, but these are legendary details derived from the traditional iconography of the fourteen Stations of the Cross.

Again, the crowning with thorns might also have the same effect except that we've seen this sort of thing in many Jesus films before. What makes the difference is when Gibson brings a new touch to an old story.

It also makes a difference who you think is undergoing this torture. If you believe it to be the divine Redeemer, who chooses to endure this torment in your place, that, too, makes a world of difference.

The shot of the blood-bespattered face of his tormentors is appropriate inasmuch as it speaks to their hard-hearted depravity.

However, there are limits. When Mary kisses his bloodied feet, her lips are smeared with blood. When Christ is impaled, the soldier is drenched in a shower of baptismal blood. She and the Magdalene--whom the director, following a venerable but unscriptural tradition, equates with the woman caught in adultery--also mop up the blood after his flogging. None of this is Scriptural.

To Gibson, thought, this is a metaphor for the Mass. It also has a history in the tradition of Catholic martyriology.

Once again we reach a theological impasse. In Scripture, the theological significance of blood serves two or three related functions:

i) Bloodshed was one way of sealing a covenant (e.g., Gen 15; 17; Exod 24; Mt 26:28). This carries over into our modern notion of a blood-pact.

ii) Bloodshed was emblematic of life given over to death (e.g. Lev 17:11; Heb 12:24).

iii) Bloodshed was emblematic of vicarious atonement, as the victim was slaughtered in lieu of the suppliant (e.g., Lev 16).

To the extent that Mel’s movie degenerates into a splatter-film, drenched in buckets of indiscriminate bloodletting, it loses the true significance of blood atonement in Scripture.

14. Caviezel intones Ps 22:1 as a cry of despair. However, in the days before chapter and verse division, one way of referring to a literary unit was to cite the first sentence. Although Ps 22 begins on a despairing note, it ends on a note of victory. The Psalm is a statement of faith and resignation to the will of God, rather than an expression of spiritual doubt.

15. Mel makes heavy use of the subjective camera. One especially striking instance is the God’s-eye view of cross, reminiscent of Dali’s famous painting, follow by a teardrop from heaven as our Lord expires. On an artistic plane, this is brilliant.

For me, however, the movie only works when history and artistry work in tandem. Since this detail is unscriptural, it fails to edify, for faith must have a factual object.

Likewise, the shot of the dove along the Via Dolorosa, recalling the Baptism of Christ, is another artistic stroke that works well at an imaginative level, but being imaginary, fails to reverberate within the soul.

In sum, I would say that The Passion is a great film, but a flawed film. Gibson is an erratic moviemaker, by turns subtle and heavy-handed. What Gibson does well, he does very well indeed--which is most of the time. The film is well-worth watching, although some scenes repel repeated viewing.
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