How to Watch The Passion

Some of the best words about The Passion of the Christ that I’ve ever read.

Steven D. Greydanus, in a casual conversation about the film today:

I actually think that a big part of the reason The Passion is off-putting to people, looking past the violence and the charges of anti-Semitism, is the same reason that films like 2001: A Space Odyssey are off-putting: We come to films with certain expectations rooted in the dramatic conventions of our age, and it’s hard to know how to respond to a film that’s doing something ELSE.

The Passion is almost completely uninterested in ordinary narrative conventions of character development, plot-driven storytelling, and so forth. It doesn’t do any of the things Gospel films typically do — doesn’t try to fill in the gaps in character motivation, psychology, historical setting, etc. It offers iconic images (e.g., the bag of coins flung to Judas) without any regard for modern dramatic issues (WHY did Judas agree to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver?). It not only looks like a painting, it has about the same level of interest in characterization and critical concerns. Like 2001, or even Koyaanisqatsi, it’s more interested in creating a particular sort of experience than in relating or explaining a certain sequence of events.

I think that if the same filmmaking technique had been used to tell a story without the religious baggage, it would be much more widely hailed by critics (and of course much LESS widely hailed by conservative Christians!).

But I DON’T think that it would have gotten an Oscar nomination. It still would have been too adventurous a film for the Academy voters.



I wish it made me like the film more. It doesn’t. I’m still frustrated with its rough spots. But Greydanus’s remarks give us excellent language for defending what the film is. I wish other critics who condemn the film would take this to heart and consider looking at it in a whole new way. Maybe there are varieties of cinematic experience that they don’t appreciate because they don’t stop the read the label before they gulp it down.


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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Don't you hate these ugly click-bait ads? Visit for a bigger, better, ad-free version of Jeffrey Overstreet's blog. Jeffrey Overstreet is the senior film critic for Christianity Today, the author of Through a Screen Darkly and Auralia's Colors, and he teaches writing and film at Seattle Pacific University, Houston Baptist University, and Northwest University.