I first saw The Passion at the Paramount in downtown Montréal after being pressured by friends. It was three or four weeks into the initial release and I went to a weekday matinee, so I was surprised to find the theatre full. I was even more surprised when the jaded urbanite audience I had assumed filled the theatre sobbed its way through the last half of the film.
I’ll admit several reaction shots of a distraught Mary choked me up pretty bad. Still, in the end, I was too caught up in the way the film kept situating itself as a literal presentation of the gospel narratives to have anything but a detached, analytical response. I felt like ticking events and verses off in my head as the movie went along. Pulled out his beard? Check. Spat and laughed? Check. No bone of his body broken? Check. The very literalness of the adaptation made me want to stand back and judge this film in terms of its interpretation of the source text.
What I’m suggesting is that The Passion of the Christ, like The Gospel According to St. Matthew, is an important film. Not sociologically, not anthropologically, not culturally. Or at least not only in these ways. It is important because it is a film of ideas. What’s more, its ideas—whether we love them or hate them—are not simply “significant”; they are foundational and compelling. We must address them. But to address them means meeting their challenge, engaging them rather than discussing them, even as Gibson fails to match our portrait of an artist nor his film our ideals and beliefs. In other words, this film asks filmgoers to think beyond ourselves.That’s exciting.