EVERYTHING you know about The Passion of the Christ is wrong. For over a year, the film’s most vocal critics have said Mel Gibson’s movie about the death of Jesus is anti-Semitic, while its most vocal supporters have said no, it’s only an accurate representation of scripture and history. In truth, the film is neither.
First, the charges of anti-Semitism. It is true that Gibson’s film tends to divide the Jewish race into those who follow Christ and those who try to have him killed; and it is true that The Passion, like many other films in this genre, is too soft on Pontius Pilate (in contrast to the callous, vicious figure portrayed by Luke and Philo), which has the unfortunate effect of making the Jews seem just that much more responsible for Jesus’ death.
But Gibson also goes out of his way to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers. The first time we see his mother and Mary Magdalene, they recite a key passage from the Passover seder about being set free from slavery; and when the Roman soldiers force Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross, one practically spits the word “Jew” at him. While Gibson could have gone further with this than he did, he never lets us forget that the Jews at this time were the victims of oppression.
In addition, a look at Gibson’s earlier films reveals he is anything but anti-Semitic. In his 1993 directorial debut, The Man without a Face, Gibson plays a classics tutor who feels dehumanized by his community, partly because one side of his body is covered in burn scars, and the first Shakespeare passage he recites is Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from The Merchant of Venice. Thus, Gibson draws an implicit link between his marginalized character and a Jewish character who also feels cut off from society.
So both Gibson and his film are a lot more complex than their critics give them credit for. But The Passion is also more complex than its supporters seem to recognize.
It is quite telling that the only way many Christians know how to defend a work of art is to assert that it is an “accurate” adaptation of scripture, as if to minimize its artistry or creativity. It is even more telling that many Christians make this assertion even when the work of art in question contains several elements that are quite definitely not accurate.
In his portrayal of the crucifixion, Gibson rejects modern historical scholarship wherever it interferes with the details of his medieval vision. He also erroneously identifies Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery; and where Luke tells us an angel visited and strengthened Jesus in Gethsemane, Gibson has Satan pay Jesus a visit and taunt him instead. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with these sorts of artistic decisions — but they are not exactly “accurate”.
And of course, Gibson puts a lot of violence in his film that is nowhere to be found in the gospels, or even in the visions of Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich, the stigmatic nun whose Dolorous Passion partly inspired this film — so much so that you can’t help wondering whether Gibson, who won Oscars for producing and directing the gory medieval revenge epic Braveheart (1995), is indulging his more sadistic side.
As Hollywood Worldviews author Brian Godawa rightly points out, every film about Jesus is a product of its time, and that is as true of The Passion as it is of the others. But The Passion is also a highly personal film on Gibson’s part, so it also reflects his own artistic and theological inclinations. And in order to fully appreciate this film, we will have to talk about it in those terms.
This column is not a review of the film, which will be released to theatres across the country February 25. But to help put the film in some sort of broader artistic context, here are a few points to consider.
First, recent war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and the Gibson-starring We Were Soldiers have gone out of their way to be more violent than the movies that came before them — but why? Is a film more truthful just because it is bloodier than the others? Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and the Visual Bible’s adaptation of Matthew were also once hailed for their grisly crucifixion scenes; does the law of diminishing returns apply to the violence of Jesus films, too?
Second, just as Braveheart was about nothing if not the definition of masculinity, Gibson seems to want his Jesus to be more manly than the others — that is, to be more tough. Jesus commits the film’s first violent act, as he crushes a snake underfoot, and he practically invites a second round of flogging by standing up straight and showing the soldiers he can take their abuse. Has Gibson perhaps reinvented Jesus in his own masochistic image?
Third, as Thomas Hibbs argues in his excellent book on nihilism in pop culture, Shows About Nothing, recent films have tried to find a sense of meaning by boldly proclaiming the existence of evil. If evil exists, then good must exist too, right? Gibson’s film, with its vivid depiction of human and demonic cruelty, seems to fit that pattern, but should a movie about Christ settle for that sort of message?
Fourth, the film’s poster says, “Dying was his reason for living,” and there is some truth to that. But did not Jesus rise from the dead? Did he not say he came that we might have life abundantly? Frederica Mathewes-Green notes that the church fathers tend to speak of Jesus’ death within the broader context of his Incarnation — so might it not be more accurate to say that living was Jesus’ reason for dying?
Finally, note this film’s use of flashbacks and point-of-view shots. Traditionally, films about Jesus have protected his divinity by objectifying him and keeping him at a distance; more recent films have explored his humanity by treating him more subjectively — we see his dreams and hear his thoughts — but they have also tended to lose sight of his divine authority. How does The Passion deal with these matters?
It is by asking questions like these that we can go beyond merely “using” the film as a ministry “tool” and truly engage with both the art and theology of Mel Gibson’s disturbing, inspiring, and always challenging cinematic vision.
— A version of this article was first published by BC Christian News.