A few days ago, Peter and I watched The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s movie about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I am pissed off! Not because of the movie, but because of all the b.s. put out about the movie when it was in the theatres. According to the reviews and columns I read, The Passion of the Christ was little more than a really gross snuff film for troglodytes, with anti-Semitic overtones to boot. I’m not Christian and I don’t like gore, so I gave it a miss.
Later on, though I changed my mind about seeing it. Just as some people are irrationally hateful about George Bush, there are quite a few people who are irrationally hateful about Christianity. All you have to do is casually mention the new Pope, or Peter’s pictures of the Vatican, and suddenly you get a spew about hypocritical church goers, child-molesting priests, and the Crusades as the seminal cause of the War on Terror. Maybe the critics were in this camp, and the millions who had gone to see the movie and enjoyed it were normal Christians, whom I generally don’t have a problem with. There’s no way I would know who was telling the truth about the movie unless I saw it. Besides, the movie was in Aramaic and Latin, and how could I resist any movie in multiple obscure languages?
Just as a period piece, the movie was stunning. My problem with the movie is that the script assumes you already know all the characters: fair enough, given its target audience. I dug on Pontius Pilate, who was an elegant, politically astute governor (with a compassionate wife) in this version, not a tired, lonely beaurocrat as in Master and Margarita. For the rest, I had to rely on getting filled in on the who’s who by Peter. The hapless guy who keeps shuffling around and who eventually hangs himself is Judas. The guy who reluctantly helps Jesus carry the cross is Simon. The young man who’s accompanying Jesus’ mom, Mary, everywhere, isn’t her husband; it’s Jesus’ brother, James. What?!
As for the unacceptable level of violence and gore, I have to disagree. An episode of Supernatural has a higher body count and modern horror films are all about unrelenting torture, so why is it only wrong when the story comes from the Bible? Peter admired the movie because it was a straight retelling of the Bible story (except for the addition of strange evil ghost-like creature neither of us could figure out). The trial, imprisonment, and crucifixion of Jesus was interspersed with other, much more pleasant scenes, such as Jesus working as a carpenter, and preaching to the crowd. I don’t like horror movies, but this was more history than horror. The Romans (and their medieval followers) used really brutal punishment; it’s just that it’s usually not shown in modern movies in respect to our modern sensitivities. For the first time, I saw was scourging was: it makes capital punishment look pleasant. I did have to turn away when the nails were being driven in; I still can’t get my mind around the fact that Romans actually did that sort of thing.
I also found the anti-Semitism claim unfounded. Sure, the high priest of the temple is officious and self-important. But there’s also Joseph of Arimathea who complains loudly at the boisterous Jewish council meeting that their outrage against Jesus is ridiculous. An awful lot of people in the movie suck, not just the Jews. Herod’s a dissolute self-centered king. The Roman guards who pound a barbed wire crown on Jesus are jerks. Pilate cares more about politics than justice. The mob doesn’t care just as long as they’re not in Jesus’ place.
To me, the movie came across as a story about a man who stands up for what he believes in, and stays to defend it, even though he knows he will have to suffer for it, and most people won’t care, and some (including those who love him) will think he’s stupid for standing his ground. So it was good, though I don’t think I’ll be inclined to watch the movie a second time.
But what was the point of all the people dissing the movie without having even seen it? I believe in fair criticism: either you’re willing to expose yourself to ideas you don’t agree with so that you can understand and critique them fairly, or you admit there are certain things you don’t want to be exposed to because of a personal bias. I watched An Inconvenient Truth, and found it worse than I expected: not only was the information exaggerated to the point of propaganda, it was also a self-serving piece about Al Gore himself. I won’t read Mein Kampf: it might give me a deeper understanding of Hitler’s fascist philosophy, but it frightens me, and second hand analyses, like history books and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism are as far as I want to go into that idea.
So I’m glad I saw The Passion of the Christ. I just wish more of its critics had seen it before dissing it so vehemently.
I thought the young man with Jesus’ mother was John, the beloved disciple and the one who Jesus charged with taking care of Mary after he was gone. Jesus said this on while on the cross but it wasn’t in the movie.
The “strange evil ghost-like creature” was an androgynous Satan and was what I thought was one of the most eerie aspects of the movie. The scene where he/she is carrying a really ugly baby was intended to be a bastardization of all those Madonna and Child paintings.
I would suggest a movie that Martin Scorcese got a lot of grief for when it came out, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Wilhem Dafoe as Jesus and David Bowie as Pilate; now that is an intriguing cast. So many protests accompanied this movie that it didn’t get the audience it deserved. What I really liked is that the “last temptation”, the temptation that the devil had the most success with, (not actual success, but as close as he got), was the chance to be just a normal guy with a wife and job and not have the salvation of the world resting on your shoulders. The scenario the devil presented and the way he linked it to Abraham and Isaac was very… tempting.
Great point about exposing yourself to ideas you don’t agree with. If you insulate your experience you become parochial in your opinions.