Wednesday, March 10, 2004

My Impressions of The Passion

I finally saw The Passion the other night, and have now spent over 24 hours, off and on, thinking about it. Before I get to my thoughts, I thought I'd pull a couple comments from two disparate sources. . . Harry Knowles of the Movie Geek site Ain't It Cool News and William F. Buckley from the National Review. Why these two, I don't know, maybe because they are the latest to come out with their own reviews. First, Mr. Buckley:

"The film by Mel Gibson is moving because of its central contention, namely that an innocent man of high moral purpose was tortured and killed. It happens that the man in question, Jesus of Nazareth, is an object of worship, and that harm done unto him, in the perspective of those (myself included) who regard him as divine, is especially keen because it is not only inhuman, it is blasphemous. . .

What Gibson gave us in his Passion is the most prolonged human torture ever seen on the screen. It is without reason, and by no means necessarily derivative from the grand hypothesis that, after all, the crucifixion was without reason, as Pontius Pilate kept on observing. One sees for dozens of minutes soldiers apparently determined to flog to death the man the irresolute procurator had consented merely to 'chastise. . .'

. . . improvisation is headlong in Gibson's Passion. Still, the film cannot help moving the viewer, shaking the viewer . . . The suffering of Jesus isn't intensified by inflicting the one-thousandth blow: that is the Gibson/Braveheart contribution to an agony which was overwhelmingly spiritual in character and perfectly and definitively caught by Johann Sebastian Bach in his aptly named Passion of Christ According to St. Matthew. There beauty and genius sublimate a passion which Gibson celebrates by raw bloodshed. The only serious question left in the viewer's mind is: Should God have exempted this gang from His comprehensive mercy? But that is because we are human, Christ otherwise."

It seems Mr. Buckley, a noted conservative was rather uncomfortable with the level of violence in Gibson's film, though his final point is right on.

Now, for Harry Knowles:

"When I saw the film all the comments about the film being a “Jew Bashing” spectacle went away for me, because the message I saw being conveyed could not have been further from the mark. TO ME – “THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST” is an astonishingly powerful work of cinema that’s overwhelming purpose is to show the lengths of personal hell one could endure without losing one’s purpose or love for one’s fellow human beings. I found in the film that Jesus wasn’t in the end asking for violent retribution, he wasn’t “pissed” at the Romans for whipping the flesh from his body, nor was he not wanting retribution visited upon those that set Anthony Quinn free instead of him. It was his fate. It was what he was “sent” here to do. From the moment he steps on that serpent’s head, through the end credits… Jesus is accepting his fate. It will not be a pretty one, but he does accept it. In fact, I’d even say that he does things to ensure that it will be his fate. He doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses. After he’s “caned” badly by the Romans, he rises in defiance to press them into further action. This was HIS decision, because he needed to be a martyr. That was his purpose.
This wasn’t supposed to be a happy story. What possible message was Mel Gibson trying to convey? I’m not positive, but the message I found in the film. The reason for showing all that horrible violence and personal atrocity… it wasn’t for exploitation or out of his own perverse sense of bloodlust. To me, that violence was to illustrate in excruciating detail the lengths one could go through and suffer through without raising a hand to defend ones’ self, to not cry for revenge, to not curse those that torment you. That in your dying moments you pray for those that would see you dead, not hurl a curse upon them. Not inspire your believes to save you, but to go knowing one’s place and embrace the inevitable end.
I find the film an amazing tribute to pacifism."

Harry Knowles is a self-described hippy, peacnik, liberal. Hardly what could be called a member of the religious right.

What these two reviews show is that different people will take different things out of the film. To a great extent, the thoughts and preconceptions with which they enter the theater can markedly affect their experience in viewing the film. Some have their faith re-affirmed, or restored (as in the case of Harry Knowles). Others come away disgusted, feeling that Gibson has relied on pornographic violence (scroll down a bit) and his film missed the point of Jesus' life entirely. Finally, those wary of anti-semitic undertones, will often find them. With these points in mind, why kind of baggage did I bring with me into the theater?

Well, first, and obvious, I'm a conservative, and I'm also a historian, so I'm inclined to value tradition and to critically approach historical works. Be it Western Civilization or the Bible, I see the inherent value of our past and what it can teach us when it is portrayed accurately. Add to this an upbringing as a Roman Catholic and you have an individual with a pretty strong, traditional, Western-style mind with a moral conscience. That's not to say that I'm necessarily a biblical scholar, in fact, far from it. Yet, I purposedly refrained from "boning up" on the Bible so I could go into the film with what I thought would be more of the mindset of the "average" movie goer. I also dispensed with any desire to keep my eyes open for historical innacuracy. (I don't really care if it's 2nd or 11th century Latin being spoken, for instance). As far as the religious aspect, in essence, I'm aware of the general theme of scripture, though not really familiar with exact portions.

Rather than delve into details, I will give my general impressions. The first thing that comes to mind is the role of Satan. I found the inclusion of Satan as an observer interesting. To me, while Satan mocked Jesus and attempted to goad him into action against his fate, I also believe that Satan was fascinated by Jesus. It seems as if he was asking "How could any man go throught this when he clearly had the power to stop it all?" The final scene of Satan screaming when he realizes that the pain and torture which Jesus endured and that Satan had been enjoying actually resulted in hurting HIM was important.

I can honestly see how some would think this film anti-Semitic, so long as they identify being Jewish with the hierarchy only. However, to claim such and not notice that at least two Rabbi's were kicked out of the Sanhedrin for challenging Jesus' "trial" as well as the many JEWISH supporters of Jesus is disengenuous.

The portrayal of the Roman soldiers as brutish barbarians left no doubt in my mind which "side" enjoyed torturing and punishing Jesus more. I was struck by the moment when the Roman soldier spat the word "Jew" at Simon after he had helped Jesus carry the Cross. It is clear that the Romans regarded all of the Jews, whether they followed Jesus or Caiphas, as little more than worthless "rabble."

Pilate's role was played perfectly and, to me, he seemed to be what he probably really was; a Roman politician who was concerned for his job and willing to do anything, albeit with regret, to keep the peace. I'm not sure, however, whether I approve of the portrayal of his wife. That was a new one to me, and I think it may have gone too far in casting a sympathetic light on the Romans.

The torture scene was tough. Was it necessary for Gibson to go that far? I have mixed feelings, though I have theories as to why he did. Could it be that in today's culture, so inured to scenes of violence, that Gibson felt he had to raise the bar to convey the degree of savagery to a contemporary audience? Could the over-the-top torture and pain be simply there to make us wonder how any man could endure it, only to realize that Jesus was more than man? I'm not really sure. I don't know if I'll ever be sure, but it is what it is. I can understand why people would not agree with Gibson's approach on this, though ascribing nefarious or perverted motives to him is to go way too far.

Finally, I noted that when Jesus was taken down from the Cross, it was by his mother Mary, Mary Madgalene and an disciple as well as two Roman soldiers and a Rabbi. All of the factions took him from the Cross and cared for his dead body, just as all of the factions had a hand in putting him on the Cross. The Romans and Jewish leaders role were obvious, but the rejection of Jesus by Peter as well as those disciples who fled from him in the Garden also contributed to his death. Of course, the most obvious contributer was Judas, the fallen disciple. All had a part in Jesus' death and elements of all cared for his body after he died.

In my opinion, Gibson succeeded in that he has the nation talking about faith. Put away the nuance and politics of it all, and that is the basic result of the movie. Religion isn't necessarily a conversational taboo anymore. To my mind, that's good. It certainly has made me think about faith again and, combined with my ongoing education in history, could lead to some interesting internal intellectual debates for me. I urge all to see it, whether you think you'll like it or hate it, or whether you will feel the same after seeing it. It is not a movie to like, anyway; it is a movie to make you think and we need a lot more people in this country to start thinking.

As an epilogue, I would like to add that it is interesting that Gibson has essentially put forth a form of Evangelism, which relies on eliciting an emotional response from people, that has prompted intellectual debate between religious and secular. A similar occurence happened in the mid 18th century during the Great Awakening, though the debate was between Evangelical Christians and Rational Christians (Enlightenment influence Christians, if you will). Historical parallel? Perhaps. The result was a further splintering of Protestantism, with some moving toward secularization and others toward more fundamental, even dogmatic, religious belief. Ultimately, it firmly entrenched religious thought, of one form or another, into the fabric of American society. I did a presentation on the American Enlightenment recently that touched on this subject. If you have the inclination, you can find it here. (Download it if you want, I was too lazy to convert it to html).

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