Politics & Policy

A Movie and Its Meaning

Mel Gibson's Passion is for all time.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the March 8, 2004, issue of National Review.

By the fifteenth minute of The Passion of the Christ, Jesus’s right eye has swollen nearly shut. It stays that way for the next two hours. It is a brutal, almost unbearably brutal, movie. From the very beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane, the punches are real. The violence is not cool or “balletic.” The movie is not, in that sense, a Mel Gibson movie. If it is true that movies make their money at the concession stands, he has been even more daring than we thought. This is not a movie that will sell popcorn. Nor is it a movie that is guaranteed to appeal to the most common American styles of piety. This is a country where Easter is more popular than Good Friday, and Christmas more popular than either. The Resurrection comes at the end of this movie, but it seemed to pass by in a half minute.

Leaving an advance screening of the movie, I ran into a college classmate I had not seen in years. She works for a mass-market pop-culture magazine. “It’s hard to get beyond the ultraviolence,” she said. “It’s obscene.” I nodded. She was right. That’s the point: What we did to Christ was obscene.

If your reactions are like mine, you will be outraged when Christ is mocked and spat on. You will tear up when He looks upon Peter denying Him and when Mary runs to comfort Him when He falls on the way to the cross. You will find it hard to watch the scourging of His flesh, His blood spattering His tormentors. You will want to close your eyes as the stakes are driven in. For Christians, it is triply painful: seeing such brutality inflicted on any man; seeing it inflicted on the only sinless man, our precious Lord; knowing that we are responsible for it. But we also know that He can redeem even that awful scene, even the scene of the worst crime ever committed. It is a bloody movie. But His blood is life. Lest we forget, the movie has Him tell us so in a flashback to the Last Supper.

I had not wanted to dwell on the question of anti-Semitism in writing about The Passion because the subject of the movie is infinitely more important than the political controversy surrounding it. But the two are connected (as we shall see). Also, in the day since I have seen it, the first question of almost everyone to whom I have talked about it—Catholics, for the most part—has been whether the charges of anti-Semitism have any basis.

Let me start by saying that the apprehensions of the critics were understandable, and not just invented. They were understandable given the historical role of passion plays in fostering anti-Semitism. They were understandable given what we know, or think we know, about the Gibson family’s schismatic Catholicism and about the mystical writers who influenced the movie. And Gibson’s own recent comments about the Holocaust—acknowledging that it happened but seeming to downplay it as a wartime atrocity—were not reassuring either.

The movie is not at all anti-Semitic. In the film, some Jewish leaders want Christ killed and some do not. Some are decent and some indecent, as is also true of the Romans. Some followers of Christ betray the Lord—chiefly the men, as in the Gospels. Some, chiefly the women but also John, stay by His side.

Will the movie nonetheless encourage anti-Semitic outrages at a time when they already seem to be on the rise? Lunatics will find their evidence in voices in the air. Will it support a premise in the logic of anti-Semitism? The question is misconceived. Anti-Semitism is not a logic.

In the unlikely event that French Islamists or American neo-Nazis need cinematic sanction for their hatred, they will not find it here. A central message of the movie, with which all its other truths are bound up, is that we are all of us guilty for the crucifixion: Every sinful act of man—including every act of hatred against Jews—pounds the nail deeper. (Even some recent defenses of the Catholic Church have made it sound as though the idea that all of us, and not just “the Jews,” are to blame was an innovation of the 1960s. Actually it was always the church’s teaching, although the Second Vatican Council may have revived and deepened it.) Another is that mankind’s futile and monstrous search for scapegoats finds its end in the Lamb of God.

Some reviewers have already complained that the movie whitewashes Pontius Pilate and puts too much blame on the Jewish leaders. They say that it overemphasizes the religious, and underemphasizes the political, motives for the crucifixion. But only a very unreflective person would not understand why Jewish leaders saw Jesus as a blasphemer. And even such a person will be able to see that Christ’s most vicious mockers and torturers are Romans, not Jews. There is also the figure of Satan, who appears several times in the movie and is clearly not a Jewish leader.

Gibson made dramatic choices regarding Pilate that not everyone will find satisfactory. But I did not take the sympathetic portrayal of Pilate to mitigate his guilt. I took its pedagogic purpose to be to invite us to imagine that the worst evil ever could have been committed by a man who seems like a nice guy. To have sympathy for someone is to imagine ourselves in his place. That is what we are meant to do here. We are nice people. Could we have done something like this? Yes. We did. To make Pilate an ogre would be to defeat this point entirely. Should Pilate be forgiven, whatever his motives? Should the Jewish leaders? Should we? That is not a question that I can answer. But it may be worth noting—it is not the least significant comment in the movie—that Jesus Christ asks His Father to forgive His killers.

After anti-Semitism, the question I have been asked most often is how well the movie was done. Does it “work”? That’s a question that can be understood in several ways. The tale is told well and gruesomely. The spoken language of the movie—Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin—conveys a sense of historicity, while the subtitles make the events comprehensible (within the limits of language to make these particular events comprehensible) and are not distracting. The casting is excellent. The decision not to use any big-name stars was obviously right. The only one who appears is Gibson, whose hand drives the first nail into the cross. I am not so sure about the creepily androgynous devil, who reminds me a little of one of the evil counselors in Star Wars, or maybe Battlestar Galactica. (Or perhaps the evil-counselor archetype is based on Satan.) No gesture is wasted.

People always want to know whether the movie is faithful to the book, or in this case the Book. The answer is yes. There are some elements of pious Catholic tradition that appear in the movie—notably Veronica’s veil. I doubt most Protestants will object, since these elements contradict neither the letter nor spirit of Scripture (which is why it can be in the pious tradition).

There is some defensible artistic license. The movie starts with our story in progress. To set the theme, Satan appears at the beginning of the movie in the garden seeking to fill Jesus with doubt. Can one man take on the full burden of all sin? Judas, committing suicide, shows his answer to be no. Jesus says yes.

The nails are driven into His hands, when His wrists would have been more historically accurate. Christ carries the whole cross, not just the crossbeam. These are also defensible choices, if not the ones I would have wanted.

The movie is not comprehensive. We do not hear all seven of Jesus’s last words, which I regret. The descent into Hell is not depicted, although the devil does make a final appearance when Jesus is taken down from the cross. I could not tell whether Satan was shrieking in pain or delight—whether the frenzy was that of imagined victory or final defeat—and perhaps that is just as well. I recalled then the sadism of the guards as they perverted some of the greatest gifts God has given us: joy, laughter, fun.

How Catholic is the movie? Very. But it is not Catholic in a way that excludes Protestants. The film’s Marian devotion is a devotion to the Lord through His mother. (Scrawled on my notepad: “This is what the beauty of holiness would look like.”) She is the counterpart to Lucifer: the faithful servant versus the faithless one. In recent years there has been much discussion of “evangelicals and Catholics together.” There has been joint political action and joint theological reflection. In the popular culture, this movie appears to be the most significant moment of such togetherness yet. Other Christians need not feel excluded by the movie, but it is among these two groups that its most enthusiastic fans have already been found. If the film is truly a “success,” one way it will be a success is in drawing evangelicals and Catholics together where they should most be together: in Christ. Both groups should pray that they are drawn, together, to Christ, by Christ.

Some of my friends have asked me whether I thought the movie would make non-Christians reconsider their faiths or unfaiths. It is not beyond the Lord’s power to reach people’s hearts in this way. But I suspect that Christ crucified will remain folly to the Greeks. The movie may make Christianity seem more, rather than less, alien and strange. As powerful as I believe this movie is, I have no doubt that there will be those who choose to mock it. There are Christophobes among us; and these are not people for whom the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. They are people who, for various reasons, some of them understandable, all of them sad, are alarmed by any sign of increased Christian vigor.

The mood in which Christians should watch the movie, in which they can hardly help being as they watch it, is penitential. They should be careful to avoid the temptation to make of this movie more than it is. I have heard that people who run into Jim Caviezel on the street have tried to touch him. But Caviezel is not the Lord Jesus Christ. To watch the movie is not to receive a sacrament. Mel Gibson’s Passion is not Christ’s Passion. You can mock the first without mocking the second, although you can also of course mock both.

What I hope is that the movie will help to effect a deeper conversion of the already converted. I walked out of the theater into the cold sunlight and pot smoke of a Manhattan sidewalk. If we leave this film reminded that this world is not our home but only a way station, then Gibson will have done a mighty work for the Lord. We will remember that He is being crucified, and doing His saving work, every day, every moment, as I write, as you read.

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