Our cultural Jesus, Stephen Prothero argues in his just released book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, is an “other-directed” personality type, eager to please whatever constituency will have him. Instead of the man of sorrows bearing a cross, we have the smiling, winking “Buddy Christ” who gives America a big thumbs-up in the 1999 film Dogma. The latest entry in the Jesus genre–Mel Gibson’s controversial and stunning <a href="http://www.thepassionofthechrist.com/splash.htm"The Passion of the Christ–hits theaters today, on Ash Wednesday. In its style and themes, Gibson’s depiction of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is a complete revolution of the genre. The Passion casts out the demon of sentimentality that has always haunted Hollywood films about Christ.
”Cheesy epics” with “corny” acting and “bad hair or really bad music” is the way Gibson describes classical Hollywood depictions of the life of Jesus. By contrast, The Passion of the Christ, in Aramaic and Latin with scenes of such intense violence that it has received an R-rating, is unlike anything in the history of American film. Indeed, it is even something of a departure from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s passion, which are remarkably restrained and laconic in their depiction of the precise details of his suffering. We are told that he was scourged, mocked with a crown of thorns, forced to carry a cross, and then crucified. Even most traditional icons of Christ crucified or Michelangelo’s Pieta, which depicts Mary holding her dead son’s body, provoke a sense of awe at their beauty, not the horror that makes us want to look away.
In The Passion’s parallel scene to the Pieta, Mary’s face is smudged with blood. Christ’s body is blood soaked and battered, with swollen eyes and gaping wounds where his flesh has been torn away. The scenes of Christ’s scourging, with the Romans’ making use of multiple implements of torture, and the crucifixion itself, with the blood dripping from the nails as they pierce flesh and wood, are emotionally wrenching on a scale rarely experienced even in contemporary Hollywood where blood sport is the order of the day.
But The Passion does not wallow in violence. Instead, it hearkens back to another tradition of engaging the Gospels, one that attempts to provide a sense of what it was like to be with Christ on the way of the cross (via dolorosa). The tradition of meditation on Christ’s passion and death crystallizes in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 16th-century manual, The Spiritual Exercises. Founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius counsels use of the imagination to place oneself in the setting of the Gospel stories, to see and hear the events and voices, and to be moved in appropriate ways. “In the Passion,” he writes, “the proper thing to ask for is grief with Christ suffering, a broken heart with Christ heartbroken, tears and deep suffering because of the great suffering that Christ endured for me.”
Reports from early screenings of The Passion indicate that viewers have been moved in precisely these ways. The success of the film hinges on its ability to move us beyond revulsion to ponder who this man is who endures suffering in this way, to ask a version of the question a tempting Satan puts to Jesus in the opening of the film, “Who is your Father? Who are you?” To deepen our appreciation of the mystery of this itinerant Jewish teacher, the film makes effective use of flashbacks. Particularly moving is one of Mary’s flashbacks; as she witnesses Jesus collapse with a thud under the weight of the cross, she recalls a moment when she anxiously rushed to comfort the child Jesus after a fall. Indeed, Gibson manages to curtail and humanize our torment over Jesus’ afflictions by repeatedly turning our attention to Mary’s love and grief. Maia Morgenstern’s performance as Mary is sure and deft; when she first catches sight of Jesus once he has been taken into custody, she remarks with knowing dread, “It has begun. So be it.”
Gibson’s Passion will undoubtedly be seen as the anti-Last Temptation of Christ, an equally controversial film. Martin Scorese’s film came under fire for stressing Christ’s humanity to the detriment of his divinity. Gibson is clearly not interested in speculation about whether Christ fantasized about an alternative life, one in which he might wed Mary Magdalene and so forth. But Gibson does not give us an otherworldly Jesus either. As Jesus, Jim Caviezel embodies a range and depth of human emotion never before captured in films about the life of Christ. This is a fully human Christ, whose divinity, except in a couple notable scenes, remains veiled behind the suffering humanity. In his depiction of the sorrowful Christ of the cross, Gibson’s portrayal calls to mind Pascal’s marveling at the Gospel descriptions of Christ:
Why do they make him weak in his agony? The same St. Luke describes the death of St. Stephen more heroically than that of Jesus. They make him capable of fear before death had become inevitable and then absolutely steadfast. But when he is so distressed it is when he distresses himself; when men distress him he is steadfast (Pascal, Pensees, #316).
But Christ is not just a victim, a passive, pliable soul. In the opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ is already weary, by turns despondent and frenetic with fear. As he prays, Satan appears to taunt him and lure him into despair. The androgynous demon insists that “no one man can bear” the sins of mankind. “No one, never.” As the demon queries skeptically, “Who is your father? Who are you?,” a snake slithers toward Jesus and begins to wrap itself around him. A silent stillness on the screen is shattered by the sound of a loud thump, as Jesus stomps on the snake. Jesus is at once afflicted and resolved, fully conscious of his mission. At one point on the path of the cross, Christ pauses for a moment with Mary. As she stares into his bruised and battered face, he says quietly but confidently, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Of course, the theological and artistic merits of the film remain under a cloud because of charges that the film is anti-Semitic. Despite the progress that has been made in Jewish-Christian relations during the current papacy, the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism is undeniable. Indeed, medieval Passion Plays occasioned attacks on Jews and Hitler was a fan of the Passion Play at Oberammergau, which he praised for its convincing portrayal of the “menace of Jewry,” although it is interesting that the character Hitler finds most admirable in the Passion Play is not Jesus, but Pilate. Is Gibson’s version anti-Semitic? Gibson clearly does not want to convey the notion that the Jews are especially responsible for the death of Christ. Indeed, the very Jewishness, not just of the Pharisees, but also of Jesus, Mary, and the disciples–a point underscored by Gibson’s risky insistence on using the very languages Jews spoke in ancient Palestine–implies that the divide over Jesus is a divide within Judaism, not between Judaism and something utterly separate from it.
Despite his protestations of historical/scriptural accuracy, Gibson is engaging in an imaginative reconstruction of Jesus’ life. But it is often the case that he sharpens, rather than dulls, the theological issues. In the trial scene, Gibson hearkens back to John, chapter 6, where Jesus’ insistence on the connection between eternal life and eating his flesh offends many and causes the first serious rupture among his followers. This nicely foreshadows Gibson’s framing of the crucifixion itself as a sacrifice that is continued in the sacrament of the Echarist. If in some cases, Gibson’s additions paint the Jews in a less than favorable light, in other cases the result is a more complex depiction of the Jews. In this very trial, Jewish officials are depicted as not fully unified in opposition to Jesus. One objects to the trial as a “travesty” and another suggests that not all the members of the Council have been consulted. Moreover, Jesus himself is addressed as a rabbi.
In the public debate over the film, it is often difficult to sort out legitimate objections to the film from worries over Gibson or his father’s religious and political views. Gibson has not helped himself in all of his interview answers. Gibson has now removed a line from the Gospel of Matthew, traditionally known as the “blood curse,” in which, immediately after Pilate washes his hands and proclaims himself innocent of the blood of Jesus, the Jewish crowd exclaims, “Let his blood be on us and on our children.” The line would distract from the film’s consistent message of universal guilt and the universal offer of salvation.
This message is precisely what underlies Gibson’s seemingly inordinate fascination with blood. There is blood everywhere, covering Christ’s face, dripping from his body, splattering on those who torture him, smeared on Mary’s face, dripping from the nail as it pierces the wood of the cross. Indeed, the most sustained series of flashbacks begin just as the crucifixion begins. Gibson repeatedly returns us to the Last Supper and foreshadows the sacrifice of the Mass; at the climactic moment of the film, Gibson underscores the link between the bloody sacrifice of Calvalry and unbloody sacrifice of the Mass. The film makes amply clear that the blood of Christ is not simply on the Jews but on everyone. In a remarkable act of public self-accusation, Gibson himself appears in the film as an executioner, hammering a nail through Jesus’ hand.
Scenes such as these inspire not so much a detached desire for retribution toward Christ’s executioners as a sorrowful identification with them. They also account for the film’s R rating. Unlike most Hollywood R-rated films, which appeal to the salacious or violent fantasies of adolescents, The Passion is truly an adult film, intended not to present Jesus-lite, but to depict the agonizing final hours of a man who, in the words of the film’s epigraph from the Jewish prophet Isaiah, was willingly “crushed for our offenses.”
–Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and a contributor to NRO.