In many respects, it’s Rashomon all over again. As Dennis Prager wrote, in an extraordinary early article on the film written this past fall (do yourself a favor and read the whole thing), your background and baggage determine how you’ll view the movie:
When watching “The Passion,” Jews and Christians are watching two entirely different films.
For two hours, Christians watch their Savior tortured and killed. For the same two hours, Jews watch Jews arrange the killing and torture of the Christians’ Savior.
And I’ll go one better–for the conservative, no matter what his faith his, one admires that such an intensely religious film could be made today. For someone on the left, one fears just that, a point Prager makes as well:
Jews also need to understand another aspect of “The Passion” controversy. Just as Jews are responding to centuries of Christian anti-Semitism (virtually all of it in Europe), many Christians are responding to decades of Christian-bashing — films and art mocking Christian symbols, a war on virtually any public Christian expression (from the death of the Christmas party to the moral identification of fundamentalist Christians with fundamentalist Muslims). Moreover, many Jewish groups and media people now attacking “The Passion” have a history of irresponsibly labeling conservative Christians anti-Semitic.
In this context, many Jewish observers worry because The Passion of The Christ is such a powerful piece of cinematic storytelling: if Christian fervor led in the past to persecution of Jews, isn’t the movie inherently dangerous because of the likelihood that it will inspire that sort of emotional reaction?
The many Jews who react in this fearful manner to the prospect of deepening Christian commitment in the United States have allowed the past to blind them to the present–and the future. In today’s America, the notably philo-Semitic tone of born-again Christianity makes it more common for Christians to support and defend their Jewish neighbors than to persecute them. American Christians emphasize the Jewish roots of Jesus more strongly than ever before–a trend very much echoed in Mel Gibson’s movie. Contrary to the fears and expectations of some Jewish leaders, an agnostic, left-leaning college professor at an Ivy League university is much more likely than a Southern Baptist preacher to harbor anti-Jewish attitudes.
I agree with Medved, but I think he’s simplifying things to a certain degree. Obviously, I don’t expect mobs from a Frankenstein movie to roam the night burning crosses and lynching Jews. But I do question what Gibson was thinking when he and his co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald were writing the screenplay.
The film goes to great lengths to make Pontius Pilate a three-dimensional character. We see him away from the angry crowds, racked with, if not guilt, then at least concern of what his actions should be. His wife Claudia, is, if anything, an even more sympathetic figure, as she both softens his concerns, and brings a linen cloth to Mary and Mary Magdalen to wipe the blood of Jesus after His scourging.
Why couldn’t such scenes have been written for the Jewish priests of the film? Why are they portrayed as two-dimensional characters who all but twirl their Snidely Whiplash moustaches in anticipation of Christ’s murder?
Jews need to understand is that most American Christians watching this film do not see “the Jews” as the villains in the passion story historically, let alone today. First, most American Christians — Catholic and Protestant — believe that a sinning humanity killed Jesus, not “the Jews.” Second, they know that Christ’s entire purpose was to come to this world and to be killed for humanity’s sins. To the Christian, God made it happen, not the Jews or the Romans (the Book of Acts says precisely that).
I agree with that entirely. If Gibson does as well, why couldn’t he do something to soften the men doing God’s will?
Regarding the violence, it is a very violent film. I’m not sure how much of that reflects what Gibson felt audiences have come to expect of movies of all genres (ranging from slasher films, to cop films such as Mel’s own Lethal Weapon movies, all the way to war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down), and how much he equates, as Andrew Sullivan wrote, Jesus’ torture with the intensity of His beliefs and the importance of His mission. Sullivan:
Would our sins have been expiated if Jesus had only been flogged twenty rather than forty times? (The Gospels do not tell us how brutal this process was. For some reason, the evangelists reduced the episode to a couple of sentences. Gibson makes the flogging the centerpiece of the whole film.) If Jesus had been roped to the cross and died of asphyxiation, rather than being nailed there, would we still not be saved? If the nails had been placed in his wrists rather than his palms, would we not have been redeemed? Of course some of these details are there in the Gospels; but Gibson’s loving obsession with them, his creepy love of watching extreme violence, is nowhere found in the Gospels.
Let’s take a few clear examples. The Gospels do not tell us that the jailers of the High Priests beat Jesus to a pulp before he was even delivered to the Romans, or that he was thrown in chains over a prison wall, almost garrotting him. That’s Gibson’s sadistic embellishment – so that Jesus already has one eye shut from bruises before he is even tried. The Gospels do not say that the flogging of Jesus was so extreme and out of control that a centurion had to stop it because it had gone beyond any of the usual bounds of Roman punishment. That again is Gibson’s invention. In the crucifixion scene, the Gospels do not say that in hoisting the cross, it fell down by accident so that Jesus was pinned headfirst between the cross and the earth, his crown of thorns thrust even deeper into his skull. Again, that’s Gibson’s interpolation. It’s as if Gibson’s saying that being crucified isn’t bad enough – you’ve got be crushed face down by timber first if you are going to save all mankind.
All that being said, perhaps I’ve been numbed by the ultraviolence of today’s films, or if I had expected far worse from most critics’ reviews. The violence is very, very intense and brutal, as is the bloodletting. But it’s certainly watchable, given the story that surrounds it.
On a much more minor note (pardon the pun), I’d also question the soundtrack. We’re never going back to the era of overwrought 1950s Miklos Rozsa-style scores for biblical films, but the synthesized soundtrack to The Passion sounded virtually interchangeable with Peter Gabriel’s score to The Last Temptation of Christ.
All that said, The Passion is obviously an intense experience. Given Prager’s opinion that Jews and Gentiles will see two entirely different movies, it’s probably not surprising that I found myself uplifted at the end much more than I expected to be. I found its subtle final scene surprisingly powerful, especially in contrast to the blood and gore throughout the film that preceded it. I do think that this is a film that everyone should see, and I’m very glad I did.
But obviously, your mileage may vary.