Monday, March 01, 2004

Mel Gibson's movie has divided people many different ways. Some have accused the film of anti-Semitism; this has provoked a firestorm of reaction from those who are tired of such specious charges.

Some Christians are treating the film as if it were a sacrament; other Christians scolds are using it as yet another opportunity to look down their noses at the unwashed masses of their fellow Christians who are interested in seeing the film. (Ironically, these are many of the same ultra-Christians who are always carping about the modern lack of Christian art.) Most of this particular group would be shouting about the film from the rooftops if they could only be assured that nobody else would actually see it; their defining belief is that "popular" always and neccessarily equals "bad."

Some Protestants oppose it because it's too Catholic. Some Catholics oppose it because it's too Protestant.

Still others seem to oppose it simply because "it focuses on the last hours of Christ, rather than on his teachings." These are the folks who see Christ's crucifiction along the lines of the Kennedy or King assasinations--the unfortunate and marring end to what might have been a good life and philosophy until that point. These are the ones who fail to understand Christ's self-stated mission for coming into the world--not to teach a philosophy, but to give his life as a ransom.

Yet with all of those divisions, the film made something like $117 million this weekend. Controversy alone won't do that; Scorcese's "Last Temptation of Christ" was highly controversial, and didn't even break double-digits. Someone is evidently going to see it. For better or for worse, Mel Gibson's film is a cultural event.

Because of that, I saw "The Passion of the Christ" on Friday.

I found it to be a very good film. Not without flaws, not a transforming religious experience (which would be a bad thing for a movie to be anyway), but a very good film.

First, to address the two issues that everyone is curious about:

1). The anti-Semitism charge as laughable. If anything, the film ought to be protested by the Italian Anti-Defamation League. Throughout the film, it is the Romans who come off as the bloodthirsty, sadistic, hardened malefactors. One could hardly help but notice that the cast credits at the end of this supposedly "anti-Semitic" movie were made up almost entirely of Italian names. Gibson's picture simply addresses the undeniable historical fact that Christ was crucified by Jews and Romans (the people who were there) 2000 years ago.

2). Yes, the violence is disturbing and graphic. But none of it was gratuitous (in my opinion), and the notion expressed by Roger Ebert (in a highly positive review) that this is the "most violent film ever" is simply nonsense. "Saving Private Ryan" was more violent, as was every Tarantino film. DePalma's "Scarface" (made about 20 years ago) is much more gratuitously violent, as was Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and "Natural Born Killers." After the breathless reports from the critics about the violence of "The Passion," I had steeled myself for something like "Pulp Fiction." It just isn't like that.

As for the movie itself, the longer I've had to think about it since I watched it, the more it impresses me. It is a brutal depiction of a brutal event. But Gibson has the guts to put them into context (notwithstanding the clueless objections of some critics), and he makes clear all the way through that this is happening for a purpose.

The charge that Gibson ignores the life of Christ is misguided; all of Christ's major teachings are represented in wonderful flashbacks, which are both some of the best moments in the film and needed respite for the audience from the brutality that is being inflicted. But the movie makes no apologies for focusing on Christ's Passion, which was His mission on Earth. Gibson presents these facts as one who has a personal stake in them, rather than as dispassionate (no pun intended) biography. In this day and age, that takes a lot of courage and boldness. The film takes more interest in the relationship between the intense suffering of Christ and horrific nature our sin than any other movie I've ever seen.

I'm told that Gibson put some "Catholic" things in the film, but as a Reformed Protestant I found little to object to from that standpoint. The character of Mary, the mother of Christ, is handled wonderfully, and Gibson resists the urge to run off on a superstitious tangent with her.

There were some things I thought didn't work. The confrontation between the Roman soldiers and the disciples in the garden of Gesthemene plays out like a scene in an action film--Romans punching disciples and disciples punching Romans with traditional movie-fight sound effects. I also thought some of the devices used to portray the presence of Satan and his demons tended toward the cheesy (though in a relativistic culture, I commend Gibson for having the courage to portray evil as real and personal).

But this film has an aftertaste, and it makes it better upon reflection. Much is made of the harrowing violence of the film, but it's often overlooked (even by Christian critics) that it has a happy ending. Some have dismissed Gibson's depiction of the resurrection as "merely 30 seconds at the end of two hours of savagery." I found it to be just right. After two hours of the most merciless, horrific, orgiastic infliction of punishment and death on Christ, it is all wiped away in a moment; all the frenzied beatings and calculated tortures have come to naught as Christ simply rises and walks out of His grave.

If you are concerned that a graphic portrayal of the passion of Christ might violate the Second Commandment, or you are concerned about the violence, obey your conscience and do not see it. Films ought not to be "religious experiences" per se. This movie should not be considered some sort of means to a spiritual result. That's what your church, your pastor, and your Bible are about. But if you lament the 21st century's dearth of authentic Christian art, you should consider seeing it. It could go a long way towards dispelling that poverty.

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