The Passion, Pornography and Polemic: In Defense of The Passion of the Christ
Italic Intro Goes Here
Are the flashbacks too brief?
Some have commented that the flashbacks are all too brief, often in the course of complaining that the film does not give us sufficient context for the Passion, too little of Jesus’ life. Many will sympathise with such comments. The viewer cannot but long to see more, especially as the glimpses of Jim Caviezel’s pre-Passion Jesus make him so warm and personable. The scene in Nazareth, when Jesus builds a tall table and shows it to Mary, is delightful, not least because Jesus and Mary both laugh. There is a trend here in recent Jesus films that represents a marked change of direction from all the older films. It used to be rare to see anything other than – at best – a beatific smile in a Jesus film. Yet recently there have been several portrayals of Jesus as a man with a sense of humour, from Bruce Marchiano’s American apple-pie Jesus in the Visual Bible’s Matthew (Regardt van den Bergh, 1996), to Jeremy Sisko’s Jesus (Roger Young, 1999), the first Jesus to dance, to the claymated Jesus voiced by Ralph Fiennes in The Miracle Maker (Hayes and Sokolov, 1999) who jokes with Mary and Martha and makes his parables amusing, to the most recent celluloid Jesus, Henry Ian Cusick in the Visual Bible’s The Gospel of John, who in a remarkable performance pulls off the feat of making the Johannine Jesus warm and friendly.
The timing of the flashbacks, though, is quite right and complaints about this are misguided. Their point is to tantalise the viewer with reminders of Jesus’ life. They provide the film’s context by encouraging viewers to fill in more from their own knowledge and imagination, or to go to the Gospels and explore them further. Perhaps the most interesting question is how the viewer with absolutely no knowledge of the Jesus story would react to the film. One guess is that the flashbacks would appear so fascinating, so tantalising, that it would leave one wanting to find out more, even to read the Gospels. But the complaint that The Passion of the Christ does not provide enough of a context by beginning in Gethsemane ignores the fact it is a Christian tradition to re-enact the Passion, to have dramatic readings in church and so on. There are multiple precedents for The Passion of the Christ’s focus. It is never complained that Jesus Christ Superstar depicts only the last week of Jesus’ life, still less that Bach did not provide enough context in the Saint Matthew Passion or the Saint John Passion.
Is there no joy, triumph or redemption?
What, though, of the charge that the focus on the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life gives the film no real feel of joy, of triumph, of redemption? Like so many of the elements in the appreciation of film, one person’s experience will be different from another’s, but for many, the film has not proved the negative, bleak, unhappy experience that it has clearly been to many of its reviewers. For while it is true that it spends only a little time on the resurrection, it leaves the viewer on this note – Jesus has not even emerged from the tomb yet – and one is left dwelling on what happens next. Again, it drives the viewer back to the Gospels. Indeed the ending is more similar to Mark’s ending than it is to Matthew’s, Luke’s or John’s. It has that tantalising feel of “But I want to know what happened next”. Given the historic difficulties faced by Jesus films in portraying the resurrection effectively, this could be seen as a brilliant decision. Gibson has resisted what would have been an obvious and perhaps clichéd final scene with Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden, so that the film could have been framed by those two gardens at each end of the story. And the resurrection scene has a still more remarkable feature universally missed in the reviews of the film so far, and I will come back to this.
Redemption is found also in the cataclysmic events that surround the death of Jesus. A tear falls from heaven, there is an earthquake and the devil is finally de-cloaked and cast wailing to the pit of hell. This is a remarkable dramatisation of the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death. It is represented as the ultimate triumph over evil in an earth-shattering event that affects all the actors in the drama, the soldiers, the Temple authorities, Pilate. Everyone realises that something world shattering had happened and that nothing was ever going to be the same again.
This depiction of the significance of Jesus’ death is one of the film’s several perspectives on the atonement. While several reviews have rightly pointed out the extent to which a substitutionary atonement theory makes its presence felt, the suggestion that this is all that is present is incorrect. Other theories of the atonement are also dramatically depicted. The Christus Victor theme climaxes in the devil’s banishment to the pit of hell at Jesus’s death, but the scene is already set with Jesus’ victory over intense temptation in Gethsemane, stamping on the snake that is so famous a symbol of evil. Yet one of the biggest surprises given the copious reviews that stress “blood-letting” at the expense of anything else is that the film also brings forward the exemplary view of Jesus’ atonement, the relentless theme of the crucifixion narrative, with its double use of the “Father, forgive them” line from Luke and the intensification of the flash-back scenes each one stressing love of one another, love of enemies, prayer for persecutors.
Is the film anti-Semitic?
But what of the still more serious charge of anti-Semitism? Surely Gibson cannot be defended on this score, can he? Any reaction to the film on this point needs to make sense of the fact that intelligent people with a careful eye and with a knowledge of the history and of New Testament scholarship are coming to greatly divergent views on this question. How is that explained? Are those who do not see the anti-Semitism simply naïve? Are those who insist that it is there hypersensitive? My own view is that while there are some troubling elements in the film, as there are in all the Jesus films, the case that the film is peculiarly anti-Semitic, or, more accurately, anti-Judaic, has been seriously overstated. I will attempt to explain why.
It is film’s retention of some troubling elements from the Gospels that lends the charge of anti-Judaism its plausibility. To read the Passion Narratives in their first century, largely intra-Jewish context helps the contemporary reader to understand elements and perspectives that otherwise are far more worrying. Absent of that context and absent of the opportunity to explain such points, it is always going to be difficult for a Jesus film that is heavily dependent on the New Testament to avoid concerns over anti-Judaism. And on the whole, Jesus films have failed to tread carefully enough to avoid these concerns. If I were making a film about Jesus, I would not want to include Pilate washing his hands and I would like to see much more acknowledgement of his well-known brutality, so clear not only from Philo and Josephus but also from Luke 13.1. The Pilate of this film, like the Pilate in so many others, is a more sympathetic character than Caiaphas. While we gain some understanding of Pilate’s inner conflicts, we are not party to the same in the case of Caiaphas. Where John at least depicts Caiaphas too as being in something of a fix (John 11.47-53), there is little indication in The Passion of the Christ that he is anything other than a bully.
But in this lies the film-maker’s problem. The character of Pontius Pilate, as depicted in the Gospels, lends himself to film narrative more than any other character in the drama with his moral conflict, his perplexity at Jesus, his troubled relations with the Jewish leaders, his odd relationship with Herod. It is fantasy to expect a movie director to resist so appealing a dramatic character. Yes, historically, of course it is regrettable that Gibson did not pay more attention to the concerns of Biblical scholars. But he is making a film of a greatest story ever told and not a documentary for the Discovery channel. We will expect him to find this character, as traditionally depicted, as irresistible as so many have before him.