The Passion, Pornography and Polemic: In Defense of The Passion of the Christ
The difficulties inevitably involved with bringing the Passion Narratives to the screen could and should have been alleviated by the adoption of advisory committees of the kind used for two of the most recent Jesus films, The Miracle Maker (for which the credited consultants including N. T. Wright, Richard Burridge and Rowan Williams) and The Gospel of John (for which the advisory board included Peter Richardson, Alan Segal and Adele Reinhartz). A film is a group product – it is never only one man’s product, however much one individual, in this case Mel Gibson, might provide the vision and the guidance. For Gibson to have produced such a film without the protection supplied by publicly accountable scholars is unwise and places far too much of a burden on the one advisor who was used extensively, William J. Fulco, S.J., for all his skill as a communicator and as an advocate of Gibson’s film.
It is not simply that a group of scholars can provide a variety of historical and theological insights that might provide useful perspectives on elements in the film, especially sensitive areas like the attitude to Jews and Judaism, but that the board can draw attention publicly to the critical engagement that has taken place over any troubling elements. To take the parallel of The Gospel of John, for example, its advisory board had to take seriously the problem of how to depict the well known and troubling references to “the Jews” as a group hostile to Jesus. Its solutions included using the Good News translation with its references to “Jewish leaders” and adding at the beginning of the film a notice on the origin of John’s Gospel. Some might argue that such strategies were not as successful as they might have been, not least given references to the “Snidely Whiplash” style depiction of Caiaphas, but the key thing is that the producers were seen to be taking the problems seriously in their use of a publicly accountable advisory board. Gibson could have gained much from allowing himself such a luxury.
But these points having been conceded, it is important to watch the film with care, to notice what is there and to avoid importing into it things that are not there. While there are troubling elements in this film, as there are to varying degrees in all the Jesus films, it is important to notice those elements that speak strongly against an anti-Semitic viewing of this film, elements that are routinely getting ignored by the film’s reviewers and especially academics. Part of the problem here is that the controversy over the film’s alleged anti-Semitism has been so pronounced for such a long time that it has become impossible for anyone to view it without thinking about it. The controversy itself has become a lens through which many are watching the film, increasing sensitivity to features that might otherwise never have been noticed and discouraging a critical engagement that might have been more open to an alternative view.
One of the ways of looking at the question is to ask how the film's depiction of Jewish leaders compares with that of other Jesus films. A strong case could be made that Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973) comes off far worse, for example. In that film many of the Jewish authorities are played by Jewish actors whereas Jesus and his disciples are not. It carelessly writes in phrases like “permanent solution”. The Passion of the Christ is not, on the other hand, so gratuitous. It could have done more to make some of the Jewish authorities less clearly out-and-out baddies; it could have done more to show Pilate's nasty, ruthless side, to align him even more clearly with the real villains of the piece, the sadistic brutes who scourge, torture and crucify Jesus and who occupy so much of the screen time.
But if all these and similar elements might have been given some more attention, there is also little doubt that those who have gone looking for anti-Semitism in the film have missed some pretty important elements that severely limit the plausibility of the charge. The fact that Gibson cast Maia Morgenstern – a devout Jew whose father survived the holocaust – as Mary cannot be lightly brushed aside and counts for a great deal more than comments on the appearance of the Jewish leaders, comments that ultimately contribute to the very racial stereotyping that we should be trying to avoid. Moreover, it is amazing just how rarely critics comment on Simon of Cyrene (played by Jarreth Merz). The importance of Simon lies not just in the fact that he shows some character development, beginning very reluctant to help this random criminal but in time realising that he is in the presence of someone special, but in the fact that he is a character with whom the viewer is encouraged to identify. By this point in the film we have been crying for the Roman guards to stop their merciless persecution of Jesus and Simon is the first to stand up and exhort them to stop, to leave him alone.
At this point, when the viewer is strongly identifying with him, Simon is directly castigated by one of the Roman guards as “Jew!” This is the only character (other than Jesus who is called “King of the Jews”) in the entire film who is specifically characterised as a Jew. The point is important, not least given the fact that some critics of The Passion of the Christ have imported terminology into the film that is not found there. The film does not once, for example, castigate those in opposition to Jesus as “the Jews”, in spite of repeated assertions to the contrary. Moreover, the positive depiction of Simon of Cyrene as a Jew is clearly not accidental. This scene in The Passion of the Christ is largely dependent on Catherine Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially Simon’s exhortations to the soldiers to stop. But where she makes Simon a pagan, Gibson insists that his heroic figure was a Jew.
From Jesus’ Perspective
I would like to conclude by reflecting on one of the problems with the overreaction to The Passion of the Christ. The obsession with commenting on its violence and its allegedly negative attitude to Jews is so absorbing reviewers’ attention that some remarkable elements in the film are getting missed. I have yet to see a single review or article comment on one of the film’s most radical and unexpected departures from the Jesus film tradition, that of showing events from Jesus’ perspective. There are repeated shots which show the viewer what Jesus himself is seeing. After the scourging, for example, Jesus is dragged away and the viewer sees everything upside down, as through Jesus’ eyes. There are precedents, perhaps most clearly in The Last Temptation of Christ which allows one to hear Jesus’ inner monologue, but this is the first time that Jesus’ perspective has been shown by the use of aligning it with the camera’s perspective.
Many of the flashbacks are continuous with this phenomenon. Jesus sees something and it triggers a memory; what we are seeing are his thoughts. The charming Nazareth carpentry flashback is triggered by the sight of someone doing woodwork in the high priest’s courtyard. The eucharist flashback is triggered by Jesus' sight of Pilate washing his hands. But the most striking example of this phenomenon of showing the viewer events from Jesus’ own perspective comes right at the film’s end, in the resurrection story. Review after review comments unfavourably on the resurrection scene without pointing out that this is the first film ever (to my knowledge, of course) to attempt to depict the resurrection from Jesus’ perspective, to tell the story from inside the tomb. Rather than standing outside the tomb with witnesses looking in, The Passion of the Christ keeps the viewer waiting, staring at a black screen for several seconds and then one realises that what one is seeing is the inside of the tomb, and the stone begins noisily rolling back, and light seeping in.
The Passion of the Christ is a very powerful film. It is not easy to be neutral about it. After having surveyed multiple reviews and articles about The Passion of the Christ, one pattern becomes clear. People either love it or they hate it. There are no reviews that say that it is OK or that you can take it or leave it. On the whole it is either pious pornography or it is powerful and moving. The theological consultant William J. Fulco, S. J., described it as “in your face”. This film gets inside your head and demands a reaction. Some apparently leave the cinema wanting to repent of their sins; others cannot find a good word to say about it. When I watched it for the first time, I woke up at night thinking about it. The images are so compelling, so moving that they demand a lot from you. Perhaps those who have reacted with vitriol are actually trying to expel the images from their minds, to prevent the film from getting into their thinking. Or perhaps my reading is simply a naïve one. After all, one person’s pornography can be another person’s art and in this area more than any other the viewer’s role is pivotal. But if this is the case, and there is some sadistic homoerotic pleasure to be derived from watching this film, then I prefer my naïveté. But let us not call it naïveté; let us call it a responsible reading of a film that many, many viewers have found an extraordinarily powerful artistic depiction of the Passion of the Christ.
This essay is based on comments originally posted in the NT Gateway Weblog. I would like to thank all of those who have sent in their contributions to the site and who have engaged with me there.
Mark Goodacre is Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Birmingham, U.K.
 This trend is bucked in The Gospel of John which has the woman taken in adultery and Mary Magdalene played by two different women.