03/09/2004: "Dispassionate About The Christ?"
|AMP|#160;|AMP|#160;When my wife was pregnant with our first child, one thing we decided to try to do leading up to her due date was to go see more movies, as we would not be seeing quite so many new releases once we became parents. Turns out we do get to see the occasional new release, but it's from our local video rental store, many months after any theatrical release. That's not to say that movie-going has altogether disappeared: we have managed to see a few films at outrageous prices while eating gold-dust-laden popcorn, but these instances can be counted on one hand by a clumsy shop teacher.
This weekend past was one of those rare instances that I get to see a movie in a theatre. However, my wife did not join me. It wasn't a matter of her not being able to join me, but simply the fact that she did not wish to join me. No, I wasn't seeing whatever the latest Hollywood bimbo-fest is, nor some guns-n-cars chase-'em shoot-'em-up testosterone-packed action flick, either. I saw Mel Gibson's much-talked-about The Passion Of The Christ.
The reason she didn't want to go is simply that she doesn't enjoy graphic films. What's more, in her current very pregnant state, she is prone to even stronger reactions than normal. Thus, we agreed that I would go see the movie (which I wanted to see in any case) and let her know what I think. Unfortunately, a strange thing happened after seeing the movie: I could not readily form an opinion. As long-time readers will know, this is rather uncharacteristic of me. As it is, I still haven't fully formed an opinion one way or the other about The Passion, so I'm going to use this space to simply work through the thoughts I do have about it, and see what comes out.
As a warning, I may or may not talk about things that you might consider to be spoilers. The story of the last hours of Jesus' life are not secret by any means, but if you wish to keep Gibson's interpretation of these last hours a secret until you view the movie yourself, consider stopping here and returning once you've seen it. You've been warned.
To start, I think I'm in a somewhat unique position to watch this movie. Although I'm Christian, and thus have a definite interest in seeing what has sprung forth from Gibson's mind, I'm also a relatively new Christian, and know what it's like on the other side of the fence. I've considered myself an atheist much longer than I've claimed Christianity, so I can still see both sides of the coin - religious and secular - when I put my mind to it. In watching The Passion this perhaps both helps and hinders me, as I vacillate between stances on how to view this movie. Let's start with the secular side.
Despite what is likely to be record numbers of Christians and members of other faiths watching this movie, I would bet that the majority of its audience is still going to be pretty much secular. Unfortunately, this movie just wasn't made for them, and they just might not get it. In case you haven't read any other reviews about The Passion, the movie spans the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life. Knowing only that, someone that is not versed in the gospel might not know that the opening scene is in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed all night and perspired blood, knowing what his fate was going to be. As I've read the gospel a couple of times myself, I'm familiar with the story and timeline, so I could pretty much follow along and even anticipate a bit. I couldn't imagine that not being able to do that would make for an engaging movie.
It also doesn't help that there is no English spoken throughout the entire movie. The dialogue is entirely Aramaic and Latin, the languages of the time (and place). Don't worry; there are English subtitles so you won't be totally lost. However, there are instances where not all dialogue is translated, so you may feel like you're being left out a little bit. I'm sure that with the thought and effort that went into this film Gibson wouldn't let any necessary dialogue slip through un-subtitled, but all the same I kind of expected the whole nine yards and not just the essentials.
The hot button issue among critics is the amount of violence that The Passion shows. Let there be no doubt in your mind: if you are squeamish, if you faint at the sight of blood, or simply don't have the stomach for brutality, you may want to give this movie a pass. Before Jesus is sentenced to crucifixion, he is beaten. I don't mean "beaten" as in "good cop leaves the room and bad cop gets out the rubber hose" beaten, I mean brutally, viciously, savagely, bloodily beaten to a raw, red, squishy, quivering mass. Thankfully, despite the duration of the beating, there are reprieves to actually seeing it happen as secondary characters are focused on. However, steel yourself for a good five minutes of savagery. I honestly don't know how long the scene was, but it certainly wasn't short.
Now, having said that, I don't believe that this "torture" as some critics have called it is overly long or excessive. As good Hollywood consumers we are used to being given the distilled story, chopped up into segments, reduced to its essence, and having all the long, drawn-out stuff tossed on the editing room floor. Well, that's not what The Passion is about. If it was, Jesus would pray in the garden of Gethsemane for two minutes, get captured, beaten, sentenced, and crucified all in the last 15 minutes of the movie. The Passion is all about the small details in those last 12 hours of Jesus' life, and that includes how the Romans beat him, how long it took, the reaction of the Jewish crowd watching it happen, everything. Considering that Jesus bore the sins of the world, his beating at the hands of the Romans could have lasted an eternity. Five minutes was horrific, yet strangely humane.
At the same time, I found that Jesus pretty much suffered throughout the entire story line. Of course, he did, right from praying in the garden through to his last breath on the cross. This was bearing the sins of the world, after all. However, after a time, I found it harder and harder to relate to his anxiety, his pain, his suffering. You can watch this and think, "Yes, getting hit with that really hurts," but when it keeps going on, and on, and on, how can one relate to that? I've never been beaten in my life, let alone turned into a bloody mess. That amount of pain and suffering is simply beyond my comprehension. Perhaps that is the point of it all, that Jesus suffered through so much for mankind to deliver us from sin, but I simply cannot wrap my head around that. As a result, as the movie went on I found myself being somewhat numbed to the violence, the whippings, all the pain added on top of the pain that was already incomprehensible.
Bloodiness and pain aside, there was one other aspect of the movie that I found quite prevalent. It will likely be entirely a personal view for each person that watches it. As I watched, I drew on my knowledge of the gospels to act as a roadmap for the movie, telling me which way things were heading, what was going on, and who was who. Whether it is unfortunate or not, I found that Gibson included so much detail that I felt like I barely knew the story at all. Some of the detail is fabricated in an attempt to make the movie more accessible to all audiences, but there is still a huge amount of information about Jesus' last hours that I honestly felt like I knew nearly nothing. While this bothered me during and immediately after the movie, it also has a beneficial side: it makes me want to read the gospels again and learn more, to see if I can't distill out some of those details that I missed. Of course, your mileage will vary wildly depending on where you are in any kind of faith journey, so don't assume the same will happen for you. These are simply my thoughts that I'm sharing with you.
One other small complaint I have is with how the movie dealt with Satan. I honestly don't remember Satan being mentioned in the gospels, although he was there, certainly. Gibson's interpretation of Satan, while very creepy and unholy, simply did not fit in very well with the rest of the movie. It's as if a small piece of Hollywood was grafted into an art movie - it just doesn't fit somehow. With the short duration and very few times that Satan appears, however, it's a minor quibble. Another grievance would be that only four disciples are ever shown in the movie, and of those four, I caught only two names: Peter and Judas. Judas exits stage left pretty early on, and Peter soon follows. Only one disciple sticks around for the entire movie, but if his name was ever mentioned, I missed it. Having a major character like that remain anonymous is like having a small itch you can't scratch: slightly annoying.
All said, I'm glad I saw the movie. I guess I had hoped to be able to relate to the movie more, but with suffering well beyond any frame of reference I have, and the feeling that I only barely know the stark outline of Jesus' last hours on earth, I can't say that I "enjoyed" it. Would I see it again? You bet - after I read through at least one of the gospels again first, however. If you in the least bit curious about this movie, I would recommend you see it. Seeing it for yourself is the only way you will truly understand what I and every critic in the world is talking about. However, I'll repeat my warning that anyone that doesn't do well at the sight of blood, or is squeamish, or has a weak stomach, you'd best get a friend or loved one who knows you well to see the movie first and advise you.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16