Skip to comments."My own viewing of the film" + "Mel does a Tarantino job on Christ"
Posted on 02/20/2004 1:44:16 PM PST by dennisw
My own viewing of the film (NOT WRITTEN BY DENNISW)
I saw a nearly completed version in Denver in January at the conference of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. Based on that, I can affirm that all the statements made about the movie I've quoted above are true, both the comments from those who loved it and from those who are concerned. It is a beautiful and well-crafted work of art. It is a clearly Catholic work, accenting the self-giving of Jesus, his relationship with Mary, and the Eucharist. It is gory, with excessive and gratuitous violence (including a crow plucking out the eyes of the "bad thief" after his taunting of Jesus).
And it does exaggerate the role of the Jews. There are many examples that could be cited. Jesus is beaten to a bloody pulp by the temple guards (and thrown off a bridge) before he ever gets to Caiaphas. Jews are present in the Praetorium for the scourging of Jesus--and only Romans express concerns about the excesses inflicted by both their own guards and the Jews. There are no sympathetic figures on the via dolorosa, except for figures from Scripture and tradition, such as Simon and Veronica, who have generally been seen as people who came to believe in Jesus--Gibson inexplicably left out Jesus greeting the women of Jerusalem. Caiaphas leads the procession to Calvary on a donkey, and presides over the execution as if he were in charge. The earthquake at the end, an act of divine vindictiveness, is barely noticed by Pilate, but creates a chasm in the temple (the Biblical tearing of the veil is left out, though).
It is a movie, with good and bad. For most Catholics, it will be a moving meditation on the sufferings of Christ. For others, it will be perhaps puzzling, perhaps just a work of art, perhaps revolting. For some, it will confirm their deepest prejudices.
Unfortunately, in the months since we first heard details emerge, advocates of the movie have refused to discuss it in objective terms. They have slandered those who have asked questions, glossed over the movie's inaccuracies and distortions, and have made excuses for its horrific violence.
And yet discussing such a movie is essential. We should be able to ask the same questions of it as we would ask of any film--What's good? What's not as effective? Where does it follow Scripture? Where does it depart? Why? Unfortunately, we've seen that those who have asked such questions to date have far too frequently received blank looks or hostility in return.
This movie needs to be evaluated in terms of the objective criteria provided by the US Catholic Bishops, and in the context of the history of passion plays. This is what a group of scholars did when they obtained the script. But the defenders of Mel focused on the question of how they got the script, and not on the issues they raised.
For my own part, I don't think Mel was being intentionally antisemitic. He wanted to make a movie focusing on the meaning of the Passion for us. He used the writings of an 18th century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, as the basis, and this resulted in the inclusion of some problematic elements. Her Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the product of a pious but overworked imagination, and reflects both misunderstanding and ignorance of Scripture and unquestioning acceptance of antisemitic assumptions that prevailed among Catholics of the era. Some of her most bizarre scenes that were in the initial script, as indicated by the Scholars Report, are not in the movie (e.g., Caiaphas having the cross made in the temple courtyard, Jesus having the Passover lamb killed in the upper room rather than the temple). But her "visions" are so much a part of this movie that it would be fair to say it is a movie of her book, not of the Gospels.
In months gone by, some few spoke of boycotting or protesting the movie. That, I think, would be extreme, and inappropriate. But the reaction to this film (and questioning of it) does underscore the question of how well Catholic theologians and leaders are communicating contemporary Catholic teaching on the Passion and on relations with the Jews, and so provides an opportunity for discussion and education.
Would I recommend it to people who want to know about Jesus and the gospel? No. I'd tell them to see "The Gospel of John," "Jesus" (based on Luke's gospel alone), or even "Jesus of Nazareth." But I would use "Passion" as an example of a great work of art that unfortunately presents wrongful stereotypes and pre-Vatican 2 theology.
The movie, as I said, is a very Catholic vision. It is easy to see why so many Catholics have got so caught up in it that the offensive parts have slipped by them. It is harder for me to understand why Evangelicals have shared their enthusiasm.
The film opens with a scripture that accents the theological point Gibson wants us to focus on: Isaiah 53 ("He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities--with his stripes we are healed"). We are then in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus confronts Satan. The scene is a creative parallel to the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and raises the question: Can Jesus really bear the sins of the world? Can he go through with it? Does God even want him to? (This is really the same question posed by Kazantzakis, though in a different way).
I like the way he deals with Malchus, whose ear is severed by a frightened Peter, and restored by Jesus.
I think it oddly effective the way Mary wakes up at night and asks the question from the Seder, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" (a contribution from the actress herself).
There are some very effective scenes highlighting the relationship between Jesus and Mary, including a humorous exchange in the carpenter's shop which shows some playfulness between them (a scene that really surprised me, because no one had mentioned it to me).
Though it is not scriptural, I appreciate Gibson's use of the Stations of the Cross and the Pieta. These make the film a piece of devotional art, rather than an historical portrayal. If this had been accented from the beginning, instead of the claim that it was "the most accurate movie ever," things may have been a little different.
Though it is not scriptural, I think the scene of the child-demons taunting the despairing Judas is an amazing interpretation, and quite chilling.
The various flashbacks are very well done, and serve both to break up the violence and to accent theological points.
The Eucharistic themes are very powerful; flashbacks throughout the crucifixion take us back to the Last Supper, and the unwrapping of the bread, and the blessing of the bread and cup.
In a scene at the end, the camera follows a raindrop from the sky (a tear from heaven?) until it splashes at the foot of the cross; the sound reverberates and leads into the earthquake. A striking piece of film--though theologically suspect, as I'll highlight below.
It is easy to understand why Catholics get so emotionally caught up in it that they have often failed to notice the problems--and these are many.
Gibson is not merely telling the Gospel account, but adds to it in ways that consistently accent the culpability of Jews and mitigate that of the Romans. He adds violent beatings of Jesus--by Jews--that are not in Scripture. He changes the entire feel of the story as the Gospels tell it. In the Scriptural account, Jesus is snatched quietly, at night, to avoid the crowds. Jesus is willing to go quietly, and keeps the disciples from fighting back. He is held while the high priest gathers his council. During it, there is some physical abuse by the guards and some taunting and one slapping of his face, but the Evangelists don't elaborate on this or draw it out. Then he is delivered to Pilate. Gibson changes the tenor of all these scenes, making them more dramatic, more violent, more frightening. He also adds scenes that contradict explicit statements in Scripture. According to John, the Jews refuse to enter the Praetorium. No Jew--not even a disciple--is depicted as present in the Praetorium. But Gibson has them there.
In Mel's version, the beating of Jesus begins immediately upon his arrest, contrary to the Gospels. He is wrapped in chains, and at one point thrown off a bridge. These added beatings, by Jews, and the behavior of the Jews in subsequent scenes, make them a bloodthirsty, barbarous people--the only exceptions being those who believe in Jesus or are sympathetic to his cause. Jews are depicted in customary stereotypes, as greedy and money-grubbing, who can be easily bought off in the middle of the night. The Jewish leaders are seen as the equals of or more powerful than the Romans, which is contrary to history. The Jewish high priest at the time was a Roman appointee, answerable to Pilate--not in Mel's version, though.
The Jewish violence which began in the garden is unleashed without mercy in the court of the high priest. Jesus arrives, a bruised and bloody mess--perhaps a hundred people are crammed into the room, anxious for the spectacle to begin. Immediately after the "trial," the priests take turns hitting and spitting on Jesus, and then the guards and observers join in, beating him with sadistic glee. In this melee Peter, who is in the room itself, is grabbed and manhandled, and accused of being a follower of Jesus.
Gibson's Pilate is a weak and indecisive administrator who grouses about the rabble and about being stuck in this stinking outpost. When the excessively large crowd gathers in the courtyard of the Praetorium, Pilate goes out and, seeing Jesus for the first time, is disgusted by what the Jews have done. He asks the priests, Do you always punish them before you judge them? In the scenes which follow, Pilate appears as a lone and weak representative of Rome, with inadequate troops at his disposal, not the brutal governor know from history. He muses, If I dont condemn him, Caiaphas will rebel. If I do, his followers will. Either way there will be bloodshed. Soldiers inform him that there is already an uprising. The priests, temple guards, and people are growing ugly. But instead of putting them in their place, as the historical Pilate would have done, they are appeased.
Pilate decides to have Jesus beaten, thinking this will satisfy the bloodlust of the Jews. Jesus is taken within. The leading priests go in, watching through a gate--but clearly on Roman soil, contrary to the Gospels. Jesus is beaten first with rods until he collapses. Theres a pause. Jesus stands. The Romans are perturbed. They get the flagella. One hits the tablethe metal embedded in the strands of the whip sticks fast in the surface of the table. They begin to apply it to Jesus back. It sticks, and rips skin away. The violence goes on longer than any human could withstand. The camera lingers, fascinated, voyeuristic. The only breaks are to follow Mary as she leaves the scene, unable to watch any more (yes, she is there--and she will wipe up the blood afterwards, using towels given to her by Pilate's wife).
A Roman comes and orders them to stop: You were ordered to punish him, not to scourge him to death. This is but the first instance where Romans are depicted as having a conscience, or at least a limit to what they will inflict on a person. The Jews have none. The Romans are egged on by Satan, wandering through the crowd--the Jews need no such encouragement.
In the version I saw, after Pilate gives in to their demands the crowd shouts, gleefully, His blood be upon us and our children. Pilate gives up, and says to his men, Do as they wish. Rumors say Mel has taken this line out. That's good, as it was traditionally understood by Christians to extend the guilt for Deicide through history to contemporary Jews; but it doesn't minimize the exaggerated depiction of the Jews that we've endured to this point. And more is to come.
The procession to Calvary appears to be a religious event, led by priests riding donkeys; flashbacks recall Palm Sunday. The crowds lining the road this time are hostile and merciless, berating and pummeling Jesus as he passes. The Romans beat them back. Arriving at Calvary, Jesus is nailed to the cross--again, the violence is exaggerated and excessive, with the camera lingering over the scene as the cross is flipped over, with Jesus face down; blood dripping; the protruding ends of the nails are bent over, and then the cross is flipped over the other way.
A thief taunts Jesus to save himself and them. The crowd joins in the taunting, as does the High Priest, who says, If he is the Messiah, let him come down that we may believe. Caiaphas walks around as if he is the senior official presiding over the execution. He does not protest at the sign nailed to the cross by the Romans. There is no division of roles here--they are doing his bidding.
When Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them," the good thief says (as in Scripture), Listen, he prays for you. We deserve this, but he doesnt. Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom Jesus promises that he will be in paradise. The bad thief, Gesmas, laughs. A crow drops from heaven and pecks out his eyes. Hardly an answer to that prayer for forgiveness, is it?
The sky darkens, and the priests leave. The Romans let Mary approach. Throughout, they've shown her sympathy, assisting her in the crowd, casting nervous glances at her, talking amongst themselves.
Jesus dies. The camera looks down on Calvary. A drop of rain condenses, and the camera follows it down to the ground. It hits with explosive force, and an earthquake rocks the hill. Pilate is rattled. The temple is hit hardest; a chasm opens in the floor, and rocks fall on the priests. The sense is clearly one of divine judgment (like the crow eating the eyes of the thief). The drop of rain is like a divine tear; we see a picture of God as grieving in human fashion, his grief quickly turning to anger, and lashing out, not at the Romans, but at the Jews, and particularly at the Jewish religious authorities.
It is an awful depiction, and recalls the worst of medieval passion plays. Yet most of the Christians in the usually select audiences that have seen it so far are oblivious to these things. Even a handful of politically conservative Jewish commentators claim to have seen nothing problematic. But those Jews who have seen it who are not predisposed to be generous to Mel have been shocked by the portrayal. A special screening in Houston included local Jewish community members and representatives of the national offices of the ADL and American Jewish Committee. All had similar reactions. They sat like strangers in the auditorium, unable to understand the emotional reactions of the Christians around them, and unable to understand, when they spoke with those Christians later, how they could have missed the parts of the film that so troubled the Jews.
Here are some comments from viewers of the film here in Australia, including Jews. This was published in the Daily Telegraph:
Mel does a Tarantino job on Christ
February 20, 2004
FEDERAL MPs were 'visibly shaken' by Mel Gibson's film on Christ, reports TORY MAGUIRE.
Jewish MP Michael Danby hadn't seen such violence "since I went to a Quentin Tarantino film", he said after an advance screening of Mel Gibson's new film about Jesus Christ.
Multicultural Affairs Minister Gary Hardgrave had to turn away from the screen many times and left the theatre with pulse racing.
And Sydney MP Bruce Baird called it "brutal" and "gory".
Three hundred MPs and staffers got to view The Passion of Christ at Parliament House on Wednesday.
Filmed in Aramaic, the movie has raised allegations it is anti-Semitic and too violent.
Verdicts on the film's merits differed but the consistent theme was that it was "confronting", "gory" and "brutal." Some viewers left the theatre in tears at the end of the screening and many, including Treasurer Peter Costello and Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, were visibly shaken.
Sydney MP Bruce Baird said he thought the movie was a faithful depiction of Christ's final 12 hours but "I wished they didn't spend quite as long on the floggings".
Parliamentary Christian Fellowship chairman Mr Baird helped organise the screening. He said parents should not take children under 16 to see the film.
Mr Hardgrave said he would advise those who were disturbed by the film to see their priest or rabbi or other religious elder. "The amount of violence was just breathtaking," Mr Hardgrave said.
"We all knew that Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and rose again, but to see the suffering portrayed was very confronting."
Mr Danby was "taken aback by the violence and, frankly, I found that two hours of Aramaic and subtitles is hard going".
"I was probably the only person in the whole audience who understood large parts of the film because Aramaic is like Hewbrew and I speak Hewbrew," he said.
Just yesterday, Gibson's father Hutton Gibson caused a stir in the US when he said on radio he thought claims of the Holocaust were "exaggerated". "It's all maybe not all fiction but most of it is," Mr Gibson Sr said.
Mr Danby, however, said The Passion of Christ would not stir great anti-Semitism.
"I don't think there will be any major implications of this film," Mr Danby said.
"But it is my feeling from the film that Mel Gibson is his father's son.
"I think the Catholic Church and the Pope have over the past 30 years affected a reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity that is really wonderful and as far as I am concerned the Pope speaks for Catholics, not Mel Gibson."
All of these cited examples are portrayals of actions undertaken (or not) by a few individual people, and not one of them has anything to do with "the role of the Jews", whatever that means.
The only person here so far equating the actions of the individuals described above with "the role the Jews" is the author of this piece.
This movie needs to be evaluated in terms of the objective criteria provided by the US Catholic Bishops, and in the context of the history of passion plays.
It does? Personally I'll be evaluating it (or trying to anyway) based on something resembling these criteria, which I think are darned good criteria by which to judge films. I will not be told by this author how I am required to evaluate a film.
But the reaction to this film (and questioning of it) does underscore the question of how well Catholic theologians and leaders are communicating contemporary Catholic teaching on the Passion and on relations with the Jews
A small group of people raise an artificial stink over a movie (which no one would have batted an eye at otherwise) to get publicity, and this proves that Catholic leaders need to communicate better. Got it!
I wish this guy would learn to read. 'Few words' does not equate with 'not much happened.'
A detachment of Roman legionnaires and temple guards all armored and carrying swords came to arrest Jesus. He then was delivered to somone who was the Hitler of that region, whose word alone could condemn someone to death. Dramatic, frightening, violent...yes. Peaceful and quiet, no.
Not really. The Bible simply says "Jesus was scourged" or "They scourged Him" and leaves it at that. But people who read the Bible at the time of its composition knew with horror what a Roman scourging meant. They didn't need the bloody details, they were all too well aware of it from having to live with the brutality of the times in their every day life.
Modern people, on the other hand, have no clue what a scourging with a Roman flagellum(a cat-o-nine tails with wood and glass on the end of it) entailed, and have no idea what Jesus had to suffer when that scourging occurred. It was a horror, and a filmmaker is finally using all the tools of his craft to show us what Our Lord had to endure in order to obtain our Redemption.
I won't be enjoying this film when I watch it, but I hope to be moved to greater love and appreciation of Christ because of it.
You agree with a film review of a movie you haven't seen? ROFLMAO!!!!
That film isn't doing any testifying or preaching. Is not about the life and death of a (the?) central figure in Western Civilization.
All the time my friend, though this film falls outside my usual ability to judge Hollywood productions.
Of course they weren't. I remember the left was all enthralled with The Last Temptation, telling us this was a good opportunity to explore the historical Jesus.
Isaiah 52;13-14 prophesies of Jesus saying "Behold my servant shal deal prudently; He shal be exalted and extoled and be very high. As many as were astonished at you, his appearence was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men;
There are also prophesys saying all his bones were out of joint and that they looked and stared upon him. As Christians we were rarely told of what our sins did to the Lords body, but it was bloody.
Agree. I like to think of this type of article as a "stealth" hit piece. It gets you thinking that the author is doing a reasoned, rational review, and then subtly through the text switches gears until at the end the author is really slamming Mel. All while appearing to be "impartial".
Christian behavior would no longer alienate many people when Christians give up most foundational doctrines of Christianity and believe like the liberal, postmodern theologians.
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