My view of “The Passion”

(The following blog entry was originally posted as a comment in this thread, where a huge debate ensued.)

In America, everyone has a God-given right to express his opinion on “The Passion,” so here’s mine. No offense intended to anyone.

I saw “The Passion” today. While it has a few, all-too-brief moments with some dramatic or spiritual power, those moments are overwhelmed by the general badness of the movie. The crudeness of the direction and of the dramatic action turned me off quite early on.

Anti-Semitism is a non-issue in this movie. The Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are not portrayed as stereotypical evil Jews, but as stereotypical movie bad guys. In fact the word “Jew” is barely pronounced. So anti-Semitism is not the problem. The problem is that this is a very poor movie.

Nor did the extreme violence per se bother me. It was the utter stupidity and unbelievability of the way that extreme violence was portrayed that turned me off. Thus as soon as Jesus is arrested, the officers who are bringing him back to Jerusalem start to beat the hell out of him, smashing his eye, even throwing him off a bridge. Why would they do this? He had surrendered voluntarily, he had even made his own followers stop fighting. These are men under orders, bringing back a prisoner, under very unusual circumstances in the middle of the night, and they would not want to bring attention to what they were doing. So their extreme attack on him was totally unbelievable in dramatic terms, apart from its not being in the Gospels.

Then consider the absurdity of those Roman soldiers going completely berserk, even disobeying orders, in their incredibly excessive whipping of Jesus. What motive could they have for that? Why should they have such extraordinary hostility to him? He wasn’t anything to them. The governor had made it clear he didn’t have any particular animus against him. In fact, their superior reprimands them for beating Jesus within an inch of life when they had been explicitly ordered not to kill him. So why did they do it? Answer: Gibson wanted to ratchet up the violence as much as he could. So that’s what he did, even though it makes no sense and destroys any dramatic verisimilitude.

(I’m sure someone will answer that the Roman soldiers are not supposed to have a motive, since “They hated me without a cause.” But to me what happens in the movie does not convey that idea; it just conveys stereotypical Hollywood bad-guy sadism raised to the nth degree.)

Also, after that scourging that ripped the flesh off from most of his body, in which the metal tipped whip seemed to hit him with the impact and the sound of a truck hitting the side of a building, any human being would have been dead or very close to death, certainly unable to stand upright, to walk, or to carry a cross even for 10 feet.

Similarly, as the soldiers trying to get Jesus to Golgotha and on the cross, they keep whipping him, knocking him down and almost killing him, thus making their own job even harder. It makes no sense. But Gibson, in the mode of the contemporary, Spielberg-influenced director, has this compulsion to bring every sensation to the max. That compulsion, combined with his peculiar view of the Gospels, leads him to fill every possible moment of the movie with as much violence as possible.

Crucifixion was a standard method of execution. The Roman soldiers would have been coldly efficient in the way they went about it. It would have have a routinized quality about it. Yet the movie shows the Romans as out-of-control, crazed sadists.

This leads to another point, which is that all the bad guys are portrayed in the cartoonish manner of the typical action movie or politically correct movie of today; they’re not believable human beings, just incarnations of meanness. The High Priest has this one unchanging “mean” expression on his face through the whole movie, yet no motivations for what he was doing, no character development. The Roman soldiers are unshaved, crazed looking. They don’t look like Roman soldiers, who of course were highly disciplined, but like the bad guys in “Deliverance.”

The movie is filled with this kind of crude, motiveless, dramatically senseless action and characterization.

People keep talking about the movie’s truthfulness to the Gospels. Then who is that weird hermaphroditic Satan who keeps creeping around the edges of the movie? Answer: Gibson likes to have homosexual villains in his movies, as in “Braveheart.” In this movie he has two homosexual villains—Satan, and Herod, whose entire court is portrayed as a gay salon. But wasn’t Herod the man who had John the Baptist beheaded out of lust for his step-daughter Salome? Hmm, well, I guess this movie is not so true to the Gospels after all, is it?

And what about Pilate, who in this movie is not, as in the Gospels, a tough and cynical urbane figure who is impressed by Jesus despite himself and undesirous of having him killed, but, instead, a sensitive guy, deeply troubled by what is being done to Jesus. That’s not in the Gospels at all. Gibson’s excessively gentle and non-Biblical portrayal of Pilate as compared with his portrayal of the murderous Jewish mob is one point where it is arguable that there an anti-Semitic motive at work in him, though as I said, anti-Semitism is overall a non-issue in this film.

To me, this is not a significant Christian film, though, as I said, it has a few scattered moments with real power. I think Christians are making a mistake when they praise this movie as highly as they are doing, and especially when they see it as bringing about some Christian revival. This is a very bad film, made by a director who is a complete product of the contemporary pop culture with all its debased, coarsened sensibilities. Fortunately, the ongoing life of the Christian religion is not dependent on Mel Gibson’s overwrought creation. In a couple of years I think this movie will have been forgotten.

I certainly hope it will be forgotten. Because if Gibson’s insanely over-the-top view of the crucifixion becomes the accepted view, it will only further coarsen the sensibilities of Christians and of our whole culture. It will no longer be enough that Jesus voluntarily accepted torture and death, that he was beaten, whipped by scourges, humilitated, and nailed to the cross where he died an agonizing death. That Gospel-based understanding will no longer satisfy people accustomed to Gibsonesque violence. For Gibsonized Christians, it will have to be that Jesus was thrown off a bridge with a chain around his neck so that he was almost suffocated, had his eye smashed, was repeatedly hit with an impact that would have knocked over a fire truck, and was whipped by insane sadists with a whipping which, if it had been done in reality, would have left the flesh hanging from his exposed bones and left him dead on the spot. Anything less than such perverted excess—including the unadorned Gospel story itself—will no longer seem like the “real thing” to minds darkened by Gibson’s tawdry vision.

I devoutly hope that Christians and Jews alike think more carefully about this movie and reject Gibson’s incredible vulgarization of the Passion of Christ.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 28, 2004 12:05 PM | Send

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