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I was one of the brave souls attending the first performance of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ on Ash Wednesday this week. Afraid that I would miss out on tickets given the amazing media hype, I ordered mine online. I shouldn't have worried, not only were there 180 empty seats in the theater, there were two women in front of the Essex Green Cineplex trying to sell extra tickets from blocks of seats their groups had purchased.
What does one eat when watching a brutal crucifixion? The super-producer combo seemed to be the most popular at the concession stand, but more troubling were the large amount of kiddie combos sold to children attending the movie with their parents.
This is not a movie for children, no matter how much their parents want to expose them to Mel Gibson's portrayal of the suffering of Jesus. The violence is overwhelming, sadistic and twisted. The visual effects (heavy-handed slow motion, faces transforming into monsters or goblins, a gliding Lucifer with snakes darting from his nostrils) are so graphic and at the same time so modern that one feels confused. The only thing the fight scene in the garden of Gethsemane was missing was a Matrix -style frozen camera spin-pan. I half expected a donkey wagon to explode as Jesus trudged up the rocky mountain to Calvary.
Gibson needn't have worried that his film would bear any resemblance to earlier biblical epics. A visually cinematic blending of Reservoir Dogs and Die Hard , the message is as incomprehensible as it is challenging. I was raised as a Free Methodist; the concept of being "cleansed by the blood of the lamb" is not foreign to me. The themes of blood, purification and redemption are woven inextricably throughout the Christian myth. However, this movie is less about redemption than it is about blood.
I certainly can't deny Gibson's devotion to his message, but the question must be asked, "Whose message is being presented?" I was reminded of a frequent refrain spoken by a woman I greatly respect, a member of a Reform/Reconstructionist Jewish congregation my husband and I were members of in Brooklyn. In our weekly Torah study, when God was presented in a troubling passage as acting in a capricious and cruel manner, she would cry, "Not MY God!" I wanted to stand up in the movie theater and holler, "This is NOT the message of the Jesus I grew up loving!" The myth of Jesus is rooted in his teachings, the parables, and his directive that we should love each other. To refer to the myth of Jesus is not to denigrate the message, but to view it in a different--larger--light. It is such a powerful and beautiful message that it is difficult to contain within the narrow limits of literalism. Myth, legend and parable are tools, ways to view a truth that is too complex or large to be contained in any other way.
This movie is incredibly literal, it strives to be a verbatim depiction of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus. But in Gibson's drive for realism, his use of Aramaic and Latin, his buckets of blood, he does the larger message of Jesus a great disservice. The physical suffering trumps the metaphysical message of universal love--one can't see the forest for the "tree."
Literalism is the "willow switch" of fundamentalism, the tool used to admonish and blame those who cannot accept and embrace the message of the entrenched believer. Literalism and fundamentalism in any religious framework brook no deviation from their established myth, and quite often punish severely those who refuse to accept the same view.
Early passion plays were directed toward an illiterate audience which could learn the biblical texts only through drama and sermonizing. These plays were broad in their scope and not disposed to the finer points of theology. Ironically, although The Passion of the Christ requires that audience members be able to read due to the subtitles, the scope is just as broad. Throughout history there are documented instances of violence against Jewish communities by groups inflamed by the suffering of Jesus portrayed by these dramatic devices. Gibson certainly has a right to his religious opinion, but he also must treat this sensitive subject matter responsibly.
The use of Aramaic and Latin are disturbing in that they tend to legitimize Gibson's vision and give the film a documentary feeling. As I was leaving the theater a woman ahead of me said, "I feel like I was really there!" This is problematic in many senses, most notably in the depiction of Jewish characters in the movie. In the early trial scene before Caiaphas, the angry Jewish faces could have been caricatures copied from anti-Jewish artwork of 1930s Germany. The only Jews who were portrayed as "good" were those who eventually embraced the divinity and holiness of Jesus.
The Catholic Church is not alone in its victimization of those who do not surrender to a fundamentalist message. For many, the most abhorrent aspect of organized religion is the fact that throughout history many men, women and children have been brutalized and murdered in the name of god. If we are to grow as a human race and expand our souls, we need to ask whether films such as The Passion of the Christ move us toward a more universal comprehension of the love that is at the center of Jesus' teaching, or whether works such as this inflame the rage that springs from witnessing the brutal torture and murder of a spiritual leader.
By attempting to portray the incomprehensible suffering of a torture victim as docu-drama, the mystical, mythical perspective is lost. The universalism of Jesus' message, the spark of love that can be found at the heart of every great religion and which--to my mind--will be the salvation of our entire world when we are able to accomplish it, was not to be found on the screen at Essex Green Cinema--at least not for me.
The character with whom I felt the most sympathy was Mary--Miriam--Jesus' mother. Her pain was incomprehensible and borne of love. Powerless as a Jew within the Roman rule of law, and even more powerless as a woman, her emotional pain as witness to her son's murder was much harder to watch than the physical pain of the crucifixion. If Gibson wanted to make a movie about true human suffering, perhaps he could have chosen as his theme the universal suffering of childbirth. Using Mary's delivery of Jesus as the dramatic framework he could have explored the emotions of love and terror inherent in that event.
As a child I was taught that the beauty of the crucifixion was that by accepting the sins of all humans Jesus redeemed the world. Instead, a more insidious yet perversely attractive message, that Jesus took upon his body the suffering (not the sins) of all humans, is presented in The Passion of the Christ. This message, heavy on suffering yet light on redemption, turns Jesus' last hours into a can-you-top-this reality show of pain. Love is missing from this movie. Passion is all over the place, but I could see little love.