I saw The Passion of the Christ last night. I was sucked in
by the hype; though I am interested in historical
portrayals of the Christ, part of me was interested to
see what kind of crowds would be there on opening night.
I wanted to see what sort of energy would be at the
Nickelodeon in Portland. Nothing out of the ordinary at
all was there. It wasn’t even all that crowded, to my
surprise. I keep forgetting that I no longer live in the
midwest, particularly Cincinnati. :-)
It’s apparent that many people didn’t like the movie.
But I have to wonder if they’ve given it a fair chance. I made
a conscious effort to rid myself of preconceived notions
before seeing the movie. I try to be a freethinker as
much as possible, and rarely if ever heed “the critics”
in my movie opinions.
I grew up Catholic, and did my time in Catholic school.
I have memories of the nuns describing to me, in awful
vivid detail, the images of Christ’s “passion” (along with many, I have a problem with the way the word “passion” has been corrupted to mean extreme violence and power-over…but that’s another story). In particular, I remember one Sister
Vincent Marie telling us, with something disturbingly
close to a gleam in her eye, that Roman whips had metal
hooks on the end of them, and that when used they would
dig into the skin, only to be ripped out again by the
overzealous soldiers. I remember her descriptions of
dislocated shoulders during crucifixion, and how
breaking the legs of the crucified asphyxiated the
victims because they could no longer push their chests
up with their legs to breathe. These descriptions that I
heard as a child in the late 70s could have been of
Gibson’s movie. Yes, the movie is violent, perhaps
unnecessarily so; but on the other hand I almost prefer
it to some sanitized, watered-down version of the story.
Every “civilization” in history has its brutal side; the
Romans were no exception. It seems to me that the movie
just portrayed this brutality. And this brutality is
nothing new; I heard vivid, graphic descriptions of it
in school as a nine-year-old in fourth grade.
Remember, the area in question was under Roman
occupation. In order to participate in an army of
occupation in an area that doesn’t want to be occupied,
one must to a certain extent become blind to suffering.
And if you are blind to suffering, it becomes easy to
fetishize suffering. The Romans weren’t nice to the
Jews; they beat them with ropes, clubs, and swords to
keep them under control. But what army is nice to the
rebellious population they are ordered to control?
Furthermore, these are not elite Roman soldiers; they
are most likely freed slaves or mercenaries hired to do
a nasty job nobody particularly wants to do. Look at
Pilate’s distate for his situation, as the governor of a
hostile occupied territory.
I did keep an eye out for anti-Semitism. After seeing
the movie, I’m not convinced that the movie is
anti-Semitic. There are some Jews portrayed as sadistic,
malicious, or downright evil, but the same can be said
for nearly every group portrayed in the movie (Jews,
Romans, Women, etc). If anything, the movie is
anti-non-Christian, which of course as a pagan is something I am concerned about. On the other hand, we must
also remember that this film is a portrayal of the
fundamental Christian legend, which is also widely
regarded as a highly privileged text (ie, “THE word of
God”), so of course we should expect the Christian
worldview and its adherents to be lifted up above
non-Christians. Indeed, there were Jews who were
malicious, as well as Jews who were outraged by the
whole thing. You can’t condemn all Jews for the death of
Christ, any more than you can condemn all Germans for
the holocaust. Anyone who leaves this movie believing
that All Jews Are Evil Because They Killed Christ is
just simply not thinking clearly.
I’ve seen reviews that claim the characters in the film are
“cardboard” cutouts. Remember,
these characters are among the most familiar in our
civilization, so there was “nothing new under the sun”
really possible in their portrayal, unless Gibson were
to take liberties with the well-known story. I thought Mary,
Yeshua’s mother, was quite good. The most touching
moment of the movie for me (speaking as a parent, and a
double-Cancer at that *grin*) is when Mary sees Yeshua
fall while carrying the cross, and flashes back to the
boy Yeshua who falls and skins his knee. Her maternal
instinct takes over, and she wants to comfort the
broken, tortured, exhausted Yeshua as she did when he
was a wailing child.
Despite the gore, there were some very beautiful,
provocative images in the film. One in particular was at
the moment of Christ’s death. There is a wide shot from
above of Golgotha as the clouds darken and the wind
picks up. The picture distorts, and we realize we are
seeing the reflection of the scene through a raindrop.
The drop falls to earth (symbolic of Christ’s mortality
at that moment), and lands at the foot of the cross. I
was immediately reminded, in the symbol of the water
drop, of the dawning of the Age of Pisces at the moment
of Christ’s death. I thought it was a very powerful and
Another interesting image was that when Christ is
erected on the cross, the Magdalene pulls her hood over
her head, shroud-like, in a slow, deliberate, and
dramatic fashion. This action evoked in me an image of
the suppression (or literally, the covering) of women —
and of female Goddess divinity — that would take full
force over the next two millenia. Ironically, another
image with the Magdalene is when Christ “rescues” her
from the stoning, with the famous “let he who is without
sin cast the first stone” line (though this line is not
spoken in the film). Christ reaches his hand down to the
Magdalene, and lifts her up. There is an interesting
subtext here; it suggests that perhaps Christ himself
would lift up female divinity (and possibly his consort,
according to some lesser-known Christian legends),
whereas his subsequent followers would repress the Goddess.
I was on the lookout for other Christian myths and
artifacts. Though the Shroud of Turin made an
appearance, I was disappointed that the Grail did not.
Also, I find it funny that so many people think Satan is
portrayed as a gay male, when in fact the part is played
by a woman (Rosalinda Celentano); indeed
Satan-the-character seems to be female (despite her
androgynous appearance), as at one point she is suckling
a bizarre, deformed “baby” as she walks through the crowd.
Some final thoughts: I think the movie is worth seeing,
if you are movie fan or if you are interested in a
particularly graphic portrayal of the death of the
Christ. I don’t believe for a minute that Mel Gibson
made this movie out of any sense of duty or devotion as
a Christian. Obviously, this film will sell a lot of
tickets. I wonder if Mel will be donating his
considerable profits to his church, a conservative
subsect of Roman Catholicism that still says mass in Latin?
And while we’re on the subject of Mr. Gibson, he seems
to have a thing for pain, dislocated joints, and
torture. I’m thinking of so many of his movies — all
the Lethal Weapon movies, the Mad Max movies, and the
numerous military movies he’s been in, not to mention
the three movies he’s directed, Passion, Braveheart, and
Man Without a Face — have graphic depictions of
violence, pain, and torture.
This film isn’t really all that original. Obviously, the
story is well known, and the only thing even close to a
new spin on it is the graphic violence. So from that
perspective, it’s kinda been-there, done-that. But it
did have its moments. All in all, I urge everyone to
decide for themselves; many reviews I have read are
quick to condemn the movie, and miss some of the more
interesting aspects of it.