It wasn’t backed by a major studio and it won’t even appear in theaters until Ash Wednesday, a full two months after Christmas. Yet Mel Gibson’s engrossing epic “The Passion of the Christ” is already among the most-debated films of recent times and a major religious flashpoint.
Private viewings by select audiences in recent months — often including conservative clergy — have won the movie heartfelt praise.
The Rev. Billy Graham professed he was profoundly moved by Gibson’s somber depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. An aide to Pope John Paul II said the pontiff felt the film accurately “shows how it was” as Jesus went through anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion on Golgotha.
Gibson said that “Passion” is indeed an attempt to capture what really happened, but also a product of years of meditation and a personal expression of faith.
“I had to make this film; I couldn’t not make it,” he said.
A violent visionSome Jewish groups, however, have expressed outrage about the portrayal of Jews, fearing the movie might spark anti-Semitism. Some Christian scholars have joined their complaint.
A recent viewing of the film’s nearly final cut showed why people are reacting so dramatically.
It is not just that the passion was filmed, although the story has long been a delicate subject between Jews and Christians, and among Christians themselves. It’s the elaborate rendering of Christ in agony that is at the core of the reactions.
Gibson’s vision is intensely violent.
The depiction is close enough to the literal Gospel accounts to upset liberals, yet with imaginative additions that might trouble some biblical purists. While the film is not a collective attack upon Jews, the handling of some Jewish characters seems bound to spark still more protest.
Those who come to the movie without a strong religious background will be given plenty to ponder, and many will be sent scurrying back to the New Testament to compare the movie with the ancient Gospel texts.
They’ll soon discover that the Bible is far more restrained than the gory Hollywood treatment.
Scripture discreetly states that Jesus was scourged, spat upon and struck on the head. But the Gospels provide no elaboration on the Romans’ abuse of Jesus, which the movie turns into a meditation on human cruelty.
Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is savagely whipped by sadistic Roman soldiers wielding metal chains. Blood splatters and oozes. After the Nazarene is dragged away, mother Mary (Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern, daughter of a Holocaust survivor) stoically mops up the sacred blood from the pavement.
On Golgotha, Mary’s face and robe are smeared with blood as she kisses Jesus’ feet and cradles his corpse. This isn’t Michelangelo’s pretty Pieta. In one non-biblical, gruesome touch, a bird pecks out the eyes of the bad thief crucified with Christ — nature’s retribution for mocking Jesus.
Meditating on the passionGibson, who directed, funded and co-scripted the film, explained in e-mail responses to AP questions that in those scenes, “I tried to make it as realistic as possible. I wanted the audience to feel like they were really there, witnessing the events as they had actually happened.”
Yet the actor-director, often identified as a traditionalist Catholic, acknowledged that the film is “hugely personal. I saw other film versions and I couldn’t understand them; I couldn’t believe them.”
What drove him to create this version was a spiritual crisis about 13 years ago. “I came to a difficult point in my life and meditating on Christ’s sufferings, on his passion, got me through it,” he said.
“Once I started meditating on the passion, really going deep into it in my own mind and heart, then I began to understand it, to believe: That’s the version I put on film. ... The story, the way I envisioned the suffering of Christ, got inside me and started to grow, and it reached a point where I just had to tell it, to get it out.”
Finding the culpritsWho was responsible for Jesus’ death? The film’s answer is everyone — in accord with the biblical teaching that Jesus died because of the sins of each individual ever born.
The movie says this from the very start, citing the traditional belief that the prophet Isaiah foretold redemption through the cross (“he was wounded for our transgressions”).
In flashbacks, Jesus himself says “no man has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” and, at the Last Supper, “This is my blood, given for you and many for the forgiveness of sins.”
As for the culprits directly involved in the crucifixion, the film features a shrouded, androgynous Satan, who is eerily omnipresent and rejoices mirthlessly when Jesus is finally dead. Judas fulfills his customary betrayal and hangs himself. Pilate orders the unjust execution and Roman troops gladly carry it out.
But what about the Jews?
Role of the Jews
Liberal scholars interpret Jesus as a political martyr, whereas the Gospels, and “Passion,” say the Jewish authorities judged him guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be the Messiah and Son of God and led their followers in urging execution.
While the script doesn’t imply collective guilt for Jews as a people, there are villainous details that go beyond the Bible.
For instance, the Gospels report that Jewish temple guards at the Sanhedrin trial slapped, spat upon and struck Jesus. But in the dramatized “Passion,” the guards beat Jesus so severely that his right eye is swollen shut.
Pilate later chastises the grandly berobed chief priests: “You half-kill your prisoners before they are judged?”
Pilate, depicted as a Jesus sympathizer, cites the injuries in appealing to the priests to drop the charges. “Isn’t it enough? Look at him,” another addition to the Bible.
Also, the priests look on with impassive satisfaction during the bloody Roman scourging. The Bible doesn’t say the priests witnessed this, though it does place them at the crucifixion — as “Passion” does.
No simple answer
However, there are elements that might assuage some Jewish objections to the movie (Gibson opted not to answer questions on the subject).
Although the priest-led Jewish crowd is bloodthirsty, it does not shout the biblical sentence that has been used by anti-Semites and most upsets Jews: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25)
All those on Jesus’ side were also Jewish, of course, and the film has some reminders. Above all, Gibson’s unusual script in Aramaic and Hebrew (with English subtitles) underscores Jesus’ Semitic setting. Mary is heard reciting the Passover ritual. Simon of Cyrene, who helps Jesus bear the cross, is identified as Jewish.
Also, some Jewish elders denounce the Sanhedrin trial as a travesty. That point would have been driven home if the film had included the biblical scene where Sanhedrin members Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus bury Jesus.
Gibson reports that he did “an immense amount of reading” beyond the Gospels before getting behind the camera. He noted that experts disagreed about historical details, which he needed in order to flesh out the Gospel accounts.
“Since the experts canceled each other out, I was thrown back on my own resources to weigh the arguments and decide for myself,” he said.
Gibson plans to add a few flashback scenes before release to underscore Jesus’ teachings about love and forgiveness. In the end, he believes, his creation will be faithful to the Gospels.
“I hope it makes people think,” he said. “I hope it makes them reflect. The movie is about faith, hope, love and forgiveness. If it stirs those things up in people, it will be a success.”