Released 2004. Director: Mel Gibson
FOR CHRISTIANS, THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT THE SON OF GOD, specifically, his death at the hands of man. Naturally, there has to be controversies. The most virulent piece of accusation levelled against The Passion of the Christ is that it’s anti-Semitic. So, does the movie put Jews in a bad light and accuse them of having killed Jesus?
How much of the Biblical account can we take literally as historical fact? The Jews, according to the Bible, did have a part to play in the killing of Jesus, and so did the Romans. And then from the theological point of view, we all did. It was the sins of the world that killed Jesus. Taken as such, does it still matter to argue over who killed Jesus? Shouldn’t the question be instead why Jesus needed to die?
Mel Gibson, however, as director, has chosen to depict the Gospels with one obsession, and it’s not a pretty one. For two hours we are subjected to a horrific visual enactment of the physical torment Jesus endured during the last 12 hours leading to his crucifixion.
From the moment he is arrested at the Garden of Gethsamane, the violence gets relentless and never lets up. When he is whipped, his flesh ripped into shreds. More whipping, more blood-dripping lashes on his body. Then they bring out the scourges and rip out strips and small chunks of flesh from his back, with even more splattering of blood. The savage beating reduced the body of Jesus to a mess of torn flesh soaked in blood and dirt. One of his eyes is swollen shut, the other bloodshot. And the carnage goes on and on, sometimes in unbearable slow-motion and close-up shots.
And we haven’t even got to the part where he’s forced to carry his own cross, dragging what’s left of his own battered body on an excruciating journey to Golgotha to be nailed. That’s when we see the long metal spikes hammered through his trembling hands and feet. With each blow you can feel his bones crush.
Half the time I was shifting in my seat, terribly uncomfortable. If I was watching this at home I would have turned it off. Gibson has repeatedly stressed that he is true to the Gospels, but the Gospels contain no such bloody emphasis. In the book of Mark, it simply says that “the guards took him and beat him”. The other three books tell pretty much the same thing.
Now look at Gibson’s history. Here’s a man known for playing characters who revel in going through extreme pains to qualify as a hero. Think of Braveheart when his body is eventually quartered, torn by force. Think of the numerous torture sessions he endured in not one, but four Lethal Weapon movies. And then there is all that bleeding raw violence in the three Mad Max movies, plus a catalogue of action-packed titles such as Ransom, The Patriot, Payback, ... No wonder Gibson sees nothing but the sadism in the story of Jesus -- he is Hollywood’s king of pain.
For some audience, the graphic brutality could be the attraction. Christians no doubt flock to The Passion to see the sacrifice their saviour had made for the atonement of their sins. For others, this is simply cinematic masochism. The Passion of the Christ does little in terms of conversion or evangelism. Where is the message of love, forgiveness, acceptance, mercy, hope and peace that Jesus had come to share with everyone? The Bible says that Jesus had come to die in order that those who believe in him might have eternal life. To only see how he died and not understand why it had to be so is missing the point all together.
Gibson fails to draw that fundamental raison d’etre. The Jesus who came to bring the world salvation is not on the screen. Instead, it is Gibson’s narrow focus of Jesus the martyr. What does that say about Christianity to a wider audience who has no more than superficial knowledge of what the teachings of Jesus are about? Apparently, a religion obsessed with a tragic figure, laden with more suffering than Buddhism or Hinduism.
Very little is known about the historical Jesus (as opposed to the Biblical Jesus). Is there factual veracity in Gibson’s depiction? Did Pilate really have that conflicted quest for the truth? Where in the Bible is there ever a mention of his wife? Did this wife of Pilate give Mary the cloth to soak up Jesus’s bloodstains on the ground? Creative liberty in re-enacting an event from the past is sometimes necessary, but not when it interferes with the actions and motivations of the characters, which in turn bears significant influences on how the audience interpret the event.
In addition to the Gospels (predominantly the book of Mark), Gibson is said to have also woven in visions from two nuns: 17th century Mary of Agreda and 18th century Anne Catherine Emmerich. Isn’t it sacrilegious to incorporate what has no base in the Biblical records into what Christians believe to be divinely inspired by God?
The extent of violence Gibson has presented is a matter of conjecture, likewise the hallucination of Judas, Jesus dangling from a rope, the flashbacks to Jesus’s childhood and that complete fabrication of Jesus in his carpenter days creating a high table – just what was Gibson thinking about?
Mary Magdalene is another tricky issue. The real identity of this woman is not given much explanation, except for the assumption that she must have been someone very close to the family. It leads to a whole new minefield of speculations and unanswered questions about her relationship with Jesus.
But here comes the best part. Surrounded by controversy, Gibson launched a pre-emptive strike even before the movie opened by calling critics “the forces of Satan”.
Very strong words. Clearly we’re not just talking about a movie here. Gibson has made The Passion of the Christ an us-versus-them battle. He (and some people) takes any different views on the movie as an attack on his religion. He is right and everyone else who has something else to say is not only wrong, but evil. The Passion of the Christ is now one of the biggest blockbusters with US$610.3 million in ticket sales around the world. What long-term implications on Christianity will this entail?
Actually, The Passion of the Christ is very much like an action blockbuster. One can imagine an actor like Bruce Willis playing a similar character. A good guy captured, tortured atrociously, then left to die, but he defies all odds and refuses to give in and instead, rises up to victory. To the non-Christians and especially those who are not familiar with the story of Jesus, this is just what it looks like. That short epilogue of Christ’s resurrection is the equivalent of a twist in the plot, a hook on which a sequel hangs tantalizingly.
When it all ends, the images that remain in the mind after watching The Passion of the Christ are those dripping in blood and extreme agony. Does the manner of his execution define who Jesus was? Let us spend more time pondering why he died, not just how.