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Mel Gibson has accomplished almost everything he dreamed of when he conceived of filming his Jesus epic, The Passion of the Christ. The movie is overwhelmingly the product of Gibson's vision, with the most controversial concession being the addition of subtitles (the film's dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin). At the rate that the movie is going, Gibson could also parlay a $30 million investment of his money into one of the largest grossing films in history. While I can respect Gibson's intensity, fortitude, and sheer drive in bringing the film to the screen, the idea that this film is a theological triumph rings hollow.
That is not to say that the film doesn't have the trappings of a masterpiece. The Passion is certainly filmed beautifully, and in taking the type of artistic slant that Gibson has chosen—whether or not you agree with that slant—the director transcends the overwhelming majority of Jesus retellings that come off as pablum in their attempt to offend no one. When it comes to something as deeply personal as faith and as innately controversial as the interpretation of scripture, you can be assured that offense will be taken by someone. It is probably more good than bad that Gibson chose obstinacy over mollification when faced with the controversies his film engendered.
That is where my admiration of Gibson as director and storyteller dissipates.
Yes, the Christian faith owes its entire existence to the day that Jesus was crucified, a brutal execution method devised by the Romans to inflict a lingering, excruciating death. Yes, this was a paragon of sacrifice on the part of both God and Jesus. And yes, the aim of the Gospels—in part—is to highlight that through his suffering, the Son of God died so that mankind could be redeemed. The story of Jesus cannot truly be sundered from the suffering of Jesus; the crucifixion is a culmination of God's love for the world.
Gibson says that this is the story of Jesus as told from the Gospels, a source that Gibson and others of his brand of Catholicism view as inviolate truth. It is as disingenuous as it is simplistic to say so. Forget the debt Gibson owes to Anne Catherine Emmerich and her work, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ; Gibson's use of the Satan character as a dramatic device; the two-dimensional portrayal of most of the supporting characters. All these elements undermine Gibson's assertion in their own ways. Gibson, in fact, is not telling the story of Jesus; Gibson is only telling the story of Jesus's death. This movie is not a theological watershed (nor should any movie be). This movie is rather a conflict of the medieval versus the meditative aspects of Christian faith.
Just as the story of Jesus cannot be separated from his death, the Gospels cannot be separated from dogma. The very definition of gospel denotes teaching of doctrine. The apostles addressed Jesus as rabbi, their teacher. And the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are devoted more to the teachings of Jesus than they are to his demise and subsequent return. By choosing to focus on the pain inflicted upon Jesus in the waning hours of his life, Gibson intentionally obscures the message of Jesus; we respond viscerally to the suffering without being given the proper context of why Jesus was suffering, why Jesus sacrificed himself, why his message should resonate two millennia later rather than dying with its prophet.
Don't believe for a moment that the driving force behind Gibson's adamant insistence on filming in Aramaic and Latin was due to a desire for historical accuracy. Gibson did not want a philosophical revelation to occur; he wanted the audience focused on the action. He wanted the audience to experience revulsion, horror, and shame at what Jesus endured, not become enlightened from the teachings. Words would have just gotten in the way of this telling, and subtitles were a recalcitrant concession that occurred late in the process. Gibson believes that the suffering is the message. The Gospels, the very source to which Gibson claims to adhere, tell a different story.
In interviews, Gibson expresses hope that the movie, with all its graphic violence, will inspire introspection. Gibson seems too sincere not to believe him. But Gibson's Passion is his own introspection, his own faith. Introspection would perhaps have been better served by focusing on—or at least giving adequate time to—the message of the Gospels rather than whips, thorns, nails, and blood. This, of course, would have been an entirely different film. The Passion of The Christ ultimately begs an unanswerable question.
What story would Jesus tell?
J. M. Pressley Home