The Passion of the Christ

A non-review by Frank Thomas Smith

Is it possible to write a movie review without seeing the movie? Of course not. The next best (or worst) thing, though, is to write a non-review of the reviews. Let's start with the positive ones.

R. Cort Kirkwood is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

"The Passion Of The Christ" is high art.

Unlike other movies of the religious and non-religious genre, this one is not entertainment. It isn't a film you see to knock off a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. You experience this film, then ponder it, as you ponder the symbolism, characters and moral lessons in a great work of literature.

Except Mel Gibson's "Passion" isn't mere literature, and the history it retells, recalling Christian art through the centuries, is the principle reason it is a sublime piece. The film's arresting cinematography, imagery and techniques set it apart from the classic attempts in such films as "Ben Hur" or "The Greatest Story Ever Told".

Then again, Gibson's method of revealing the suffering of Jesus Christ has invited something beyond the usual film criticism: unalloyed hatred. "The Passion," we are told, is "anti-Semitic" and tantamount to Nazi propaganda. It does not comport with the Gospels. It does not provide the "context" for the Crucifixion and does not dispense Jesus's teachings. It's a gore-fest, unworthy of the $7.50 we would plunk down for, say, "Kill Bill" of "Natural Born Killers", two much more measured films on the violence meter.

All of which is nonsense. The critics dislike this film for an unspoken reason unrelated to, yet hidden, in what they have written, that reason having been written into the film. Its message is this: "I Am The Way, and The Truth And The Life."

Of course, secular critics, whether politically or theologically liberal, don't want to hear the Truth. Thus, the angst and hatred, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thus, their primal scream, echoing Satan in his Hell when Christ dies in "The Passion."

Where the Critics Are Wrong

Before addressing "The Passion's" message, better to dispense with the main objections. First and foremost is that the film is anti-Semitic because it depicts Jews as the bloodthirsty caricatures conjured up by Julius Streicher, the Nazi propagandist.

Poppycock. Only viewers schooled in anti-Semitic mythology, 99.99 percent of whom aren't, would draw that conclusion. Indeed, it's hard to see anti-Semitic images even when looking. They aren't there. No one will walk out of this film an anti-Semite who didn’t walk in one. The principal villains in the film are the Romans wielding the whips with sadistic abandon, pushing Our Lord to his death at Golgotha.

And yes, the film conforms to the Gospels. So seamless is Gibson's tapestry that average viewers, many undoubtedly enthusiastic Christians but unschooled in Scripture, won't know what he culled from extra-scriptural sources. On this point, the critics contradict themselves. They say Gibson departed from the Gospels (in depicting the savagery of the scourging, for instance) by consulting those sources. But then they argue that the Gospels are ahistorical, that Gibson should have consulted other sources. Whatever. The film depicts what most viewers, particularly Catholics, remember from their desultory reading of the Bible. As for "not providing the context" of the Crucifixion, so what? Even viewers who are only nominal Christians or atheists, who live in post-Christian America with everyone else, know the story behind "The Passion." They don't need "context."

That truth raises another false criticism: that the film is too violent and does not show Jesus's important teachings. Again, poppycock. The "violence" is over-hyped and unlike the typical Hollywood fare. The critics know that and lie in pretending otherwise. As for the teachings, flashbacks provide them. They show Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount and telling followers to love their enemies. Without words, Jesus imparts the lessons of mercy and forgiveness and condemns hypocrisy when he saves Mary Magdalene: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Jesus teaches his apostles at The Last Supper, and delivers the invocation every Catholic hears when he attends Mass: "This is My Body ... this is My Blood."

Finally, Gibson's Jesus imparts Christianity's central teaching: "I am the way, and the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me."

The Real Problem

For Passion critics and haters, these last words are the genuine problem with the film. It isn't that the film imparts too few of Jesus's hard teachings. Rather, it imparts too many. It renders his most important teachings. It proclaims, unflinchingly, what non-Christians and tepid Christians do not want to hear: To enter Heaven, we must go through Jesus Christ.

And with Jesus, comes the Cross, another teaching too hard for the modern age: He suffered and died for our sins, and we too must suffer and shoulder His Cross. After all, our own sins fashioned it. This is Gibson's point. His sins, our sins, put Christ on the Cross. Our sins brought down each stripe from the Roman flagellum, crowned Him with thorns and delivered each agonizing blow of hammer on nail. Real Christians believe every sin drives another nail into His hand, another nail into His foot, another lance into His side.

The modern liberal Christian or Jew, so attached to secular utopian fantasy, doesn't want to hear about suffering and redemption. They don't want to see it. They have no need, after all. For them, Jesus Christ is not a Redeemer but a utopian-socialist philosopher, urging not just love for the sinner but love for the sin. This film – Catholic and Marian, a recreation of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and The Stations of the Cross – shows them the Truth, something many men fear more than the Lie.

"Veritas? Quid es veritas?" Pilate asks Jesus. Beaten and manacled, the Truth stood before Pilate. The critics can't bear it. They love the Lie, so they must hate "The Passion."

Our own Bobby Matherne writes his own non-review:
"The Passion of Christ" grabs you from the opening scene and doesn't let go until the credits roll. The audience was spellbound and silent. A sense of awe filled the room. Not a Christian was stirring. Tears flowed quietly. All other movie scenes of the passion are like puerile school plays by comparison. Masterful job. No back story. No back music. No over-acting. Just there. In your face. Mel Gibson is a brilliant film-maker - I hope he continues to make independent films. It is clear to me that Hollywood needs him more than he needs Hollywood".

Now let's see what those hateful critics have to say.

Frank Rich in the 'New York Times' writes: "...The Passion" is far more in love with putting Jesus' intestines on a stick than with dramatizing his godly teachings, which are relegated to a few brief, cryptic flashbacks.

With its laborious build-up to its orgasmic spurtings of blood and other bodily fluids, Mr. Gibson's film is constructed like nothing so much as a porn movie, replete with slo-mo climaxes and pounding music for the money shots. Of all the "Passion" critics, no one has nailed its artistic vision more precisely than Christopher Hitchens, who on "Hardball" called it a homoerotic "exercise in lurid sadomasochism" for those who "like seeing handsome young men stripped and flayed alive over a long period of time."

...If "The Passion" is a joy ride for sadomasochists, conveniently cloaked in the plain-brown wrapping of religiosity, does that make it bad for the Jews? Not necessarily. As a director, Mr. Gibson is no Leni Riefenstahl. His movie is just too ponderous to spark a pogrom on its own — in America anyway. The one ugly incident reported on Ash Wednesday, in which the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church posted a marquee reading "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus," occurred in Denver, where the local archbishop, Charles Chaput, had thrown kindling on the fire by promoting the movie for months. Whether "The Passion" will prove quite as benign in Europe and the Arab world is a story yet to be told. It can't be coincidence that France, where Jacques Chirac has of late called for "zero tolerance" of anti-Semitism, was the only country where the film lacked a distributor until this week, when a Tunisian producer declared it was his "duty as a Muslim who believes in Jesus" to remedy that terrible lapse.

...But speaking as someone who has never experienced serious bigotry, I must confess that, whatever happens abroad, the fracas over "The Passion" has made me feel less secure as a Jew in America than ever before.

My quarrel is not with most of the millions of Christian believers who are moved to tears by "The Passion." They bring their own deep feelings to the theater with them, and when Mr. Gibson pushes their buttons, however crudely, they generously do his work for him, supplying from their hearts the authentic spirituality that is missing in his jamboree of bloody beefcake. Jews, after all, can overcompensate for mediocre filmmaking in exactly the same way; even the schlockiest movies about the Holocaust (Robin Williams as "Jakob the Liar," anyone?) will move some audiences to tears by simply evoking the story's bare bones in Hollywood kitsch.

...What concerns me much more are those with leadership positions in the secular world — including those in the media — who have given Mr. Gibson, "The Passion" and its most incendiary hucksters a free pass for behavior that is unambiguously contrived to vilify Jews.

...Start with the movie itself. There is no question that it rewrites history by making Caiaphas and the other high priests the prime instigators of Jesus' death while softening Pontius Pilate, an infamous Roman thug, into a reluctant and somewhat conscience-stricken executioner. "The more benign Pilate appears in the movie, the more malignant the Jews are," is how Elaine Pagels describes Mr. Gibson's modus operandi in The New Yorker this week. As if that weren't enough, the Jewish high priests are also depicted as grim sadists with bad noses and teeth — Shylocks and Fagins from 19th-century stock. (The only Jew with a pretty nose in this Judea is Jesus.) Yet in those early screenings that Mr. Gibson famously threw for conservative politicos in Washington last summer and fall, not a person in attendance, from Robert Novak to Peggy Noonan, seems to have recognized these obvious stereotypes, let alone spoken up about them in their profuse encomiums to the film...

Elaine Pagels, mentioned above, is Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the author of The Gnostic Gospels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent and Beyond Belief-The Secret Gospel of Thomas, all reviewed in SCR, among other scholarly works. Let's see what she had to say to 'The New Yorker':
"It is important to remember that this is Lent, and meditations of the suffering of Christ are an important part of the cultural interpretation of human suffering. There's a context for the movie in the history of art. When Christians read the Gospels as historical acts, they will say what Mel Gibson says: that this is the truth, this is our faith. But the important thing is that this film ignores the spin the Gospel writers were pressured to put on their works, the distortion of facts they were forced to execute. Mel Gibson has no interest whatsoever in that."

She goes on to say that the Gospels were probably written between 70 and 100 A.D., that is, the years following the Roman defeat of the Jewish uprising, which left the Temple and the center of Jerusalem in ruins. Acts of sedition by the Jews were met with swift execution. Therefore, the Gospels were not meant as pure history, but as preaching in order to win followers for the teachings of Christ. They portrayed the conflict of the Passion as one between Jesus the Jewish people, led by Caiaphas. Although the Roman occupiers, under Pontius Pilate, possessed absolute power, they are described in the Gospels - and, more starkly, in Gibson's film - as relatively benign.

"Our first informed comment on Pilate comes from Philo of Alexandria, a wealthy, influential Jewish citizen who was part of a delegation sent to Rome to negotiate with the emperor. The delegation saw the Emperor Caligua in the year 40, seven to ten years after Jesus' death, and Philo writes that Pilate was stubborn and cruel and routinely ordered executions without trial. The other great historian of the period is Josephus, who the history of the war between the Romans and the Jews. He ells us of many episodes about Pilate that also contradict what the Gospels tell us - that he robbed the public treasury, that he deliberately incited the Jerusalemites. Josephus tells us that when the people rioted in protest Pilate sent his soldiers to beat and kill them. So he was far from the man depicted in the Gospels.

"Mel Gibson denies any anti-Semitism, and I can't speak of his motives," Pagels goes on, "but there are narrative devises that are clear. The more benign Pilate appears in the movie, the more malignant the Jews are. To deflect responsibility from the Romans for arresting and executing Christ, which Gibson takes from the Gospels and makes even more extreme, is contrary to everything we understand about history. It is implausible that the Jews could be responsible and Pilate a benign governor. There are many examples in the film of a preposterous dialectic: the bad Jews and the good Romans. When the temple police arrest Jesus, Mary Magdalene turns to the Romans as if they were the policemen on the block, benign protectors of the public order. But the very idea of a Jewish woman turning to Roman soldiers for help is ridiculous."

In the end, Pagels said, "Gibson's movie is no more subtle than 'The Lord of the Rings.' There is the side of good and the side of evil."

Reviewer David Denby of The New Yorker writes: "...the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony - and to say so without indulging in 'anti-Christian sentiment' (Gibson's term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupified, as a handsome, strapping, at tikmes half-naked young man is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls n danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate...The movie has been hailed as a religious experience by various Catholic and Protestant groups, some of whom, with an ungodly eye to the commercial realities of film distribution, have purchased blocks of tickets or rented theatres to insure 'The Passion' a healthy opening weekend's But how, I wonder, will people become better Christians if they are filled with the guilt, anguish, or loathing that this movie may create in their souls?..."

"...'The Passion', in its confused way, confirms the old justifications for persecuting the Jews, and one somehow doubts that Gibson will make a sequel in which he reminds the audience that in later centuries the Church itself used torture and execution to punish not only Jews, but heretics, non-believers and dissenters..."

"What is most depressing about 'The Passion' is the thought that people will take their children to see it. Jesus said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me," not 'Let the little children watch me suffer." How will parents deals with the pain, terror, and anger that children will doubtless feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead? The despair of the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson's timing couldn't be more unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need."

Will I be writing my own review of 'The Passion' when it finally comes to Argentina? No, I think I'll give it a pass - the movie I mean. I could, however, give Mel Gibson some advice. If he wants to make a sequel, how about the resurrection, the important and meaningful side of Christianity? But he won't, for he and the Church he considers too liberal are obsessed with death instead of life.