Passion: Missed Opportunity

If Mel Gibson thought he caught heat for making The Passion of the Christ, he should have been at my mother's table when I said I would see it. My mother asked how I could possibly see an anti-Semitic film. She had not seen it herself, but was going on press accounts. I stated that I wanted to view the film and decide for myself. Well, now I have. Did part of the film bother me as a Jew? Yes. But that pales to what bothered me as a film lover. For all the money, time, effort, and, dare I say, passion that went into the film, the end result can best be called a waste.

Having heard Gibson discuss his beliefs on television, I truly feel that he did not intend to make an anti-Semitic film. I'm not paranoid enough to think that the picture will "convert" anyone into hating Jews. But people looking for reasons to hate will find no shortage of material. Gibson depicts the Jewish high priest Caiphus as a vile, evil schemer. The Jewish crowds are shown screaming for Jesus's death. The only sympathetic Jews are Jesus's followers, leaving no middle ground. According to the film either Jews completely believed everything Jesus said, or they wanted him dead. In one of the more repugnant scenes, the Jewish crowd has the choice of freeing Jesus or Barabbas, a psychopathic murderer. Egged on by Caiphas the crowd unhesitatingly chooses the killer. On the other hand Gibson shows Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, as a conscientious, thoughtful man. He reluctantly orders Jesus's execution to appease the Jewish crowd and avoid violence. His portrayal was not only offensive, but goes against every historical record of the time.

Unfortunately, the film's problems run much deeper. Viewing it feels like watching the third part of a trilogy without the first two parts. Gibson provides only scant information about what went on before the last twelve hours of Jesus's life. What he does provide is violence, and a lot of it. Jesus is beaten, choked, whipped, and flayed many times over. Gibson shows Jesus's torture in brutal, graphic detail. These scenes go on interminably and quickly become redundant. We see Jesus try to carry the cross and fall down. Then he picks it up, walks some, and falls down again. And then again. After a while I wanted to shout "I get it Mel!!! He suffered!!!" The weak narrative is all climax and no buildup.

Missing along with a strong story is any sense of character development, with the strange exception of Pilate. Jesus is tortured and pious. Mary, Jesus's mother and Mary Magdelene both cry through the entire picture. Judas is guilt-ridden. The Jews are evil. That's about it. A film can work with a mediocre plot or flat characters, but not both.

The film's focus also deprives you of any context for what goes on, with only the flimsiest of flashbacks. So you see that the Jewish elders see Jesus as a threat and a blasphemer. Why? What about his teachings was so disturbing to them? More importantly, what about his teachings inspired his followers and formed the basis for one of the world's major religions? Gibson assumes that you are already familiar with the New Testament and can answer that for yourself. If you are not, then tough luck.

By any standard, The Passion of the Christ fails the history test. Now I'm the first person to say that a film set in an historical context does not have to tell the entire story of the period. I defended Schindler's List by that same reasoning when some criticized the film for not covering certain aspects of the Holocaust. But with Jesus, you're talking about a man whose life and death shaped history for the next 2000 years. Let's say you knew very little about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and you watched a film just focusing on the day of his assassination. Would you get any idea why he played such an vital role in American history? Probably not. The Passion of the Christ never gives you any sense about what made this man extraordinary except his ability to withstand punishment.

You could argue that Gibson did not envision The Passion of the Christ as a history lesson but rather as an expression of his faith. He has said as much in recent interviews. I take him at his word, but in that case the film also falls short of his own goals. I am not of the Christian faith, but when I've talked to Christian friends, they have told me what about their faith inspires them. They tell me of Jesus preaching love, acceptance, charity, and forgiveness. They tell me of Jesus not judging other people, and his belief that for even the worst there is hope of redemption. I did not see any of this in Gibson's film - nothing on the beauty of Jesus's beliefs and ideas. The overwhelming emotion here is not love, but rather hate and agony. Is that all there is? I'd say no - that there is much more to the Christian faith than suffering. But you'd never know it from Gibson's work. If someone made a film about the Jewish faith that presented it in a similar manner, I'd feel shortchanged as a Jew.

Mel Gibson deserves credit for risking money and prestige on such a huge gamble. He had no way of knowing that The Passion of the Christ would make any money at all, let alone become a box office smash. Also give Gibson his due for a well-crafted effort with strong production values. But his film could have been so much more than a testament (yes, there's a pun intended) to brutality and pain. He could have educated filmgoers and shared the power of his faith. Gibson's flaw is not so much anti-Semitism as it is irresponsible storytelling. In the end it's not what he showed, but what he didn't.

Adam Spector
March 17, 2004

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