Mel and Me: A Couple of Opinions

Along with ninety five gajillion other people, I have finally seen The Passion of the Christ. And along with about 15 gajillion, I am taking the time to post my thoughts. As an ex-Catholic, long-time scoffer, and now firm, though not impassioned, believer, I thought I'd share my take. As a film, there were a few things to find annoying, much to like, and way, way too much to humbly admire. But there is a whole other level, a heart rarely seen in cinema, a center of potency and power, that was amazing, and well worth viewing. For this is not traditional film, a vapid story of a incongrous romance or the football team overcoming the big school and becoming state champs. This is a story of the most important event in the history of humanity. And Mel Gibson gives that event the gravity, respect, and love it deserves.

I'll dispose of the flaws first, because they were not important, and in no way detracted from my experience. But I don't want to come across as one who just drooled with admiration.

I found the language issues troublesome. Now, I have no problem with subtitled movies; I watch 'em all the time. But I found this one bothersome, because (I suppose) these actors were not native speakers of the languages they used. Therefore, all the utterances were quite short. The speakers spoke their pieces and were done. There was no flow, as in conversation, but it sounded like (not read as, but sounded like) contemporary conversations between teenagers.


"Yeah, hey."

"Cool shoes."

"Yeah, like whatever."

"Where'd ya get 'em?"

"Oh....Some store."

When adults speak, the length of sentences varies and the intonations flutter; these all seemed very brief and very declamatory. And because of that, they all sounded like speeches in a Presidential debate. Crafted, polished, honed, but artificial and wooden. No one spoke as in language, but instead delivered little pithy phrases. If the film had been in English I think the rhythms of the sounds would have been much better. Jesus says very little, and it would have been nice if he had been a bit more natural and understandable as a man.

I wish we had seen a bit more of the disciples. They hovered on the edge, playing very small roles. Peter denied knowing Jesus in a beautiful scene; the fear and confusion were vivid. But he then disappeared. John said nearly nothing. Since these two men were an author of an eyewitness account, and the father of the Church, I think they could have been, and should have been, much more important to the tale. Cut the scourging by a minute and add these necessary and heroic men.

But we got much more of Mary than seemed necessary to this non-Catholic. Yes, the performance is devastating; she looked a worn, frazzled, frightened mother. But any mother of a son being executed would most likely look that way; the experience of a mother is different, and not universal and transferable. Both Marys were nearly perfect. They did not look beautiful; they looked sad and tired and dirty and devastated. Their actions were those of distraught and panicked women, overwhelmed and terrified, confused and on edge. But their actions are understandable without extending Jesus's torture and death to anything beyond them. A mother and a close woman. Easy to set aside and say "Oh yes, they would be like that." And therefore easy to place it where it is not related to us.

The things that worked were far bigger and far better. The flavor of the film was perfect. I loved the look. The sets were great, the costumes looked authentic, the hair, the beards, the armor and all the little details seemed, to this non-expert, completely appropriate. It looked like the hot, dusty, forsaken outpost it was. So often films in the distant past look phony, even without the extreme artificaility of DeMille. This was a small town when this story took place, a small, remote place with small people.

The ferocious charges of anti-Semitism can be discarded easily, it seems to me. Only those who fear Christianity could fear this movie. The sadistic and brutal was all done by Romans. The Jews did indeed clamor for the death of this man, but they seemed, as most crowds do, without much identity. Just as lynch mobs hanged or Los Angeles rioters beat with bricks, this crowd was deliberately and skillfully swept away from reason. They were manipulated by those who had something to protect, and those who did the protecting were not seen as Jews but as scheming liars who toady when necessary, flatter when appropriate, and threaten when required. They were the perfect power-masters, low level functionaries who needed to get rid of trouble and protect their turf. We all know them; they live in every workplace, every government agency, every school, every board, council and committee. We have worked for them and with them, asked their help and needed their services. There was nothing about them that is Jewish and everything about them that is human.

Pilate was perfectly realized. A disappointed man who wants to keep his job, frustrated in his lousy posting but knowing that promotion is only possible for those who keep Rome happy, and knowing quite well that the way to keep Rome happy is to keep Rome unaware of anything happening within his jurisdiction. Pilate must make sure no news gets to Rome; no news is good news, any news is bad, very bad, news. How to keep these complicated people with their endless bickering quiet is his concern. Give the people what they want if possible. Keep the pot just under boiling, and the best way to do that, in this case, is to let them have their miserable Barabbas. Remember, this is the world where the Coliseum was filled with human butchery as a mode of public entertainment. These were not people for whom life was precious.

The brutal scourging of Jesus is in many ways the center of the film. While the crucifixion is the climax, the scourging occupies such a massive role that it must be addressed. Why did Gibson choose to spend so much time on something that is so briefly mentioned in his sources? I can't presume to answer that, but I do know how it worked for me. When I was a non-believer, I found the notion of God suffering absolutely silly. God is outside time, how can he suffer? He knows the past, the present and the future. If you know the outcome of an event, then the misery is not suffering. Pain, even death, may come from physical torment, but suffering comes from the helplessness of being unable to control and direct events. I felt the utter bewilderment of Jesus as he struggled to stand, felt his anguish as the scourge bit into his flesh, felt his body rock as each blow landed. This man was not outside time, but very much a part of it. Every stroke occurred within the most torturous time, one brutal, long and bloody stroke after another. Jesus was being horribly tormented, and while its complete unjustifiableness was potent, it was its inhumanity that broke me down. How man could revel in such behavior, and the two Roman soldiers clearly savored every splash of the blood, every chunk of flesh that flew off, is critical. Because a key idea in my growth from non-believer to Christian is the difference between how man lived before Jesus and how man lived after Jesus. His world is not one where an understanding of peace could make sense. This was a world where violence solved problems, where the non-violent person got crushed and disappeared. If Jesus were merely man, that would have happened here. But because he was not, his torch passed to men like Tolstoy and Dr. King, men who had a disproportionate influence on the world. Men who were able to peacefully change history. Without Jesus, this could never have happened. So the scourging showed me Jesus did indeed suffer, did indeed step into time fully and completely, did indeed experience thousands of years of torment in just a few hours. And that his death made such behavior no longer valid.

As he died, the temple was rocked and torn. I once sneered at such events, but realize now that when these stories were first written, there would have neem many people around who remembered these events. The readers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not so far removed from these events that they would have been reading ancient history. They would have been reading the story of why things they knew happened did actually happen. It was a great symbol for the end of the old and the beginning of the new. The old order of priests and rules and costumes and status quo ended when Jesus died. Those priests did not know it; life had been one way for hundreds of years. But it was about to change.

I loved the conclusion. Jesus has risen. His death accomplished the first part of the story, his resurrection begins the second part. And that is where the film ends. The story is complete. How man responds to this amazing event is a new tale.

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