I went to see Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, and I came out with very mixed feelings. I still don't really know how I feel about it. I was moved at certain moments of the film, but my overall feeling was revulsion. Then I thought, This is more or less how it was in reality. We've made our religion just cosy and we needed to be shocked to our senses.... What do you think? Julie
Dear Julie, I had mixed feelings about it too, and I believe that many people have. On the one hand, this film, like all works of art, is entitled to have its own angle on things. Even the four gospels have four different angles on the life and death of Jesus! On the other hand, the art in question is photography, and a photograph, as Roland Barthes put it, is "not distinguished from its referent [what it refers to]," so it appears to convey a scene or an event "as it really happened." In other words it appears to have a greater truth-claim than any other representation. It appears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But not even in a court of law, where people are sworn to it, do you hear that; every case would last forever.
This film, then, is a choice of what to tell. What is tells is brutally clear: every detail of the torturing to death of Jesus. What it leaves out is vast. Above all, it leaves out the meaning of that death. What is human suffering without its meaning? It is animal suffering. It has then the same meaning (whatever that is) as the suffering of a deer brought down by a lion, a worm eaten by a bird. It makes no sense to isolate the suffering of Jesus from his preaching. It makes no sense to omit all accounts of what attracted the crowds to him and what stirred the hatred of others. Before you have "the lamb silent before its shearers," you have all the discourse of Jesus - the words that give meaning to his silence. And before you heard about his suffering you had heard who he was: the Son of God. It is not sufficiently clear in the film that the meaning of all this suffering was incorruptible love. Furthermore, in this film, effectively you hear nothing of the resurrection. Jesus makes a brief reappearance, true, but it is represented as a solitary event, a thing in itself, out there; it is not a disclosure to a believer or a group of believers. There is no new community born from his passion and resurrection.
Shorn of before and after, what can all that pain mean to a cinema-goer? It could be argued that cinema-goers are expected to bring the context of faith with them. But that is too much to expect. Besides, it is a film, not a liturgy. What it offers is more of the same, it is what people have become used to on TV and in the cinema. Recently in California a primary school-teacher was sacked from his post for recommending the children to see this film, though it has an "R" rating. He defended himself by saying, "In this age with all the violence we see, the violence is not too much." Our sensibility has been brutalised, and if this film is remarkable it is because it has increased the dose. Since the suffering of Jesus has been prised out of its own context, it will inevitably find a new one: in the psychology of the viewer. There is every possibility that many viewers, vague on the faith of Christians, will enjoy it as they enjoy Kung Fu films or the Sopranos, or indeed any kind of violence. There may not be a high proportion of sado-masochists in a society, but there are very many now with a streak of it. On the other hand, if the suffering is not embedded in any new meaning, then it is just Kafka-esque.
I feel especially uneasy about the enthusiasm that many right-wing Christians have for pushing this film. It seems to answer to a violence in themselves. In contrast to this the gospels are very nuanced and low-key, stressing above all the profound freedom that Jesus displayed throughout his suffering: "No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18). Throughout, Jesus is a hero, not a victim.
Another thing occurred to me: if there is no background of debate with the scribes and Pharisees and chief-priests, not only is the death of Jesus detached from its meaning, but these people too are refused a chance to have their say. They had a point of view that made perfect sense to them, but the only one allowed them in the film is pure hate. It is not so surprising that the film has been called anti-Semitic - particularly when you see the Roman governor Pilate transformed almost into a sensitive soul.
The best-balanced comment, I think, was from the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger. "We Christians live in the world of sacrament. At every Eucharist we are in touch with the full mystery of Christ's passion and resurrection. It is not given to us in the form of a spectacle to watch, but as an act of God's life-giving power. Visual representation...touches our feelings very deeply, and our imagination, but it can be highly ambiguous. I don't say it is bad. Everyone has his or her own preferences, but I prefer the icon to a photographic representation of an actor playing the role of Christ. And I prefer the sacrament to the icon. It is more helpful to my prayer-life, and to others too, I think."