The Passion: whose gospel is it?


March 4, 2004, midnight | By Samir Paul | 16 years, 8 months ago


The full moon casts an eerie glow over the light fog that permeates Gethsemane. A man, wrought with fear, rebukes his closest friends for falling asleep in his time of greatest need. Moments later, he is bound in chains, being prodded along by a band of soldiers. His friends have fled, and he is alone. This? The long-awaited Messiah?

About fifteen minutes have passed in Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, and thus far, it is reasonably in accordance with the four gospels of the New Testament. But soon enough, the man, Jesus of Nazareth, is thrown off a bridge and left hanging inches from the ground by a chain tied around his waist.

Wait, which Gospel was that from?

It turns out that it's the Gospel According to Mel. The Passion, criticized long before its release for its suspected factual inaccuracies and non-canonical sources (including the visions of a 19th century German nun, Anne Catherine Emerich), is director Mel Gibson's film of the arrest, torture and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (James Caviezel). Though The Passion is being used as an evangelistic tool nation-wide, it does not provide an unadulterated account of Jesus' final hours and should not be expected to be an exact adaptation of the Gospels.

Rather, it is Gibson's interpretation of the story. The only problem is that for one who is not familiar with what the Bible says of Jesus' last few hours, Gibson's embellishments are difficult to pick out. Other interpretations of the crucifixion, such as Martin Scorsese's also-controversial Last Temptation of Christ (1988), depart obviously from the canonical story, whereas The Passion seems to try its best to come off as factual. Entirely in Latin and Aramaic (though subtitled in English), the film gives off an air of authenticity that can only be dismissed as interpretation after scrutiny of the subtle details that reflect the director's bias and agenda.

The film reflects the differences in focus between the Protestant and Catholic wings of Christianity. Protestants are the inheritors of an iconoclastic tradition that seeks to avoid idolatry and went so far as to remove the traditional sculpture of Christ from the cross and to strip the altars in their Churches. The Catholic Church has traditionally emphasized the overwhelming importance of the suffering that Jesus underwent, which, according to Christian theology, is a manifestation of God's love for humankind. But Protestantism has always placed emphasis on Jesus' resurrection and sought a return to Christ's Jewish roots. It is therefore essential to understand that the film tells only half of Jesus' story, that of the terrible suffering of Jesus.

But Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen goes so far as to call the film "fascistic" in its use of violence, comparing the film to Hitler and Mussolini's "cult of violence." However, the parallel that Cohen attempts to draw between Gibson and a maniacal Hitler who terrorized Europe is tenuous, at best; the breed of violence used by Hitler and Mussolini comes only through a cultural shift that inures an entire nation, not from a two hour movie that seeks to strike the viewer with the gravity of the torture that Jesus underwent. That Cohen felt an "emotional remove" during the movie is a fact that he must reconcile with himself rather than blaming it on the film.

Charges of anti-Seimitism in the movie, many made before it was even seen, are unsubstantiated. Gibson does downplay the role of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate; Pilate may have been somewhat indecisive because of pressure from his wife, a follower of Jesus, but the inert, passive portrayal of Pilate is stunning and irritating. In the end, Pilate only reluctantly sentences Jesus to be scourged and crucified. To deny or diminish the roles of the Roman authority but also a cross-section of the Jewish elites would simply be untrue.

As Jesus is interrogated by the posse of Jewish priests, Gibson is sure to include several priests who oppose the gathering after the crowd provides unsubstantiated evidence: "This meeting is an outrage!" one of them cries. The march through the streets and the proceeding crucifixion involve groups of Jewish women sympathetic to Jesus. A Jewish man, Simon of Cyrene, picks up the cross as Jesus falls along the way.

Gibson, in fact, decides to emphasize the ruthless, blood-thirsty Roman culture in the sadistic Roman soldiers and authority. Herod Antipas, the Roman tetrarch of Galilee, mocks Jesus when they finally meet. "Are you the one whose birth was foretold?" he drunkenly jeers. "Will you work a little miracle for me?" The brutality of the Roman soldiers is the main event in the film; rounds of pitiless scourging leave Jesus' skin bloodied and cracked and are only interrupted by an angry official who seeks to move forward with the process. At one point, the metal-tipped ends of a cat-o-nine tail whip lodge in Jesus' side, accompanied with a loud splattering noise. Roman soldiers, in accordance with the New Testament, shove a crown of thorns onto Jesus'head and mockingly drape him in a red robe.

The strongest point of contention against claims of anti-Semitism is the fact that Gibson cameos as the two hands that nail Jesus to the cross, complete with slow-motion splattering of blood and the dislocation of one of Jesus' right shoulder. Gibson, in his choice to be the one to seal the deal, makes a bold statement that goes along with modern Church doctrine: No one group of people can be held responsible for the death of Jesus; rather, the sins of the world are to blame.

There have been concerns among some who, rather than examining the film as art, charge that scenes such as the eventual damage to Jewish Temple are paramount to anti-Semitism. But this literal view of the film defies the very fiber of The Passion; Gibson's film is forthrightly non-literal. Rather, the destruction of the Temple reflects the shift in the accessibility of God that Christians believe came with the crucifixion. The temple represented a hierarchy that was necessary to obtain forgiveness from God through rituals including sacrifices and offerings (as outlined by the Biblical book of Leviticus), but Christian theology presents the sacrifice of Jesus as the fulfillment of that covenant and the start of a new one, in which God could be open to all.

Still, it is important to keep a watchful eye and to safeguard one's self against Gibson's embellishments. The Passion should not be used as an evangelistic tool, because it gives people a view of the last hours of Jesus' life that reflects the bias of one man. As with any artistic interpretation, take the film with a grain of salt.

The film is beautifully made and packed with stunning imagery. Gibson's use of color and filters add considerably to the film. The tense mood of the interrogation scene is reflected in the fiery orange flicker on the walls; the desert in which the traitor Judas hangs himself sees a piercing sunlight and an endless expanse of sand; the colors of the crucifixion itself are somber tans and bleak grays.

But even more moving than the cinematography is Gibson's casting. Caviezel's Jesus and Maia Morgenstern's Virgin Mary are superb. Both are emotive and compelling, but not over the top. Caviezel takes the scourging realistically, and Morgenstern's anguish as her son dies is truly touching. "Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart," she shrieks in Aramaic, "Let me die along with you!" Rosalinda Celentano as Satan is a haunting presence. The bald but feminine cloaked figure is given a male voice, creating an eerie and disturbing figure who seems to be everywhere at once, watching. An androgynous representation of Satan is an interesting interpretation and lends itself to the idea that Evil is attractive and inviting, luring people with real temptation that, Gibson said, "looks almost normal, almost good"but not quite."

The Passion is certainly not an entirely factual interpretation of the story of canon, but it cannot be expected to be the law and the gospel. Gibson is entitled to artistic license just as any other director would be, but audiences should keep his bias in mind as they separate his interpretation from the stories of Scripture.

The Passion of the Christ is rated R for sequences of graphic violence.




Samir Paul. <b>Samir Paul</b>, a Magnet senior, spent the better part of his junior year at Blair brooding over everyone's favorite high-school publication and wooing Room 165's menopausal printer. He prides himself in being <i>THE</i> largest member of Blair Cross Country and looks forward to one more … More »

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