Sunday, February 29, 2004

Thoughts on The Passion

Here are some initial thoughts on The Passion which I saw last Wednesday. It's an amazing movie, and seeing it was unlike any other movie-going experience I've ever had. The audience was hushed, anxious, eager for the film to begin. Several people had brought in buckets of popcorn and fountain drinks -- I watched them, and looked when the film was over. The popcorn was uneaten and the drinks untouched. The atmosphere wasn't really movielike. It was more like attending a public rosary or a litany. It's the only movie I've been to in years where no one talked. No one. Trust me -- talking during movies is something I truly abominate, and I can hear whispering from ten rows away.

The film is redolent with tiny moments and glimpses of symbolism. The upright and cross-beam of Jesus' Cross are fastened with three bolts, arranged in a triangle. O most holy Trinity, undivided unity, holy God, mighty God, God immortal be adored! During the flagellation, one of Jesus' ribs is exposed. He is the new Adam. These are all done so well that they do not distract. They're only there if you have time, or inclination, to see them. There are, I suspect, many more such touches. I recall the dramatic setting of the Crucifixion itself. Jesus' cross is set high atop an outcropping of rock, and the ground behind him quickly drops into a chasm studded with what looked like the entrances to tombs. It suggested to me that all mankind is hurtling toward that chasm, and only Jesus, His arms outstretched, can stop us.

Much has been made of the film's dialogue being solely in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. The film's critics claim that Gibson used those languages solely to alienate the audience from the Jews, to make the Jews seem horrible, brutal and foreign. We first see and hear Jesus praying in the Garden -- in Hebrew. The use of foreign languages continues, and ends up giving events a distinctive liturgical quality. Pilate, for example, speaks Latin. But if my college education was worth the money, he uses the pronunciations of ecclesiastical Latin, the Latin of the old Mass. "Dicere me", he says to Jesus. "Speak to me." But he pronounces it "dee-cheray" whereas the classical Latin pronunciation is "Dee-kereh." I hope that holds out, because it's a wonderful layer to the story of the Eucharistic sacrifice which is all the more wonderful for being unobtrusive.

Likewise with Pilate offering Jesus a cup at their first meeting. Again, the critics find anti-Semitism here -- Pilate sympathizes with Jesus, but Caiaphas doesn't offer Him a drink. Is that why Gibson included it in the film? So we can understand that the Jews are evil people, whereas the gentiles are good people since they always offer innocent men refreshments before beating and killing them? So say the critics. From what I saw, Pilate offers a cup of wine. "And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come." Luke 22:15-18 (KJV). Is the episode anti-Semitic, or eucharistic? As I explained in my earlier essay, to some critics they're the same thing, and so it's not surprising that the alternative meaning is so easily counted for nothing.

In the film's portrayal of Caiaphas I saw an angry man, furious at Jesus' claims to be the Messiah. I didn't see him as a "Christ-killing Jew," nor was I inspired with a need to kill Jews as a writer for Jewsweek magazine says he was. One thing critics haven't bothered telling anyone, by the way, is that the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin features several Jewish priests who protest the proceedings and are quickly hustled off by other priests and temple guards. Not only this, but the priests who protest aren't Jesus' follwers and can therefore qualify as "Jews" in the critics' lexicon. It's hard to see how the depiction of a Christ-killing Sanhedrin full of Satanic pawns can be made by showing Jewish protests against Jesus' treatment which aren't motivated by a belief that He is God.

Toward the end of the film, Caiaphas advances to the foot of Jesus' cross and rebukes Him, saying that He cannot be the Messiah for if he were, he would save Himself from death. This, the critics tell us, is more proof of anti-Semitism. But as Caiaphas turns and walks away, he passes St. Dismas' cross. Jesus lifts His face to Heaven and cries "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." St. Dismas shouts to Caiaphas, "He's praying for you." Later, during the earthquake which rocks Jerusalem, Caiaphas weeps when he sees the Temple veil torn asunder. To me, it was a poignant depiction of men in a fallen world -- However much Caiaphas may have detested Jesus' "blasphemy", he could not see the Holy of Holies exposed to public view without grief. Is it grief over Jesus' death? Does Ciaphas suddenly realize there is a new Temple? Or is it grief over a calamity whose real dimensions Caiaphas doesn't appreciate? "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." This isn't the cinematic language of Nazism.

Before the film begins, we see scripture telling us that Jesus died because of all our sins. After the film begins, we see that even Satan knows the passion will require Jesus to carry all our sins. We see a glimpse of the daughters of Jerusalem distraught at His suffering. (Yes, I wish Jesus' speech to them had been included). We see Veronica -- who is not a Nordic blonde -- wipe Jesus' face after He nods permission. We see Simon of Cyrene shout at the Roman soldiers to stop hurting Jesus, saying he will not continue to help Jesus with the Cross unless they stop hurting Him. Simon offers Jesus the gentlest words possible under the circumstances ("Not much farther. It will be over soon.") We see priests of Israel turning their faces from cruelty and bloodshed inflicted by Romans. Mel Gibson makes a cameo appearance in the film -- it's his hand that puts the first nail in Jesus' hand. Yet, we're still told, over and over again, that the film clearly says that "the Jews" are all evil and that they -- and no one else -- killed Jesus.

The violence inflicted on Jesus is horrendous, and I found it numbing. Why is that? Is it because the critics are right, and my conscience is reacting to the prurient sadism behind what Jim Cork's critic of choice, Michael Coren, calls a "pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic blood cult"? I thought Coren's line was silly on several levels, the most obvious one being that none of the documents of Vatican II preach that Jesus' crucifixion was a decorous, bloodless affair that could only be viewed from a distance and was all over in five minutes. I also had to shake my head because cult means "the service expressly offered to God through sacred signs and inward dispositions of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and petition for forgiveness, salvation, and earthly well-being which acknowledge God's supreme power." K. Rahner and H. Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary p. 112 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1965).
Blood of Christ, only-begotten Son of the Eternal Father, save us.
Blood of Christ, Incarnate Word of God, save us.
Blood of Christ, of the New and Eternal Testament, save us.
Blood of Christ, falling upon the earth in the Agony, save us.
Blood of Christ, shed profusely in the Scourging, save us.
Blood of Christ, flowing forth in the Crowning with Thorns, save us.
Blood of Christ, poured out on the Cross, save us.
Blood of Christ, price of our salvation, save us.
Blood of Christ, without which there is no forgiveness, save us.
Blood of Christ, Eucharistic drink and refreshment of souls, save us.
Blood of Christ, stream of mercy, save us.
Blood of Christ, victor over demons, save us.
Blood of Christ, courage of Martyrs, save us.
Blood of Christ, strength of Confessors, save us.
Blood of Christ, bringing forth Virgins, save us.
Blood of Christ, help of those in peril, save us.
Blood of Christ, relief of the burdened, save us.
Blood of Christ, solace in sorrow, save us.
Blood of Christ, hope of the penitent, save us.
Blood of Christ, consolation of the dying, save us.
Blood of Christ, peace and tenderness of hearts, save us.
Blood of Christ, pledge of eternal life, save us.
Blood of Christ, freeing souls from purgatory, save us.
Blood of Christ, most worthy of all glory and honor, save us.
So yeah, you could say we're a blood cult. I for one am proud of it. I'm sorry it scandalizes weak sisters like Michael Coren. I'm sorry it's too much for a lot of people. But we're a blood cult. We worship Holy Blood. We drink Holy Blood. We adore Holy Blood which is glorious, not only for its other mystical and magnificent divinity, but for the fact that it was shed in torture for our sins and our redemption. As far as I'm concerned anyone who -- like the Romans who crucified Jesus -- is shocked at the gruesome cannibalistic atmosphere they find in all that can go soak themselves in oh-so-spiritual readings of John Chapter 6 and imaginary depictions of Jesus as a cartoon character whose feet never touched the earth. Let them squirm at the idea of God's chest hair matted with sweat, dirt under His nails, rubbing gritty sleep from his eyes. Let them stop their ears at the thought of Him screaming in pain and gasping for breath. We love the God-Man entire. His divinity, His humanity, and everything they did and underwent. We even love His blood, especially His blood. That's why we're a blood cult.

Anyhow, I'm not too sure about numbness and squeamishness at the violence in The Passion being the infallible sign of an ennobled conscience. At least not in my case. Perhaps the thought of such suffering happening just because of my tiny little inconsequential mortal sins -- which are, after all, the kind of things everybody does all the time -- is just too much to take in. Perhaps I'm more comfortable limiting my mind to the stylized and streamlined pictographs on my parish's stations of the Cross. Perhaps my pride won't let me see what I deserve to pay for my sins, or the fact that I'm so useless I couldn't begin to pay for them. The violence in this movie is revolting. It's in-your-face ugly, because you caused it. Think of someone's hand on the back of your neck, rubbing your nose -- not in your own mess, but in what you inflicted on someone else. And people are having problems with this idea? With the number of "confession by appointment" parishes in our country I'm not surprised, not surprised at all. Maybe a blood cult could do us all a little good.

I'm still surprised at how critics of the film seem not to have a particularly clear memory of what they saw on the screen. Jim Cork laments the fate of Gesmas: "Oh, and the whole scene with the crow eating the thief's eyeball at the end was just lame. Nice way to end a movie." Actually, the movie doesn't end with that scene. It ends with the Deposition, and is tailed by a brief reference to the Resurrection.

Jewsweek gives this depiction of the film's storyline: "At the moment when Jesus finally dies, an earthquake sends shockwaves throughout Rome. (Ok, Mel, we get the metaphor.) Then, the Jewish High Priest who just sentenced Jesus to death cries in a syrupy ‘What-have-I-done?' style." But the Jewish High Priest hasn't "just sentenced Jesus to death." That's because at no point in the film does the Jewish High Priest sentence Jesus to death. Pilate does that, while washing his hands of responsibility at the same time. Pilate's order to the soldiers, "Do as they wish," represents a terrible confluence of gentile and Jewish sinfulness. It is Pilate's order that sends Jesus to the Cross -- he can try to depict himself as being aloof, but the brutality inflicted on Jesus by the Roman soldiers belies that image. Jesus appears to Pilate after being beaten. Pilate winces at His condition (just as Jewish priests watching the beating turned away at the sight), but Pilate does nothing and shows no remorse. If that reminded me of anything, it was Himmler's delicate sense of propriety that caused him to be sick after watching a mass execution during the Holocaust -- and his murderous indifference to humanity when he ordered more efficient means of killing to be developed. Anyhow, I'm not sure how all this makes Pilate's "sympathetic" offering of a drink appear as exonerating and heart-warming as the critics say it does. It makes Pilate look like an amoral and brutal nabob. Caiaphas, in my view, actually comes out better -- he, at least, is fighting for something. It's not pretty, and it's not right, but at least Caiaphas isn't killing someone because the alternative might include doing a lot of imperial paperwork.

For that matter, if Jewsweek ever paid a reviewer to actually watch the film, readers would learn that there is no earthquake in Rome. There is an earthquake in Jerusalem. It sends shockwaves through Pilate's residence. Pilate is in the scene. Pilate was not in Rome, but Jerusalem -- even most of the film's critics tend to agree that Pilate was in Jerusalem during the Crucifixion. No part of the film takes place in Rome. What would we think of a critic who went in to see Titanic and came out complaining that there are no icebergs in the Indian Ocean? We'd think he didn't watch the film, or that he didn't know anything about the film's subject, and that he couldn't care less either way.

As to double-standards, suppose Gibson had refused to give us the supposedly anti-Semitic picture of Caiaphas' "syrupy" crying and chosen to depict the High Priest as unmoved. Why, Jewsweek would be right there to tell us that this proves Gibson's an anti-Semite, because he's depicted Caiaphas as a man without human feelings. See, in the critics' main view, it's the Christian vision which motivates the film that is the source of anti-Semitism. So anything in it would be -- and has been -- called anti-Semitic without rhyme, reason, or consistency. The ADL says the film is anti-Semitic because it portrays the Jews acting under satanic influences; Bill Cork says it's anti-Semitic because it doesn't depict the Jews as acting under satanic influences. I'm beginning to think that if Mel Gibson had made the whole film without a single Jewish character, we'd be hearing indictments of The Passion's anti-Semitic theme that the Jews don't have an historical connection to the land of Israel.

Back to Jim Cork's alleged "ending" for the movie. When St. Dismas insists that his punishment is just, and begs Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom, Gesmas continues to scoff and rage. A crow plucks out his eyes. He's become physically blind to match his spiritual blindness. Sophocles put a similar piece of symbolism in Oedipus Rex, but that might not qualify as "lame" because it doesn't suggest that God can and will inflict pain and deformity on us because of our sins, because He owns us to begin with, and because even such hard lessons, once accepted, can lead us to eternal bliss. If that's "lame" then so is the Book of Job.

Bill Cork watched the flagellation scene and decried it as anti-Semitic: "The Romans are egged on by Satan, wandering through the crowd (the Jews needed no Satanic encouragement)." Satan is in the group watching the beating, but from what I saw his eyes were directed entirely and intensely at Jesus. Satan is holding a malformed child, and occasionally looks affectionately at it/him while the beating is going on. Bill Cork and Michael Coren find the scene unbiblical -- Michael Coren even finds it "anti-humanity." I wonder:
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time.
2 Thess. 2:3-6 (RSV). Who is Satan holding in his arms? Why is Satan slightly smiling, when he's not staring malevolently at Jesus? The film's beginning shows Satan trying to dissuade Jesus from undergoing the passion, because it's impossible, it can't be done. Isn't he here tempting Jesus again? As if to say, "It won't work, Son of Man. Even if you complete the task, my day will still come." It astounds me that so many indictments of anti-Semitism and "anti-humanity-ism" are being launched with such complete confidence and without even the slightest effort to consider an alternative interpretation that doesn't make the film evil.

Michael Coren's indictment of the film also rests on it's having supposedly missed the whole point of the Gospel story because it shows us that evil is ugly:
Herod is some cross-dressing lunatic, the Pharisee leaders, some of the brightest men of the age, are all obscene brutes and the Roman soldiers and the mob resemble crazed gargoyles. No, no, no! The point has been completely missed. Hate me if you like, but please listen. The point is this: We would have crucified Him. We would crucify Him. You, me, us. We'd smile, be tolerant and loving, do the right thing as we see it, and crucify Him. Then go home to hug our children and talk about how bad the world had become. Evil seduces and beguiles. It is frequently attractive. If it was as ugly as director Gibson has portrayed, Jesus would not have had to die in agony. And agony is what it was.
I'll pause here to note how blithely so many of the film's critics ignore their own "tests" for a decent passion play. So does Mr. Coren, having just excoriated us for reveling in a pre-Vatican II "blood cult" which celebrates Jesus' suffering, demand that we reflect on Jesus excruciating agony. Why isn't Mr. Coren making his own little fetish of Jesus' agony, his own pre-Vatican II agony cult? He doesn't have to say -- he dislikes The Passion and that, apparently, is sufficient. How how on earth is Mel Gibson's vision of man's ugly sinfulness "anti-Humanity" according to Mr. Coren, whereas Mr. Coren's own baleful description of every man, woman and child on earth isn't? The ease with which criticism of The Passion gleefully works both sides of every argument never fails to astound me. I would call it a rank disdain for principles, or an opposition to the Gospel which justifies every means, did I not strongly believe that we're all sometimes as stupid as Mr. Coren was when he wrote his review.

I understand a point to which Mr. Coren is alluding, but not the point he actually ends up making. People need to have their consciences shocked, and realize that the comfortable conventionality of their lives may be riddled with sin -- as Jesus Himself said, woe unto you should all men like you. Propriety is not the test of goodness. (An interesting point for critics of the film's violence to consider). It would be very useful if someone could make a movie showing how tempting and attractive evil can be. But sooner or later, if the film is going to say anything useful, it will have to show the ugliness and insanity of evil. When that ugliness isn't brought home, when Christians resort to namby-pamby catechesis that doesn't get all "judgmental" about abortion, contraception, adultery, homosexual behavior, or any of the other scourges of bourgeios life, we just end up convincing everyone that sainthood means making oneself miserable by foregoing the tangible and apparent goods of this life in the hope of other intangible and unknown goods of the next. Mr. Coren writes:
Barabas. He was a Zealot leader, possibly a local aristocrat. We read our Hebrew and Greek, know about Essenes, Sadducees and Jewish life and culture. We understand. Yet here he is portrayed as a dribbling psychotic.
I had always thought that one of the reasons evil should be disliked is that it takes things which could be good and wonderful -- like aristocracy, culture, leadership, and patriotism -- and makes them into dribbling psychoses. Yet Mr. Coren is telling us that showing the reality and end of the process misses "the point." I might agree with him if I thought Christianity was mere nominalism, the obeying of rules on the grounds that one must obey the rules. In that frame of reference there's no point to depicting men as being corrupted by evil - that they broke a rule ought to be enough to show their corruption. I might agree with him if I were a Protestant, and believed that men remain intrinsically as depraved as Gibson's portrait of Barabbas despite their salvation in Christ. In that frame The Passion's depiction of Barabbas' is redundant.

But I don't hold either of those opinions, and so I think Mr. Coren is confusing the appearance of evil with its nature. Jesus had to die in agony precisely because evil is as filthy, ugly, hurtful, and perverse as The Passion tries to indicate. That's why it took so much suffering to extirpate it from the human soul and inspire men to overcome their baser inclinations. Mr. Coren is free to tell us that he would have preferred Mr. Gibson to make another film, something along the lines of Ang Lee's Ice Storm with a clearer moral, but Mr. Coren departs from Christianity when he suggests that portraying evil and evil people as being demented and ugly "completely misses the point" of the Gospel.

Other things I noticed: The lighting in the film seemed off, lending a sickly gangrenous cast to the film's view of the world. One has the impression that the whole action occurs within a rotting body, among a dead people. Toward the end of the film, we're cut to a view of Jesus' face which seems surrealistic, made up of swirls of blood and flesh. For some reason that had me thinking about icons. The film's focus is so tight in time and the action so direct, brutal, and sparsely done that I wish the Hollywood-orchestra soundtrack had been omitted. I think, perhaps, that the film originally was meant to end with the beautiful, terrible "Pieta'," and that the Resurrection scene was tagged on at the end in response to criticisms which I find a bit wrongheaded.

Basically, they claim that the film is false to the Christian vision because it doesn't include the Resurrection. Or the Beatitudes. Or a panoramic depiction of the diversity of first-century Jewish life. Or the complete brutality of the Roman occupation of Israel. Or anything else that "ought" to go into a really good movie about Christianity. I think some of this criticism is just conditioning created by the fact that almost all the "Jesus movies" to date (King of Kings, Jesus of Nazareth) have been biographical, start-to-finish treatments of Jesus' life. I don't see why that has to be the standard frame for any film about Him. Why not a film that spends two hours on the Crucifixion, or Jesus' preaching the Eucharist, or His meeting with Nicodemus? Why not a series of films like Dekalog, each one a separate episode in His life?

Probably because it would be hard to fill that amount of time by using a cautious "ecumenical-interfaith-scholars'-approved-Bible-only" view of Christ, which is the standard test a studio would want to use in order to ensure a large market for the film. But we don't say that watching Gettysburg is disrespectful to American History because the film has action, conversations and incidents which can't be found in primary source material. Could this insistence with respect to films about Jesus also be a result of Protestant cultural conditioning that insists on limiting the Christian experience of Christ to a broadly-derived, publicly-shared rendering of Scripture alone? I'm reminded of the various criticism lodged by Presbyterians to the effect that the film is idolatrous because it depicts Mel Gibson's artistic visions and Anne Catherine Emmerich's pious visions -- neither of which is broadly-derived, publicly-rendered, and expository of Scripture alone.

Like everyone else, I was moved by the scene parallelling the Blessed Virgin rushing toward Jesus, who has fallen with the Cross, with an episode from His childhood when she ran to him after he fell down. When our Lady reaches Him, he says "Behold, I make all things new" and stands up, as though with new strength, to resume His journey. Truly, in this (and when we see our Lady praying during His scourging that He might choose to deliver himself soon) we see that He was the master of events, not the Romans, the Jews, or the Devil. I also liked the fact that He says what appears in Revelation 21, even though the book had not yet been written:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
I hadn't really thought about these verses in connection with the Crucifixion. "It is done." Jesus said that on the Cross. "I will give unto him that is athirst." Jesus said "I thirst." I remember preaching that we must all thirst for God, His love, and one another's conversion, panting like deer in the desert. There must be full reward in Heaven -- God has suffered as any of us has suffered, done nothing that He does not expect us to do -- surely He knows how to right all wrongs, heal all scars, remove all grief.

That's it for now. I'll see the film one or two times during Lent. It's not the kind of movie you see the next night, so that may take awhile.

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