Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

Film: The Passion of the Christ

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson (2004)

Because I am legally blind, I was unable to watch “The Passion of the Christ” in a movie theater. Now that it has come out on home video, I have been able to see it. And seeing it makes a tremendous difference.

By this time I have read so many reviews, both pro and con, had my head filled with so many different expectations, that I had to prepare myself before turning on the VCR. I tried to see this film in a different way: by “bracketing” - setting aside - my personal experience. This is not easy to do, nor even completely possible. But I did ask myself, what if I came to this film unconditioned by what I know about two millennia of Christian-Jewish history? What would I experience?

I can say one thing at the very outset: this is not an anti-Semitic film.

I am aware of the usual arguments. The Jewish figures did look stereotyped. Some of them wore costumes suggesting Jewish prayer shawls. They looked the way Jews look in just about every Bible movie I’ve seen since I was a kid. And the two Jewish priests who defended Jesus at his trial wore the same costumes and looked just as stereotyped. I therefore attribute this iconography more to Hollywood history than to any anti-Semitic motivation. I also did not see the hook-nosed Shylocks that some reviews had led me to expect.

As to characterizations of the Jews, these varied. Some Jews supported and followed Jesus. Others were ambivalent. And others considered him a troublemaker and wanted to destroy him. But what made a far greater impression on me was the hideous glee of the Roman soldiers as they grinned and laughed while humiliating Jesus and practically skinning him alive. The Jews were by no means singled out as the sole personification of evil.

The movie admittedly was not completely faithful to the biblical text, and embellished the story quite a bit. But was there ever a Bible movie that didn’t? This movie took fewer liberties than “The Ten Commandments,” a perennial classic. It is not intended as a strict representation of the Gospel account. It incorporates mystical visions that help bring out the story’s deeper meaning.

And yes, the movie does portray Pilate as rather benign, even cowardly, not the ruthless autocrat we know him to have been from other sources. But the Gospels also so portray him. And in this film the truly cynical Pilate does emerge, when he confesses that his main concern is to quell any uprising and so he must calculate who is his greatest threat, Jesus’ followers or Jesus’ opponents.

And then there is all that violence. The press played it up so much that I expected an unremitting blood fest for the full two hours. But the scourging didn’t even begin until more than halfway through the movie. And much of it was off camera. The violence was indeed brutal, at times even surreal, and beyond what the Gospels portray. Still, I believe it was dramatically necessary.

Why? Because I believe Gibson has done something in this film that I have not seen mentioned in any review. And that is to take the Gospel passion story and present it as the struggle of goodness to overcome transcendent evil. All the melodramatic touches, the dark hues, the flashbacks, the extrabiblical allusions, as well as the drama (the movie is not all violence), bring this struggle vividly to life. The use of strange, subtitled languages suggests involvement in something beyond everyday experience (and perhaps that is a reason why Gibson avoids the koine or everyday Greek that would have been spoken at the time).

The serpent in Gethsemane that Jesus crushes under his foot is not there because it came from the vision of an anti-Jewish nun. It is there as a symbol of evil itself, which is truly what killed Jesus. It is the same evil reflected in the lurking figure of Satan, the demonic faces of children, the sadistic laughter of the Romans, and even the crow that pecks out the eyes of the crucified thief. This evil is woven into the fabric of nature itself. And it is not romanticized. It is visible even in the twisted expressions of the children who tormented Judas, in a scene that makes many uncomfortable but that realistically shows the streak of cruelty that can infect even the most innocent soul.

This is ultimately why the film is not anti-Semitic. It really does set forth the idea that Christ as symbol of goodness was killed by the power of sin that dwells within all of us.

And so the violence. Yes, it was excessive. Yes, it was unrealistic - Jesus could not have carried that cross after having been thrashed to a bloody pulp. That is part of the point. We are dealing with something surreal, beyond normal experience, something that haunts the spirit, violence not only against the body but against the soul. The film intends to picture not merely a single violent act, but the spirit of violence itself. This is violence gone mad, violence with a mind of its own, which can invade and dominate the human heart.

Of course there are historical inaccuracies in this film. The Roman soldiers speak Aramaic rather than Greek when addressing the Jews, and Jesus speaks Latin to the Romans. Scholars inform us that Jesus carried just the crossbeam to Golgotha, not the entire cross. But the crossbeam is not the symbol of evil-driven suffering. The cross is. And that is what Jesus bears and even, in one brief scene, embraces. The movie ultimately is not about Jews against Jesus. It is about the power of goodness confronting and overcoming transcendent evil.

And so at the end of the film there is just a hint of the resurrection. That is more than a Passion play normally requires; those who criticized the film saying it should have portrayed Jesus’ teaching and ministry, or shown more of the resurrection, do not understand what a Passion play is about. But “The Passion of the Christ,” while being a traditional Passion play, transcends that genre. It gives us the promise that good will survive. The barest inkling of the resurrection that the film provides is precisely the right artistic touch. We are not quickly lifted out of the darkness. We do not see the complete fulfillment, but just enough to inspire hope. This tiny sliver of light is often the most that we receive, yet all that we need to go on.

I found much faith and comfort expressed amidst the violence. On the cross, in extreme pain, Jesus remembers through snapshot flashbacks the good he did in his life, as exemplified by the tormented woman who prostrated herself and kissed his feet and whom he lifted up. In my work in a cancer ward I see people crucified every day, at times in pain and nausea that may continue for weeks. If the violence in Gibson’s film is excessive and unreal, so is the pain these patients experience. At the foot of their cross, I wonder what will comfort them. In terminal care we have what is called “life review,” helping patients see their lives as a whole and what they have meant to themselves and others. As I watched these fleeting recollections of Jesus, I wondered how the memory of even a brief moment of good that one has done might help bring some solace from the pain.

I can’t imagine that this film would inspire anti-Semitic feeling in people who do not already nurture such feelings in their hearts. Yet many have found this movie offensive. We need to understand this and respect it.

Existentialist philosophers talk about an abstract-sounding concept called “intentionality.” In plain language, it means that we do not perceive things simply as they are. What we see is conditioned by our intentions, our desires, and our past experiences. And since these differ for each one of us, when beholding the same object we each see something different. And when the experiences are heavily loaded, the differences in perception can be dramatic.

When watching this movie, we see not just the movie on the screen but also our past experiences, which for many of us have been affected by two thousand years of Christian history and Jewish-Christian relations. Christians see a deep testimony to their faith, their defining narrative come to life. Jews see the history of passion plays that has made Holy Week a life-threatening hell for many Jews through many centuries. It is agonizingly difficult to step out of one’s own history and enter, even briefly, the history of another.

Yet that is what we must do if we are to heal these deep wounds of the past. That is what those Christian scholars have done who have seen this Passion and have criticized its use of motifs common to Passion plays that have incited anti-Jewish violence. The Jewish community should be grateful to these scholars. While they have not succeeded in invalidating the film, they have reached out of their own history and embraced the Jewish community in its history. As Jews we should return the favor, stepping out of our own history and appreciating how deeply moving this film can be to many Christians who see it without the thought even occurring to them to blame all Jews of the past, let alone all Jews of today.

The outcry against this film from Jewish circles even before its release was an unnecessary and tragic miscalculation. It was understandable - the Jewish experience with Passion plays is itself full of tragedy. But it missed the mark. It has contributed to tensions between Christians and Jews that could and should have been avoided. Jews are under fire today for making the charge of anti-Semitism too freely, even when that charge is deserved. We must therefore be extremely cautious about using such language in a case like this, where it is not deserved.

This film is not a threat to Jews. As of this writing it has not incited crowds to anti-Jewish violence, although on the day it was released a Denver minister put up an embarrassing and offensive sign that has since been taken down. No doubt his attitudes formed long before this film. Christians with whom I have spoken, who have seen it and loved it, say the thought of its putting all Jews in a bad light never crossed their minds. Of course Christian anti-Semites still exist, but this film should not become a club to beat them with.

What a wonderful opportunity for interfaith understanding this film could become, if instead of throwing accusations at each other we would try to honor what the film means to those who see it differently. We need to adjust to a change in history that has made possible a bridge between Christians and Jews that not long ago would have been unthinkable. Especially today, with values that both Christians and Jews hold dear under vicious attack, we need this bridge more than ever.

August 2004