Friday, October 01, 2004


Today marks the 6-month point in my blogging career. In my first post, I promised to upload my review of Gibson's Passion of the Christ if Touchstone did not publish it first. Since I haven't heard back from them, this seems an appropriate time to make good on that promise, especially with the recent DVD release.

The Victory of the Christ
R. C. Smith

I theoretically have a policy with regard to reading reviews of movies I have already decided to see: I don’t read them until after I have seen the film and had time to decide what I think about it. I find that commentators on the left do not share enough of my values to be a reliable guide and those on the right are generally too artistically clueless to be particularly helpful. And, of course, one does value the feeling of making up one’s own mind, however ephemeral that feeling may be in a culture of spin and propaganda.

It is a helpful policy and I generally keep it as well as I do my Lenten fasts, which is to say, conscientiously but not perfectly. It is hardly surprising, then – though, in view of the Lenten character of the film, it may be just a touch ironic – that I was unable wholly to avoid the flurry of comment occasioned by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But, really, how could anyone who is intellectually engaged with our culture have avoided hearing at least something about it? Long before it was actually released, the entire chattering class had become a clamoring cohort, desperate to impart or impose their twist on the remaining few who had not formed an opinion.

And yet, despite all the bellowing, or perhaps because of it, I entered the theater remarkably unprepared for the actual tone and texture of Mr. Gibson’s magnum opus. I was prepared for violence, and it was indeed violent. I was prepared for blood, and it was indeed bloody. I was prepared for sorrow, and it was sorrowful as only Roman Catholic piety can be. But it was also gentle and haunting and thrilling and subtle and I was prepared for none of these.

One of the things it decidedly was not, was pessimistic. This is an important point, but I think it has been largely missed. From the very beginning we are given clear though subtle clues that Jesus is not passive in his suffering, however paradoxical that may sound to those with an ear for etymology. I have identified four important such clues distributed at key points throughout the narrative. Understanding how this theme works in Gibson’s film is an important step toward understanding the work as a whole.

The first such clue occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is exhausted from weeping and praying and the disciples have long since fallen back asleep, after having been awakened by him with the well-known reproach, “Could you not watch one hour with me?” Satan appears in the moonlight, cold and darkly beautiful with very strong echoes of the character, Death, in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. A serpent, suggesting both menace and temptation, slithers from under the enemy’s robe. Years of humanist renderings of the primal conflict have prepared us to interpret this scene. Here is confident and powerful evil confronting helpless, unrewarded virtue. There will be no victory for good without a long and painful struggle.

Then, without warning, Jesus stamps on the head of the serpent, crushing it with startling force. Clearly he could crush Satan just as easily, but instead he turns resolutely to follow his predestined path. A new element has been offered for our consideration: the Hero Born of Woman, the Christus Victor. And yet, though this moment sets the tone for the rest of the film, its very violence guarantees that it is over almost before we have noticed it.

Later, a similar decisiveness informs the unbearable and much debated scourging scene. Jesus has been beaten for the full count of thirty-nine strokes and the lictors survey their work with a grim satisfaction. The Virgin and Mary Magdalene are in the crowd, scarcely able to watch. Then Jesus catches the gaze of his mother and, slowly but purposefully, rises to his feet. Again, the message, though understated, is unmistakable. He is not defeated and his suffering is completely voluntary. Indeed, in a certain sense, he provokes the very extremity of violence into which his tormentors descend.

There is a long tradition in Roman Catholic mysticism of focus on the wounds of Jesus and on his suffering. As a protestant, I recognize that there are definite theological dangers to this approach. But what approach is without danger? It is certainly unfair to criticize a work of art for not being some other work. The criticism that the violence in this film is inappropriate because it is not emphasized in the Gospel narratives misses the very fabric of Roman Catholic piety that clearly informs this work.

That being said, I do feel that the violence was in many places excessive. At one point in the film I found myself thinking, “Five minutes ago they were thrashing Jesus and now – guess what? – they, are still thrashing him.” This is not good from an artistic point of view. A story, any story, succeeds only so far as it carries the viewer along as a participant within the action. If that momentum is lost, the work ceases, for however brief a period, to be art. This, combined with the often cited desensitizing effect of violence, causes the film to falter when it cannot really afford to. I am sympathetic with Mr. Gibson’s objective, but I must also admit that, in this one respect, he did not completely achieve it. Nevertheless, though it is a flaw, it is not a fatal flaw. But I will leave a full analysis of this issue to others who have more patience for the discussion, and return to the Christus Victor theme, which I feel is the neglected heart of the film.

We find a subtle change in our next instance of this theme. It occurs when Jesus has stumbled for the second time on the Via Dolorosa and his mother, reacting under the compulsion of a vision of Jesus falling as a child, rushes to his side to render maternal comfort. “I am here,” she says in both the contemporary scene and the flashback. This is precisely the sort of sentimental portrayal that we have all come to expect. But the next moment is anything but expected. Jesus raises his head and says, “Behold, I make all things new.” This is a reference to Revelation 21:5, the verse previous to which says “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.”

So here we have a whole complex of themes merged into one evocative scene: the gentle, maternal and filial love between Mary and Jesus, the Gospel displayed both visually and verbally, and the purely human desire we all feel at this point to relieve the Savior’s suffering. But over all rises the assurance that Jesus is the lord of his own suffering. It is he that comforts us, as he offers comfort to his mother.

Incidentally, although this scene, like most of the extra-biblical material, is borrowed from the vision of Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the reference to Revelation does not occur in that work. It is evidently original to this film, though whether the invention of screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald or Mr. Gibson is unclear.

The theme of the Christus Victor persists throughout the film, culminating in the brief, but powerful, final scene. From most of the commentary on this film, one easily gathers the impression that it ends with the descent from the cross and burial. The official trailer describes the movie as a “vivid depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life”. Indeed, if Gibson were following the traditional Stations of the Cross, that is exactly where the story would end, with the resurrection being left to another season. But the resurrection does occur, and its handling is perhaps the most subtle element in the film. A golden light washes the ancient stone surface of the tomb as the camera slowly pans to the empty shroud. Next to it stands Jesus with an expression of quiet but firm purpose. There is serenity in his eye, but there is steel as well. The final victory of the Christ has been achieved. He takes a few steps forward in absolute silence and the credits roll.

It is difficult to describe the effect this has upon one’s perception of the entire film. As has been said so often, it must be experienced. But one important effect is to elevate our understanding from a merely sentimental to a theological plane. Through the torturous depiction of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, shines the first, brief hint of the Glorious Mysteries. The combined impact of all of these small directorial decisions (and there are more than I have recounted – probably more than I noticed) is to suggest the sovereignty of God in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.

The number of ways this could have been done badly, and has been by other film-makers, is breathtaking. Somehow, Mel Gibson has managed to convey both the humanity of the suffering Christ and the power of the Son of God in imagery that would be the envy of many of Western Civilization’s great masters.

My original intent in writing this was to counteract some of the misleading commentary that surrounded the film's release. If anyone has not seen this movie because of the bad press it received, I hope this review may in some small way assist in correcting that error.

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