I went to see Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion of the Christ over the weekend, mostly because I want to see anything that engenders this much controversy so that I can form my own opinion. Plus, the Christ story (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”) is one of the most powerful stories ever told, a fact that is obvious due to its resonance two millenia later. I wanted to see what Gibson did with the story. Unfortunately, I was disappointed on many levels.
Let’s start with the violence. Gibson wanted to show the violence in excruciating detail, so that we would understand the tremendous suffering that Christ endured for our sins. But it backfired, at least with me. He took violence to such an extreme level that I had to turn off my capacity for empathy or I wouldn’t have been able to continue watching. I actually felt the same way as I did when watching Kill Bill: cold and distant. And it wasn’t just the violence; violence, when presented in a cartoonish way such as in an action film, is okay with me. Realistic violence in the service of the story can even work; Reservoir Dogs was incredibly violent, but it served the story by externalizing the inner brutality of the thieves. I didn’t feel that the violence served the story here; I felt it _was_ the story (and the fact that most of the reviews dwell on it only reinforces that).
Part of my problem with the torture scenes was the total dehumanization of the Roman centurions. They are portrayed as horrifically cruel sadistic beasts. No redeeming qualities whatsoever. No explanation of why they would want to torture Jesus. Just shaven-headed thugs grinning as they cover themselves in his blood. I think Gibson was trying to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man here, but I deal very poorly with cruelty. One of the only movies I was ever unable to watch was Welcome to the Dollhouse. I rented it, watched about 15 minutes and had to turn it off, because the cruelty of the other kids was so extreme that it was just painful to watch. That’s what I felt like during the torture scenes.
In fact, everybody in the movie seemed dehumanized, lacking in true human motivation. They existed only to move the story forward towards an inevitable denouement. I think it would have been more interesting for everybody involved to be more human with appropriate motivations, rather than pieces being moved around a cosmic chessboard to achieve the result of crucifixion. Stories are interesting not for their details, but for their insight into how we think and what we believe. Stories without human motivations aren’t stories at all; they’re merely recitations of facts. The one human character in the film was Pontius Pilate, who at least got a line explaining that if the province were to descend into bloodshed again, he would suffer the consequences.
And what’s incredible to me was that Jesus was not given any such humanizing characteristics. He was portrayed as utterly perfect. Never a doubt. Never a question. Infinitely forgiving. To me, that devalues the whole point of Jesus. Jesus was a man first, and God second. Man is fallible. Man has doubts. Man sins. That’s why he needs redemption. To make Jesus a perfect man is to make him not a man at all. How can Jesus serve as a role model when nobody can aspire to be perfect? One of the only things I remember about the Last Temptation of Christ (which I saw only once over ten years ago, but want to see again now) was how Jesus doubted whether he could carry the burden. He was scared. He didn’t want to go through with it. But he fought through and conquered his fears and his doubts, and shouted “It is accomplished!”, a moment which still gives me the shivers when I think about it.
That’s what makes men great: facing your fears, pushing through your doubts, and still accomplishing great things. We lionize those who bravely face the unknown. Those who are flawed and persevere to achieve great things are honored even more. Perfection is not greatness. Perfection is starting out with all the advantages. Perfection is not taking any chances. Perfection is a terrible model for humanity, because it implies if you’re not born perfect, you might as well not even try. Being born imperfect and recognizing your imperfections and learning to overcome them; that is a model we can and should aspire to.
As is obvious, I was extremely disappointed by the movie. The Passion is a tremendous story. I really liked what Scorsese did in the Last Temptation of Christ, helped along by a fantastic score by Peter Gabriel (the soundtrack Passion is one of my favorite albums to this day; in fact, Peter Gabriel should sue whoever scored Gibson’s film because they clearly had listened to his score and stolen many elements from it). Gibson could have done so much more to make the story come to life. I sang St. Matthew’s Passion by Bach when I was at Stanford, and despite being purely auditory, it resonates more strongly with me than Gibson’s movie. During the scene where Pilate gives the mob a choice between Barabbas and Jesus, instead of the mob shouting that Gibson showed, I was hearing the beautifully dissonant chord of the chorus shouting “Barabbas!” When Pilate washes his hands, I was hearing the ironically perky and bloodthirstily enthusiastic bit where the chorus sings “Sein Blut komme uber uns und unsere Kinder!” (His blood is on us and our children!). It’s generally not a good sign when memories of a piece I sang six years ago are more compelling than a visual display in front of me.
I think a really interesting version of the Passion, especially in light of my desires for more human motivations, would be one that takes a Rashomon-like approach to the Crucifixion. Follow the story from several perspectives, that of Jesus, of Pilate, of Caiaphas, of Judas, of a Roman soldier, etc. Why do they do the things they do? How did all of these factors conspire to achieve this horrible fate? Because God willed it so isn’t good enough for me. I believe in free will and human motivations. Perhaps those cruel Roman soldiers had been attacked in several riots and took out their frustration and anger on Jesus. Judas selling out for silver is a true story in any age; who hasn’t been tempted to take the money and run? One possible set of Pilate’s motivations was covered in the movie. And what was Jesus thinking? I think these would be interesting stories to tell. I thought Gibson might tell them. Alas.