But I’ll have to disagree with Matt when he praises Gibson’s The Passion. While that movie was undeniably visionary and one of the few films that can truly be called “uncompromising,” I found it problematic, troubling, and outright off-putting on any number of levels, not the least of which was its anti-Semitism. But none of this has much to do with Gibson or his personal views. The movie didn’t work because the movie didn’t work, and Gibson’s propensity for loathsome remarks doesn’t change the work one way or another. ~Peter Suderman
It seems to me that there are two solid grounds for objecting to The Passion of the Christ: the first is that it is poorly executed as a piece of film-making, which I find very difficult to credit; the second, and more important, is one often voiced by my friends at church that its entire understanding of salvation and the Augustinian-cum-Anselmian view of our predicament and the Atonement is badly skewed and awry (a secondary Orthodox objection is to the carnal portrayal of the God-man and the movie’s ability to imprint the memory of an actor’s face as the image of Christ). The first honestly baffles me. The picture is moving without being saccharine (no mean feat, that), and it is compelling without leaving you with the sense that you have been cheated or manipulated. If it is “problematic, troubling, and outright off-putting on any number of levels,” as Mr. Suderman says, I would be interested to know where the flaws are. Perhaps I am not a good judge of quality films, but to date no film or cultural critic has made a compelling argument that did not end up coming back to queasiness about the “fascistic” violence or discomfort at the portrayal of the Jewish authorities. Some have made reasonable arguments in the name of realism that the sheer amount of violence inflicted was over the top, but I regard this as the main flaw that strains credulity. But, however much I had to suspend disbelief at some points, the film was never “off-putting.” The interweaving of the Last Supper and the Sacrifice on the Cross, with its obvious liturgical and Eucharistic significance, was done as artfully as anything I have seen.
Objecting to its non-existent anti-Semitism is annoying to me for reasons I have stated on a couple of occasions, but which I will sum up again with a few different points: by the standard that judges Gibson’s film to be anti-Semitic, the Passion Gospel readings in particular and most patristic commentary on those readings for the first eighteen or nineteen centuries of Christian history would have to be deemed (anachronistically and hyperbolically) anti-Semitic. Indeed, The Passion would have to be judged less anti-Semitic than the Gospels, because of certain concessions Gibson made to the hysterical critics during the editing process (famously, he cut out the line from Matthew, His blood be on us and on our children, because of fears that it would stir up violent feelings). Not only would I not grant this, but I don’t believe 90% of Passion critics are willing to make that leap, either. Many would like to have it both ways: the Gospels are lovely and timeless, provided that we don’t pay too much attention to detail, which might cause a certain discomfort, so it is much easier to transfer all of their discomfort with what the Gospels say to Gibson’s film. It has now become an even more ripe for this sort of transferrence because of Gibson’s, er, faux pas.
Early Christianity was born in the midst of a Jewish world and became what it was in no small part by defining itself in opposition to the Jewish authorities around them and the Law they upheld. Christians were increasingly met with scorn, derision and persecution, and the Johannine tradition with its strong roots in and around Jerusalem particularly reflects the hostility between the two increasingly estranged communities. From that day on it became a common way of understanding the “royal road” of Christianity as rejecting the errors of Judaism and Hellenism alike; from the time of the Pharisee convert Paul, Jew and Greek became standard representatives of the errors into which Christians could fall if they were careless. To tell the story of Christ without this antagonism with none other than the Jewish authorities would be to tell the story with half the narrative cut out.
The Passion tells the story that the Gospels tell, adding scarcely any details not found there (except, admittedly, for a lengthy elaboration of the scourging and the Via Dolorosa and the inclusion of the story of St. Veronica), which is not to the sanitised eyes of modern men an all together pretty story. It is the story of lawless men inciting mobs to near-riot to bring about the death of an innocent Man who, as the story goes, understood their religion better than they did because He was, and is, its Author. It is the story of men who, when offered their Saviour or a murderer, cried in ignorance, Give us Barrabas! It is the story of every man’s proclivity to follow the father of lies rather than to embrace the Truth, acted out in all its brutality and physicality, which in turn also underscores the reality of the truth that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
It is a story of petty human jealousy and pride grasping at what belongs to God and resenting God’s salvation when it comes, to which all flesh is heir, and the failure of the custodians of the patrimony to step aside when the Heir arrived. It is the story of men, who should have been faithful stewards, acting as hirelings. It is the universal story of man’s betrayal of God, told in the most striking way: the turning away of most of the leaders of God’s own Chosen People from His Son. It is the story of men’s ignorance of their own degraded state and their lashing out at the very Saviour Who has come to heal them: Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.
If these are some of the central, important truths about the degraded, postlapsarian state of man according to Christian teaching, the film showed us these truths in a powerful way. If the film convincingly showed Christ’s Suffering, Death and Resurrection as the means to redeeming fallen man, it succeeded in dramatically telling its story. I do not believe anyone can say that it failed in these respects. The theological objections to the manner in which Christ redeemed us, or the rationale why God became man, over which some Orthodox exercise themselves with respect to this picture, are valid objections, but I simply find the carping about the film’s artistic quality or its supposed prejudice entirely unconvincing.
Today, even more than when the film came out amid general furore and uproar, I find the attribution of anti-Semitism to The Passion more insulting than I did then, because it is all together so much easier today to assume that Gibson has left little dabs of anti-Semitism in the film because he has supposedly been “outed” (like Dostoevsky, for what it’s worth, Gibson still maintains that he is not an anti-Semite). It was a little bit risky for secular conservatives, neoconservatives and liberals to jump on that Christ-hating bandwagon (which is, I’m sorry, largely what it was) two years ago. Today, there will hardly be room for all the people who want to climb onto the anti-Passion fad. All the more reason to insist on just how wrong this accusation of anti-Semitism in The Passion really is.