The Passion: Redemption through Pain, Not Anti-Semitism
Yes, The Passion is a jolting shocker of a movie. And my immediate reaction as a white, middle-class, non-religious American was pretty much that of Tikkun: If Jesus was about love, why focus on the violence and cruelty? But it is a stunning film, tells the Gospel story in a naturalistic, non-artificial way, completely unlike earlier “Bible” movies. Which include, to my mind, The Last Temptation of Christ, always a favorite book, that as a movie nevertheless remained an intellectual construct punctuated by telling details of brutal "realism." (In 1954, the Pope placed it on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.)
Kazantzakis yearned to go beyond Tolstoy, to leave off writing for religion — but in the end he was a political person too much involved in the tumultuous events of Europe in the 20th Century to remain aloof, who spent his entire adult life as a political activist (nationalist to communist to socialist) and passionate student of not just Christianity but the Buddha. Mel Gibson, too, is on a quest as a film-maker. We have seen his nationalistic concerns in Brave Heart and The Patriot, and now we see the expansion and explicit spiritualization of the quest to its most magnified form in The Passion. Gibson’s heroes seek freedom and redemption in a world where pain is the norm (also true of The Road Warrior and even Lethal Weapon). Given this predilection, what other kind of religious movie could we expect from him than the one we got, focusing on the last 12 excruciating hours of Christ’s life?
However discomfited my reaction The Passion may have been, most of the audience, which was Hispanic and therefore probably Catholic, was visibly moved by the experience, many in tears. While I was concerned that the Jewish temple priests were the political villains they probably actually were and that Pontius Pilate was portrayed as a thoughtful, sensitive kind of 2004 guy who really respected his wife’s opinion (unlikely given what we know about him), this is not the take-away of believers who see it as an uplifting reaffirmation of the willingness of God to manifest and share and redeem human evil. (Chatting with the Catholic family who own our favorite Mexican restaurant before the movie, this was also their opinion.)
So, I wondered about Gibson’s own views, and quickly discovered a large part of his inspiration came from a 19th Century book written by a Catholic nun entitled The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a retelling in first-person of more-or-less the same events as the movie. The Amazon reviewers, mostly Catholic, found the work inspiring and uplifting – not having read the book I can’t say what its attitude to the Jews or Romans was, but there was no mention whatsoever of either group in the comments. Rather these readers took it as an internal tale about a being who literally suffered in their stead.
My final thought about The Passion was that however imperfect the Christian church has been and is, it has helped shape the modern world in which we view with opprobrium what were in earlier time’s really quite ordinary forms of punishment and legal practices.