Well, I went last night to see the movie everyone is talking about. I'm writing this not long after leaving the theater so these are my raw and immediate impressions - not a fully considered review. I was of course deeply moved in parts. If you are a person of the Christian faith, it is impossible not to be moved by a rendition of the passion of the Savior that is not a travesty. The very story itself, embedded in the soul and the memory, stirs the emotions and prayers and meditations of a lifetime. To see it rendered in a believable setting in languages that, however inaccurate, give you an impression of being there, is arresting. It brings this simple but awe-inspiring story to life in a way very difficult to approximate in the written or spoken word. You can see why Passion plays were once performed. The Gospels do end in extraordinary drama, pathos, plot, agony. Portraying them vividly may, we can hope, bring some people to read the Gospels and even to explore further what the redemptive message of Jesus really is.
At the same time, the movie was to me deeply disturbing. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh. The center-piece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting and despicable piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive - slowly, methodically and with increasing savagery. We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man's body. Just so that we can appreciate the pain, we see the whip first tear chunks out of a wooden table. Then we see pieces of human skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers' faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man's body. And then they turn him over and do it all again. It goes on for ever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely unforgivable, vile, disgusting scene. No human being could sruvive it. Yet for Gibson, it is the h'ors d'oeuvre for his porn movie. The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It doesn't even evoke emotion in the audience. It is designed to prompt the crudest human pity and emotional blackmail - which it obviously does.
GUTTING THE MESSAGE
Moreover, the suffering is rendered almost hollow by a dramatic void. Gibson has provided no context so that we can understand better who Jesus is - just a series of cartoon flashbacks. We cannot empathize with Mary fully or with Peter or John - because they too are mere props for the violence. The central message of Jesus - of love and compassion and forgiveness - is reduced to sound-bites. Occasionally, such as when the message of the sermon on the mount is juxtaposed with the crucifixion, the effect is almost profound - because there has been an actual connection between who Jesus was and what happened to him. But this is the exception to the rule. Watching the movie, you can see how a truly powerful rendition could have been made - by tripling the flashbacks and context, by providing a biography of Jesus, by showing us why he endured what he endured. Instead, all that context, all that meaning, has been removed for endless sickening gratuitous violence.
PILATE, THE SAINT
Is it anti-Semitic? The question has to be placed in the context of the Gospels and it is hard to reproduce the story without risking such inferences. But in my view, Gibson goes much further than what might be forgivable. The first scene in which Caiphas appears has him relaying to Judas how much money he has agreed to hand over in return for Jesus. The Jew - fussing over money again! There are a few actors in those scenes who look like classic hook-nosed Jews of Nazi imagery, hissing and plotting and fulminating against the Christ. For good measure, Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans; and he has Jesus telling Pilate that he is not responsible - the Jewish elite is. Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent. Again, this reflects part of the Gospels, but Gibson goes further. He presents Pilate's wife as actually finding Mary, providing towels to wipe up Jesus' blood, arguing for Jesus' release. Yes, the Roman torturers are obviously evil; yes, a few Jews dissent; and, of course, all the disciples are Jewish. I wouldn't say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It's motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable. Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art.