Monday, March 01, 2004

So, the Passion of the Christ wasn't exactly easy to see without preconceptions. That's been damn obvious in reviews and commentary in the half-week between when the movie came out and when I got around to going to see it. What's with a religious, foreign-language movie getting the blockbuster mid-week release, anyways? This is the sort of thing Hollywood does to bump up the opening-weekend grosses.

Right. Preconceptions. My primary response to the movie afterwards was that people were projecting heavily on it. Folks worried about the anti-Semitic upsurge saw in it another nail to be hammered. Christians saw a traditionally-minded passion play. "Liberal" conservatives saw pornographic violence.

It wasn't my favorite version of the passion. Those that know me personally might be aware that I'm something of a Jesus Christ Superstar fan - the 1996 film version over the version from the Seventies, the original cast album over any other version, filmed or otherwise. But the two are really incommensurate. Jesus Christ Superstar is an aesthetic construct, while the Passion is a primal, ferocious outpouring of pure sentiment. I have to respect it for what it is.

A number of liberal Christians, mostly Protestants, but some disaffected Catholics as well, have complained of the fleshy horror of the movie. The Passion as a physical event is somewhat alien to the low church Protestant experience. That tradition emphasizes the empty cross over the bloody crucifix. Throughout Appalachia, you will find open knolls by little backwoods churches with three empty crosses in the traditional array. The emphasis is on the open grave, and the empty cross - not the agony and the flesh of the event itself. They celebrate the resurrection and the promise - not the betrayal and the sacrifice. Love over pity, celebration over mourning, Gratitude over guilt. The church in which I was raised emphasized the imitation of Christ - but in an ethical sense, rather than a theological sense. We were to follow him in life. Obsessing over his death was morbid, in the literal sense.

Thus, I believe that liberal Christians expected a more robust ending - something triumphal, something spectacular, something full of light and joy. The end of 2001? I don't know. But the film isn't called The Passion and the Resurrection, and that wasn't what was promised. When they didn't get their StarChrist ending, a lot of liberal Christians complained that the Risen Christ had "blood in his eye", that he looked like he was getting ready to go out and do some ass-kicking. I fully expected to see this scene, having read a number of critics complain explicitly about it. I was some-what surprised to not see what I had been told to see. His eyes don't harden, they don't even dilate, in a movie in which strong emphasis was laid on the visual of the Christ's eyes dilating out at the moment of death, at the climax of the movie. He just looks forward, as the light comes forth. It's by no means a triumphal ending, but it isn't one of fury and rage. It's just... blank.

In a certain theological sense, I suppose that emphasis on the physical Passion is a correction for the Monophysite error, which is fairly common among modern Protestants. When you downplay the Passion as an explicit, direct and physical event, full of torment and agony, you underplay the essential humanity of Jesus. It becomes easy to see him as a divine ideal, passing through life, rather than a physical man, broken on the cross. My church was especially fond of considering the Christ as the Word Incarnate, a bodiless Voice which spoke through the world and was gone, leaving nothing but echo centuries in its wake.

The movie was a harsh experience, though, no doubt of that. I'm going to have nightmares of those exposed ribs, and the hammering of nails. In fact, I did have a strange nightmare afterwards - about kittens so delicate that they bled upon being touched, that collapsed into tiny puddles of gore as a result. I'd analyze my dream, except that Freud is dead, and so is dream interpretation.

Gibson's film is a hammer, and some people break. A woman behind me in the theatre started sobbing in the midst of the scourging scene, and didn't stop throughout the rest of the movie. It doesn't relent, and that's sort of the point. I disagree with the folks who think that it's overkill, that the violence depicted would have killed any man. Well, that's sort of the point, isn't it? Jesus was supposed to be an exemplar, and was a font of healing and strength. I'm told that they ticked off the Stations of the Cross, but since I wasn't raised Catholic, I didn't recognize them as such.

Now we come to the "anti-Semitism" of the movie. I'm generally pretty philosemitic, so I was worried about this. And I can see where the critics were concerned. There was too much emphasis on the high priests, and at least one of them was a walking anti-Semitic horror - dark, swarthy, hook-nosed and nasty. We saw too much of Caiaphas and the high priests, that's for sure. But in retrospect, I believe that this has more to do with Gibson's "traditionalist" rage against the Roman Church. I've seen him go all stone-faced in interviews and flatly declare that he believes that the "Eucharist doesn't transubstantiate" in the Roman Church. The horror of a holy institution perverted by pride and blindness speaks through the high priests. I think it's also very telling that at the climax of the film, the Temple is destroyed by quake and fire, and the high priests stumble through the ruins, Caiaphas burning his hand on a brazier.

My experience of the film was that this business with the high priests was more than compensated by the emphasis placed on Simon of Cyrene, a tall Jew dragooned out of the crowd on the Via Dolorosa to carry the cross when Christ couldn't carry it any further. I found myself sympathizing heavily with this neutral party, a decent man in an ugly, mad riot of horrors and agony.

The film isn't perfect. I didn't hate the Morningstar figure as much as others did, but the horrible imp-children who hound Judas to his death were alien to the general spirit of the movie. It detracted from the narrative, made it more "movieish", and almost certainly contributed to the complaints about "the Jesus Chainsaw Massacre". They might have done more with the ending, or possibly less. I would have ended with the Morningstar howling, personally - but then, I'm no longer a believing Christian.

When I came out of the theatre, I found that every car within two blocks of the Garman had a flower tucked under the right-hand windshield wiper. Somebody had been busy to do this during a Saturday matinee. In retrospect, it was probably a good gesture to make. The Passion takes you to a very low place, and doesn't really finish the job of bringing you back from the brink. A little extra-narrational help, a bit of joy and optimism, definitely made a difference in my mood.

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