I recently satisfied eight years of curiosity and watched Mel Gibson’s controversial religious epic, The Passion of the Christ. I missed it in theaters back in ’04 because I didn’t want Gibson to get any of my money. (Although if I had been writing this blog at the time, I probably would have seen it.) I figured catching it on Netflix Instant in 2012 was okay.
The movie can best be described as ultra-reverent, self-righteous torture porn. For the bulk of its 127 minutes, it shows you nothing but a healthy, good-looking thirtyish man being beaten, tortured, and killed in the most graphic way possible. It was, quite simply, gross.
Despite the religious music, the slow motion, and the artful photography, I never felt anything spiritual here. I realize how important this story is for Christians, but Gibson’s movie offers little reason to view him as anything other than fresh meat.
The picture had a few good moments, almost all of them in the all-too-short flashbacks. Here we see Jesus as a human being rather than a symbol or a victim. In the first and best flashback, he’s a carpenter joking with his mother and playfully splashing water in her face.
Is the movie anti-Semitic? That’s a question that requires context. We know more now about Gibson’s own hatred of Jews than we did in 2004. And I only recently read James Carroll’s excellent book, Constantine’s Sword, so I have the history of Christian anti-Semitism fresh in my mind. The Gospels themselves attack the Jews viciously for reasons that have more to do with first-century politics than spirituality or history. It’s part of the story–which is, of course, a serious problem of its own.
Other Jesus movies dance around this problem, emphasizing Roman oppression and making only a small minority of Jews into villains. But not Gibson. In the first half of the film, he seems to revel in the evil Hebrews. Barabbas here is such a weird-looking and vilely-behaving brute that we can’t imagine why the crowd chose him over Jesus–unless they were all both evil and insane.
But a strange thing happens when the story moves towards the crucifixion. While the upper-class Roman officers and statesmen are all decent human beings who would never hurt anyone to protect their empire, the common foot soldiers are all sadistic thugs. They delight in torturing Jesus no end. And then the Jews become the good guys, crying out in sorrow and doing everything possible to comfort the poor victim.
Perhaps Mel Gibson was confused about his own anti-Semitism when he made this film. But then again, these days he seems to be confused about everything.