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A Catholic perspective

Jack Watkins | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s epic and controversial portrayal of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ, is the most emotionally powerful cinematic experience since Schindler’s List. There are moments when even the strongest-willed will wince or look away and moments when the hardest heart will tremble. This is a movie that cannot help but affect all who see it. It is not, however, a movie to be seen by all. Some critics have decried The Passion as the most violent film ever made. These critics have a point – the film is almost a Dante’s “Inferno” of Roman-style torture. To take one example, the Roman whip – with its sharp tips that imbed in the flesh and tear skin on their way out – is accurately reproduced in sickening detail. Anyone who cannot handle such portrayals of human torture need not purchase a ticket. That proviso aside, this is a beautiful film – a film made with love and true religious feeling. Gibson draws upon the Gospels, tradition, the Stations of the Cross, Christian mysticism and, drawing it all together, the basic principles of the Spiritual Exercises on St. Ignatius of Loyola. Intercutting scenes of torment with flashbacks to the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ childhood, Gibson accentuates and deepens the story. In the most beautiful of these moments, Christ stumbles for the second time while carrying the Cross, and, as He falls, Mary (Maia Morgenstern, who deserves an Academy Award for her role) sees, for a moment, the young Jesus stumbling. When Mary reaches her Son, she murmurs “I am here”, and He replies, “See, mother, I make all things new.”There are many, many moments like this. Gibson does his best to underscore the connection between Christ’s suffering and our salvation. In the movie Christ is the suffering and redeeming Son of God, first and foremost, not the “nice man who taught good values” Buddy Christ of much modern presentation. Lest all balance be lost, however, other scenes involve the Eucharist, baptism, love for our enemies and the ethic of serving, all of which Gibson ties directly to the Passion. Gibson is largely true to the Gospels, presenting familiar figures like Judas, Peter and John in their traditional roles. The critics who have complained that the film is unforgiving, apparently didn’t see the same movie I did, as Gibson is careful to include Christ praying for his enemies both before and during His passion. Critics’ other primary target is the film’s alleged anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism and is condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the context of the death of Christ, which is not a crime that can be attributed to any one historical person or group of people. To call this film anti-Semitic is to ignore the image that appears in the movie. The conclave of the Sanhedrin that condemns Jesus is portrayed as a secret conclave, called without knowledge of more moderate Pharisees, and even so some present speak up for Jesus. Others grow disgusted with the actions of Caiaphas and leave his side while Christ is being tortured. Other Jews, including large groups of Jewish women, protest the condemnation, and a Jewish hero, Simon of Cyrene, temporarily steals the spotlight as an Everyman forced to come to terms with the awful fact of the Passion. The worst villains are not the Jewish high priests, but the sadistic Roman soldiers in the scourging sequence. Despite being cleared of these charges, the film is not perfect. In the scourging scene, Gibson goes far beyond the scriptural 39 lashes (I lost count at 63), and three particular scenes seem like mere excess – a raven pecks out the eyes of the bad thief immediately after he mocks Jesus, a tear falls from Heaven at Christ’s death and the earthquake following the death is overplayed. While these missteps are irritating, only the first is troubling. Gibson’s other curious decisions tend to work out, especially the creepy, serpentine androgynous Satan, who parallels Mary. Satan carries a strange, undead spawn that appears to be a deliberate mockery of the Renaissance tradition of painting the Christ Child as if He were already dead. Though imperfect, The Passion of the Christ is a masterpiece. It is the most important film from a Catholic perspective in ages, and it is a powerful statement of the core of Christian belief. No one who has seen this film will think about their faith in quite the same way. By allowing us to all the more clearly visualize the suffering and death that Christ endured for our sake and our salvation, Gibson has given the world a great gift.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Jack Watkins at [email protected]