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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card February 29, 2004

The Passion of the Christ -- Three Reviews and a Letter

As a Film Critic

Pious films are usually embarrassingly bad -- one thinks of Richard Gere prancing around in a diaper in the mercifully forgotten King David -- primarily because the attempt to inspire and the need to be true to the source material are often incompatible with each other, and both interfere with the requirements of art and entertainment.

Director and co-writer Mel Gibson's artistic achievement in The Passion of the Christ would have been noteworthy had the film been merely adequate, as art or entertainment. Instead, it is superb; I believe that it is, in every way that matters, perfect.

The first excellent decision was to take the story's structure from the last hours of Jesus' life, starting with his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and ending, except for a bit of denouement, when he is taken down from the cross.

But this structure did not stop Gibson from giving these hours of merciless torment the relief of meaning and context. Through brief flashbacks to moments in the past -- from tender scenes with his mother and the last supper with his disciples to the sermon on the mount -- Gibson reminds us of who the person was before he was physically tormented.

Moreover, the words Jesus says in these flashbacks provide meaning -- sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant, always illuminating -- to the precise moment where they are inserted in the story.

We see the flashbacks to Mary-with-Jesus from Mary's point of view, as she is dealing with the grief of seeing her beloved son suffer so much, even though she knows this is what he was born for. It makes the relationship between them come alive for us, so that in a few moments we get the sense of Jesus as a child, as a young man.

Other flashbacks, though, provide Jesus' own commentary on the events he knew were coming in his future.

Some of these techniques would have been heavy-handed indeed if this film had been fiction, or a fictionalized version of a little-known historical figure; imagine how dreadful Braveheart would have been if the entire film had taken place in the last hours of William Wallace's life, with mere flashbacks to illuminating events in his past.

But Jesus' life is well-known, in outline at least, even to nonbelievers; and to believers, every word of dialogue, every single event, is expected.

So the real surprise is how much Gibson was able to step away from the literal filming-of-the-gospels and insert his own (or co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald's) brilliant interpretations, augmentations, and allegorizations.

The most obvious such fictionalization is the way the film depicts Satan. I was astonished, after the fact, to find that Satan was played by a woman, Rosalinda Celentano. But the way Satan is presented, his face a mockery of tenderness and concern, surrounded by images of maggots, serpents, decay, deformity, I could not imagine a better depiction. And when we see, at the point of Christ's death, Satan in the midst of desolation, defeated, it gives the film meaning and resonance that would not have been there had we seen nothing more than the torture and death of Jesus' body.

There are other touches, though, that flesh out the gospel stories. I could have lived without the old canard that identifies Mary Magdalene with the woman-who-was-taken-in-adultery, whom Jesus saved from stoning, but the flashback works well in its context; I loved the extra acts of kindness and understanding that were given to Pilate's wife (Claudia Gerini) and Jarreth Merz as Simon, who bears the cross for Jesus; and the way John, Peter, and Judas are depicted makes them seem like living souls.

In fact, the most remarkable achievement was the way every person in the film -- including Jesus -- is presented as a whole human being. Nobody mopes through the film in the traditional but tiresome attitudes of piety. Nobody acts as if they thought they had a halo around them all the time. As far as they know, they aren't living through an epic story -- they're living through their own, personal lives, facing the worst catastrophe and not yet aware that it's a eucatastrophe that marks the beginning, not the end, of their work.

I also appreciated the use of the original languages. Aramaic, Latin, Vulgar Latin, and Hebrew are used to powerful effect. The subtitles do not interfere in any way. And the result is a truly international film -- everybody in the world gets exactly the same experience.

There is not a false step in the film -- and believe me, I was looking for them. James Caviezel plays Jesus as a man, with a sense of humor; his love for his friends is practical, not ethereal -- he likes them and cares about them.

This film does not exist outside its Christian context, any more than the film Gandhi would have meant anything at all had we not known of him as the builder of a nation and a prophet of civil disobedience. But working within the framework of how Jesus is regarded both by believers and nonbelievers, I believe Gibson has created a work of art that stands with the best ever created in the medium of film.

As a Believer

Viewing this film can be complicated for a Christian. Because Mel Gibson does not present a generic Christian view in The Passion of the Christ. He is a Catholic, and this is a profoundly Catholic interpretation.

I remember my shock the first time I went inside a Catholic cathedral -- in the town of Araraquara, Brazil. I had not been prepared for the bloody images of saints, and especially of Jesus.

But having now visited Catholic cathedrals in many countries, I must say that American Catholicism is almost puritan by contrast with Catholicism elsewhere. The images that are presented to most Catholics are designed to make them feel great pity and respect for the suffering of the martyrs. And, since Jesus is the greatest of all, his suffering must be the greatest.

To those whose background is in Protestant churches, especially those with Calvinist, puritan histories, the emphasis on violence might be shocking -- especially if you're from one of the religious traditions that in recent generations have concentrated on the "nice-Jesus" teachings that remove him from the harsh and brutal times in which he lived.

So the emphasis in this film on wringing every scrap of suffering out of Jesus' body can seem excessive, almost unbearable. To Catholics, it will be less surprising -- but what they have long seen in static, blood-streaked images now comes to life and seems to be happening to a living person, which is shocking enough.

My own beliefs are even more removed from the violence. After all, tens of thousands of people suffered death by crucifixion; hundreds of thousands have been scourged and tortured cruelly. I don't believe that the manner of Jesus' death had anything to do with either the atonement or the resurrection. That's why we Mormons don't use the symbol of the cross on our churches -- to us, crucifixion was merely the method that the Romans used to execute those of whom they wanted to make a public example. Had the death been by lethal injection, the effect on our salvation would have been the same.

I believe that Christ's real suffering was the anguish he felt as he bore the horror of complete spiritual separation from God -- taking upon himself to an infinite degree the torment that is the natural spiritual consequence of sin. The remorse and despair we feel (or will feel) to varying degrees because of our disobedience to or rejection of God, he felt so utterly that we cannot imagine it. In this context, what was done to his body was almost a distraction. Many people have borne as much.

The problem is, the inner, spiritual suffering could not be filmed. So even for someone who believes as I do, the torment of Jesus' body stands as an outward representation of the inner torment. Viewed in this way, the violence is not excessive at all; it is all the glimpse that we can bear of the inner torment he suffered for us.

Even so, no matter what religious context you bring to the film, you will find that the critics who wrote or spoke of a festival of gore have misled you. This is not like the blood-thirsty movies that kill people left and right and seek for new and excruciating ways to titillate an audience. There is nothing here designed to promote a corpse-filled computer game.

In this movie, violence is shown as appalling, evil, vengeful, malicious. The moral context is never lost. The people in the film recoil from precisely the same actions that we recoil from. If some critics can't see the difference between this film and movies that delight in casual violence, they're in the wrong line of work.

Some have reported that the violence became so excessive it left them numb. In a sense, yes -- you have to detach at some point. In fact, for me it happened at precisely the point where, in the movie, Mary says out loud, How long are you going to keep letting them do this before your work is finished? The standard Hollywood expectation -- that the hero will bear up under suffering and live to pound his enemies into the ground -- is destroyed in the long scourging sequence, where Jesus rises to his feet after 32 strokes from rods. We have that standard response: Yes! They can't beat him down! (Bruce Willis in Die Hard comes to mind.)

Whereupon they switch to flails designed to kill, and strike him far more blows than before, and from this the hero does not rise, he is dragged away on the verge of death. From then on, we see his suffering as being more of a struggle to stay alive until his work is completed. We no longer wish for him to be saved; we wish for him to be relieved, and the only possible relief is death.

So yes, we detach. But it is not the detachment that we feel toward the casual killing in action films or the pornographic violence in slasher movies. It is never that we don't care; it's that we've stopped hoping for life and recognize that death holds no terror for this man.

The violence is not what makes us weep.

All my tears in this movie were shed in empathy for those who loved Jesus, and in gratitude for those who are shown attempting to be kind to him. I was moved by Pilate's wife, who knows what is right and tries to do the one small thing that is possible for her. I was moved by Mary's love for her son. I was moved by the epiphany that came to the reluctant cross-bearer, Simon of Cyrene; by the shame and empathy discovered by one of the soldiers -- the one required to pierce Jesus' body with a spear, but who can hardly bear to do it in front of his mother.

The woman who brings him water to drink at one of the stations of the cross; Pilate himself, caught in a terrible political situation where he has no good choice, but chooses his career over his integrity and makes the futile, empty gesture of washing his hands; the "good thief" (Francesco Cabras) who is promised paradise on the cross -- it was goodness, or the yearning for goodness, that brought tears to my eyes.

And this is not a movie about despair. Though by no means did Gibson even attempt to show the story of the resurrection, we get a glimpse of a whole, perfect, uninjured body rising from the shroud.

So even if you are not a Catholic, and the sangre de cristo is not something to be venerated, this film will still speak to you.

(And for those who piously refuse to see R-rated films, I can only say: There are movies that children should not see, and this is one of them. But for a Christian adult to refuse to see it as a matter of moral principle, as if this movie will somehow dirty you, moves you over into the category of those who let the letter of the law keep them from its spirit.)

As an American

I have hated antisemitism since I first learned, in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, what it was. And I have loudly insisted that antisemitism be named for what it is in most of the opposition to Israel from both the PC Left and the vast majority of the Muslim world.

But to call this movie antisemitic and therefore un-American is shameful.

First, this movie strictly follows the only historical record we have of these events. There is no competing record to refute the depiction in the gospels. So to say Gibson should not have shown Jewish leaders being the driving force behind the killing of Jesus is to say that Christians are not allowed to actually believe in or dramatize their own scripture.

I remember how, after 9/11, everyone leapt to their pulpits to make sure no one blamed these events on Muslims -- when it was absolutely Muslims, acting according to their interpretation of the Muslim faith, who did the act.

Of course there were Muslims who were appalled by the actions of the terrorists of 9/11. There were also Muslims who danced in the streets to celebrate. But one could imagine that the people attacking Mel Gibson for antisemitism would insist that any film of 9/11 must not show that the terrorists were Muslim, lest it cause an outbreak of violence against Muslims.

It is not surprising that Jewish leaders are hypersensitive about antisemitism. But the attempt by some to condemn this movie because of the effect it "might" have on some Christian viewers is wretched excess.

In fact, to many Christians it sounds as though some rabbis thought they had the right to tell Christians which parts of the Christian scripture are acceptable to believe in. This is so outrageous and so resented that, if anything, it is not the film but the reaction to it by these few Jewish leaders that is most likely to cause negative feelings toward Jews.

The Passion of the Christ makes it very clear that there are Jews on both sides, and that Jesus himself was a temple-centered Jew.

In the movie, Simon of Cyrene is reviled as a Jew by the Romans, even as he picks up the cross to carry it for Jesus. The only person who is shown in a profile shot that emphasizes a stereotypical Jewish face is Peter. In countless other ways, Mel Gibson shot and edited this movie to make it clear that it wasn't Jews per se who sought Jesus' death, but only a segment of the leadership of the Jews. And even among those leaders, the film shows that some spoke loudly against killing Jesus.

In the absence of competing historical records contradicting the gospels, the only argument I've heard is that the Jewish leadership "would never have" behaved that way because it was illegal and immoral. Therefore the Christian gospels are slandering Jews, proving that Christians have been antisemitic from the beginning.

But this is ludicrous. Most Christians at the time the gospels were first written down considered themselves to be Jews, since they considered Jesus to be the fulfilment of the promises God made to Israel. Christian antisemitism was still more than a century away.

And to insist that the Jewish leadership in the 30s C.E. were so righteous and pure that the events recounted in the gospels could not have happened is also ridiculous. It wasn't that many decades later that assassinations and betrayals and plenty of illegal actions tore the Jewish leadership apart during the revolt against Rome.

The gospels show the dominant faction of the Jewish leadership acting according to patterns that have been repeated again and again through history. The Dreyfuss case in France, where an irrational hatred led to a man being hounded and convicted of crimes he absolutely did not commit, is merely one of the most famous cases in recent history. Anyone who doubts that huge and powerful sections of a seemingly rational society can be filled with nearly insane hatred of someone who has done nothing to deserve it have only to look impartially at contemporary American politics.

The gospels seem to present a reasonably impartial, unhateful depiction of people behaving the way people in power usually do -- they are so sure they are right, so sure justice is on their side, that they toss aside the law in order to accomplish a "higher purpose." We have judges like that today, too.

It is not reasonable that the historical account in the gospels should be doubted solely because some contemporary Jews would like to think that Jewish leaders two thousand years ago could not have conspired to get the Romans to kill a particularly offensive leader of a movement that threatened their ability to control what other Jews believed.

Moreover, the Jewish leaders are shown as the powers-that-be, never as the sadistic torturers whose actions and attitudes would inflame the viewers to outrage. That role is reserved for the Roman soldiers -- and since they are depicted as speaking Vulgar Latin, which sounds like Italian, I would think Italian-Americans would have far more cause to fear backlash from this film.

What I find truly disturbing, as an American, is how the American Left, which supposedly glorifies free speech and cultural inclusion, should so brutally reveal their true colors. The fact that Gibson could not find studio distribution for this film, and had to turn to an independent distributor, Newmarket Film Group (distributors of such small niche-defying independent films as Whale Rider, Memento, and Monster).

Hollywood touts itself as courageous -- just like the rest of the PC Left -- whenever they stomp on Christians. It's part of the elitist war on Christianity that's clearly going on. Other people's ethnic heritage or "folk beliefs" can be celebrated in school -- but Christian customs and beliefs can hardly be mentioned.

When the Christian Right spoke out against The Last Temptation of Christ, you would have thought that Hitler had just taken over in America, to hear the PC Left scream about censorship and suppression and the sanctity of art and the need to be open to many different views.

But to a large degree, the people trying to censor and suppress Gibson's movie, and to slam the door on this "different view" and ignore the sanctity of art in this particular case, at least, were the same people.

So they stand revealed as hypocrites. They don't believe in freedom of expression, they believe in anything that hurts Christians; and anything that actually expresses Christian belief effectively, they will oppose.

That's an ugly place for America to be in today.

But that's what happens when you have an established church, as America does now -- as priests of that church strike down American laws and ancient customs, not by democratic process, but by authority of their private beliefs about what is "fair," thus imposing their religion on others against their will.

Personal Comments about Mel Gibson

In fact, the behavior of the Left toward Mel Gibson as a believing Christian -- and not just over this issue -- follows a pattern that makes the historical record in the gospels seem quite realistic.

Crucifixion isn't the way we kill offenders today. We do it metaphorically, in the media, and financially, by withholding the means to make a living.

And now, ironically, because it is clear that Christians are supporting this movie in vast numbers and it is going to make back its investment, Gibson is being accused of profiting from his faith.

Here's the truth: Any movie can fail. There was no guarantee. Gibson spent $24,000,000 of his own money, put his own talent and reputation on the line, did not put any stars in his movie, and had no major distributor sharing the financial burden. No one in the history of film has ever taken such a personal risk.

He made a bet that Christians would support an excellent film about the death of Christ. He had no takers. And when he turned out to be right after all, it is stupid and mean-spirited to accuse him of having financial gain as his motive.

So I have a few things to say to Mel Gibson, beyond the praise I have already given to him as an artist and as an interpreter of the Christian gospel:

Dear Mr. Gibson,

It looks like you're going to make a profit on The Passion of the Christ. Please don't donate any part of the profits to charity. Instead, use it to finance other films, so this faithful audience can have the visualized stories they hunger for. Keep the standards high, and the audience will only grow. This will do far more for Christianity -- and religious faith in general -- than any other donation you might make.

Remember the parable of the talents, and keep putting this money at risk in service of your faith. Remember that these profits were given to you by fellow believers, because we trusted you as an artist and as a Christian to bring the scripture to life in a way that no sermon -- and no lesser artists -- ever could.

And when award season rolls around next year, please withdraw The Passion of the Christ from consideration for any and all awards.

It would demean this great film to be listed as a competitor for a prize. We don't need to hear absurd and offensive statements like "The Passion of the Christ really has legs as a contender for the Golden Globe" or "The Passion of the Christ is a shoo-in for the best-makeup Oscar."

Hollywood shut you out on this one. Keep this film outside. Don't let them use it as a tool to show how open-minded they are, after the fact. Since this is one of the few perfect films ever made, and since it deals with a subject matter sacred to you and to most of its audience, there will never be four other films worthy of being listed with it in any category.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.


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