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Analysis - The Passion of the Christ (2004)
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The Passion of the Christ (2004)

New Market Films

Analysis by Dennis Kwiatkowski

The film The Passion of the Christ has had one of the biggest openings in box office history. One must give its director, Mel Gibson, credit where credit is due. Gibson had various studios turn down financing his film, citing that a film about Jesus with Aramaic dialogue would be a hard sell. Gibson decided to put up his own money and stay true to his vision of filming a realistic depiction of the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life.

Gibson’s fame, and the fact that he was also an Oscar-winning director, compelled public interest in his project. But controversy also swirled. Gibson’s being part of a traditionalist faction within the Catholic Church—so conservative that it rejected the Churches Vatican II teaching that the Jews were not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus-- caused many to fear that his film would be anti-Semitic. Select advance screenings of the film for various religious leaders did nothing to allay these concerns. Neither did controversial comments made by Gibson’s father about the Holocaust from which Gibson would not distance himself.

A screening of the film at the Vatican brought an endorsement from the pope which was quickly dropped. When the film’s distributor pulled out, Gibson had to employ marketing among evangelical groups. A detailed well- researched cover story about the film in Newsweek helped to build further excitement and also additional concern.

Current social events, such as anti-Semitism in Europe, separation of church and state issues in the United States, and religious discussion of gay marriage, only added resonance and publicity to the release of a controversially traditionalist religious film.

The concerns about anti-Semitism were so great that, just prior to its release, Roman Catholic Bishop Patrick McGrath pointed out that the four gospels upon which the film is based were not historical accounts of events but theological reflections written for particular people at a particular time and within a particular context. The perceptions of the Biblical writers could be misunderstood or distorted if viewed through attitudes and prejudices which have taken place in the intervening millennia.

The Bishop also restated Vatican II teachings which deplore all hatreds, persecutions, and anti-Semitism leveled against the Jews

And now, Mr. Gibson’s film has finally come out. It is obviously the work of a veteran director guiding a first-rate production team and a handsome cast; a film meticulously crafted and exquisitely executed, employing all the powerful tools of modern cinema; a film which depicts the suffering of Jesus with a brutal, realistic, unrelenting detail which occupies most of the film’s focus—a work which is the opposite of a holy-card type depiction of Christ—a deliberate approach that Gibson reasoned would be fresh and different and fill seats in the theatre.

Critical reaction to the film has been divided with some praising and others condemning the film.

The charges of anti-Semitism have not been quieted. The addition of scenes written specifically for the film which give sympathetic depth and motivation to the characters of Pontius Pilate and his wife are offset by the lack of similar scenes of depth or sympathy in regard to the High Priest Caiaphas, the Temple priests or the angry mob. In response, Gibson counters that his depiction of Simon of Cyrene is one of the balancing factors in the film.

Some Christians have stated that the film has moved them deeply and re-affirmed their religious faith. Other viewers have found the film’s emphasis on violence to be numbing and offensive, and the decision to essentially leave out the content and context of Christ’s teachings to have produced a film that is spiritually empty.

Gibson has stated that he hopes the film will stimulate serious thought and reflection among diverse audiences—something that is already occurring in printed reviews, in chat rooms and discussions, and in often-heated exchanges on television. One such question, no doubt the result of anti-Semitism, involves traditionalist approaches to filming or interpreting the Bible literally. The question is: Is such literalism valid if it ignores original context, meaning and intent and serves to foment hate?

Put another way, and relating the same question to the current social debate of gay marriage, and Biblical references to homosexuality, for example, the question might be: When were such biblical references written, with what intent, and for what audience, and within what context, and what is their meaning in light of today’s knowledge and understanding?

Can the expansive message and guiding principles of Jesus, and the universal truths inherent in the Christian scriptures withstand such scrutiny of literal traditions and their misuse? The questions and reflections occurring now will certainly continue, whatever the final assessment of Gibson’s film, and one expects that such a powerful spiritual philosophy,which has lasted so long, can indeed illuminate such questions, and that the answers, when found, relating to an entire host of social issues, will be, not about hate, but about love.

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski/ Celluloid Dreams

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