Remember the production quality of the last big “Christian” film, the horrible Left Behind films with Kirk Cameron? Well, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not that. The Passion is the work of a serious Christian artist doing a serious Christian film. Did I mention it was serious?
It’s a well-made R-rated film, with R-rated violence about an R-rated moment in history when the Son of God was scourged and crucified. Yes, it is horrifying. And of course it was horrifying. But concerns about the violence seem overstated. Most moviegoers have seen worse. And oh, there is implied nudity and not where and when you would expect it.
From a pacing standpoint, the beating goes on longer than it needs to. And from a production standpoint, the earthquake seems less than earthshaking. For a film that cost $50 million, this particular special effect seemed dated, sort of Ben-Hurish. But it doesn’t matter.
It’s a powerful film with many aesthetic strengths. One of those strengths is the flash backs which humanize the bloody pulp that was our Lord, showing him in significant contexts with characters including His mother and a few disciples. A sequence when he is nailed to the cross is inter-cut effectively with the breaking of bread in the upper room and will probably be shown at communion services and Good Friday services for years.
While some aspects of the film are drawn from extra-biblical sources, they add rather than distract from the dramatic effect. I saw the film at the convention of the National Religious Broadcasters with over 3000 people. When it was over every one just sat there and then began to leave the room in stunned silence. The silence carried out into the streets as hundreds of convention goers streamed back to their hotels.
But let’s be frank. The emotional impact the crowd carried out of the theater has much to do with the emotional commitment they carried in. As a believing Christian, it is impossible to separate myself from the way the story already overwhelms me. I have been moved by it over and over again. And I would get it, without the subtitles.
What will the film mean or do to a young person who doesn’t know the story, and is already desensitized to blood and violence through hundreds of hours of mediated blood and violence. Will they come? And will they care? Christian audiences should be careful about expecting others to see it the way we see it, or feel it the way we feel it.
By the way, at the risk of giving away the plot, I can tell you who did it. It was the Jews, or at least their leaders. No, wait, it was the Italians, or at least their soldiers. (They were the ones with the really big hammers and ugly nails.) In fact, the Roman soldiers were very sadistic. And very drunk. But wait, maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it was me. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. It is clearly not what the film is about.
It’s about forgiveness and love. I get it. Will Jews or Arabs or pagans get it? I hope so. If they don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. Mel Gibson has invested a lot in this film, and not all of it was money.
When the film comes out on Ash Wednesday, the faithful will fill the theaters. They should leave their kids at home. Church leaders who are encouraging their congregations to take their kids to see this film should shut up. This is a decision for parents who know their own children to make after the parents themselves have seen the movie.
But later others will show up to see what all the fuss was about. The translation they need may not be in the subtitles. They may need to hear and see our stories, and our passion. The Passion of Christ is a really good movie, about the ultimate story. But in the end it’s just a movie.
Only the Word of God and the Spirit of God give life.