BY JOHN SAUER
The Passion of the Christ is riveting. When I saw it, I was moved to silence. So was the rest of the audience. The crowd leaving the theater was almost mute.
Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic compares Mel Gibson to Matthias Grunewald, the German painter known for his brutal depiction of the Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece. I think this comparison is correct, though unlike Wieseltier, I love the Isenheim Crucifixion. Film and painting share the same dominant images: the tortured body of Christ, the grieving face of his mother, and the profound irony of the Passion captured in a verse – in Grunewald’s painting, John the Baptist’s “he must increase, while I must decrease” as he gestures toward the dying Christ; in Gibson’s film, Jesus gasping out, “See, Mother, I make all things new” as he staggers toward Calvary, embracing the Cross.
Gibson adheres closely to the stark Passion narratives of the gospels, particularly that of John. But he does add, emphasize and develop three themes.
The first is the sacramental nature of Christ’s sacrifice. The film suffuses the physical materials of Jesus’s last hours with supernatural efficacy, from the arrest in Gethsemane, through the repeat flashbacks of the Last Supper, to the piercing of Christ’s side. The breaking of the Eucharistic bread intersperses with the raising of the Cross. Blood and water gush over Mary, John and a kneeling Roman soldier as the Christian church is born. And, in a haunting scene probably most difficult for contemporary viewers, Mary and Mary Magdalene carefully wipe up Jesus’s blood from the pavement after the scourging. The very blood itself is precious, effecting human salvation.
The second theme is truth. The film adds an exchange between Pilate and his wife Claudia, in which Pilate struggles with the question he just asked Jesus: Quid est veritas? What is truth? I believe Gibson’s Pilate represents not the historical Pilate but the modern audience, torn between “veritas mea” and the absolute “Veritas” that his wife professes. Claudia is blunt: “If you cannot hear the Truth, then no one can tell you.” Perhaps Gibson believes, even hopes, that his film will thus divide viewers’ hearts when they are confronted with the “sign of contradiction” that is the unthinkable, almost unbearable “scandal” of the Cross.
The third theme is women’s love. The film shows two intertwined stories. The first is the familiar, bloody account of Christ’s arrest and execution – a story of men’s cowardice, hatred and brutality. The second is the bitter and beautiful tale, only hinted at in the Gospels, of the women of the Passion. As framed by Gibson, these silent, pallid figures – Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Claudia, Veronica the young mother – form a community of sorrow around the central events of the Passion, though they hardly speak to each other.
The tearless yet ashen-faced Mary – superbly portrayed by Maia Morgenstern – is the heroine of this tale, and the depiction of her sorrows is the film’s greatest achievement. It links the two stories together by connecting the sufferings of Christ to the sufferings of his disciples, and casts a new light on the Passion. That his dear mother should behold it all adds a whole new depth to Jesus’s anguish – but simultaneously strengthens him to endure it. Gibson’s triumph is to drive home this paradox of love through a few shared gazes and simple flashbacks. The love between them is intensely human (deftly displayed in a poignant glimpse of their past domestic life). But that human love is also divine love – because of the Passion.
Is the film too violent, as some have charged? It is graphic, particularly the scourging. But it does not overstate the likely history. Jesus probably received thirty-nine lashes from the Roman flagellum, which would leave his flesh in just such tatters. Moreover, the film actually understates the gruesome torture of suffocating to death on a cross. Many have suggested that the portrayal is nevertheless gratuitous, even pornographic. But in Gibson’s Johannine vision, Christ’s agony reveals both the enormity of sin and the abyss of God’s love for us. No drop of Jesus’s blood is “gratuitous,” because each expresses the endless extremity of his love.
As for charges of anti-Semitism, this movie is no more anti-Semitic than the Gospels themselves are. Indeed, its additions portray Jewish characters largely favorably. A more serious argument may be that in light of the atrocious history of violence against Jews, Gibson’s vivid depiction of violence against Jesus could provoke further crimes and acts of hate. I hope and trust this will not be the case. I believe The Passion has the potential to deepen understanding of the Christian faith in Christians and non-Christians alike. I’d hate to see its beauty twisted to evil ends.