Monday, March 08, 2004

I want to discuss The Passion of the Christ.

I've heard from many people that the film was for them a "religious experience," moving them to tears. Whether the tears were the reaction to the brutal violence or the realization of the cost of sin, everyone seemed to suggest that crying was the appropiate and natural response, denying the validity of other reactions. Perhaps I have become desensitized to violence, or perhaps I realized that I was watching a movie, but I was not moved to tears.

I don't think the depiction of Jesus' suffering was enough. Yes, we saw the physical brutality, but that's not the entirety of Christ's suffering. He bore the whole of humanity's sin and all the pain and anguish accompanying sin. That suffering was at least equal to (though I feel it far surpasses) the physical suffering. How is that effectively conveyed in a movie? I don't know if it can be. It has to be something that the viewer personally acknowledges or connects to the physical suffering. It's not easily accomplished in pictures and dialogue.

Perhaps part of the reason I was not "bowled over" by the subject of the film is because I'm Catholic. The Passion is no thing new to us; we meditate on it every time we celebrate Mass. I am conscious of this part of our faith; maybe this is why I was not effected in the way others have been.

In the same vein, The Passion is extremely Catholic in its presentation. It follows the Stations of the Cross, including such non-Gospel accounts as Veronica's veil. The "flashbacks" of the Last Supper during the Crucifixion show the theological connection between the two, the Last Supper and the Mass as the unbloody re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross. One in the same.

I was disappointed with the presentation of Pilate. I thought he would have been less of a pansy. He came off as a pawn of the Jewish high priests, which is counter to the historical evidence of his reign. Why is it that we were offered an insight to Pilate's fears of rebellion in a dialogue with his wife but never had any such insight to the psychological struggle of the high priests? There seemed to be more sympathy for Pilate than for the Jews, and I see how some people read anti-Semitism from it.

I was most struck by the portrayal of the Blessed Mother, maybe because I could relate to her emotions easier than I could to those of Christ. She was present with her Son every step of the way, and though the biblical accounts don't speak to such intimate involvement, I believe that the emphasis on Mary's suffering brought a dimension of humanity and reality to the narrative that could have otherwise been lacking had it been exclusively about the suffering of Jesus.

Overall, the cinematography was stunning. The use of Aramaic and Latin--though the Romans probably would have spoken Greek and communication between Romans and Jews would have also been in Greek--helped to ground the story in its particular historical period while allowing a measure of transcendence, something that is lacking in other movies about Christ where the dialogue is in English. The criticism that the film should be completely historically or biblically accurate doesn't make sense to me; artistic license allows for the expression of theological themes that otherwise could not be expressed. And perhaps that is the Catholic in me again, unafraid of the value of art to express religious depth.

Though I did not have a "religious experience," The Passion of the Christ is a very impressive film and can affect people in such ways. It illustrates the combined power of art and religion as well as the delicate balance needed between the two.