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Mel Gibson's Passion Play

Peter C. Bouteneff

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As is virtually inevitable in a cinematic depiction of Christ's passion, "The Passion of the Christ," lends itself to some skewed interpretations of the events surrounding Christ's death, and their meaning for us and for our salvation. These have been listed ably elsewhere, particularly by Fr Thomas Hopko in his essay.

As problematic as these are, society and culture continually show us that good can come even from theologically flawed expressions. Last fall I taught a class on religious themes in film. Virtually none of the movies we explored, which were as varied as "Dead Man Walking," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Babette's Feast," and "Minority Report," would have gotten an "A" in an Orthodox dogmatics class. But each served an important purpose, whether they inspired their audiences with the meaning of human service and sacrifice, bothered them with questions of theodicy, or provoked meaningful discussion on foreknowledge and predestination. These films emanate from a variety of sensibilities, some Christian and some not, and orthodoxy is not something we would expect from them.

We are naturally more attuned to the theology of explicitly Christian movies, especially those that depict aspects of the life of Christ, of which many exist. Mel Gibson's "Passion" fits within an established tradition of "Jesus movies," and contributes to it. Indeed, the tradition of "mystery plays" or "passion plays," where villagers would re-enact Christ's passion, long antedates the Jesus movies.

But depicting or acting out episodes from the gospels is a risky endeavor. Any cinematic depiction of a gospel, or of some artificial amalgam of the four gospels, is putting a seal on a particular interpretation of how things happened and why. It is implanting images in our minds which may or may not be in accordance with The Gospel - the meaning of Christ's incarnation and especially of his life-giving death on the cross.

Generally one is safer when treating a single gospel, respecting the integrity of one evangelist's vision. This is one of the reasons why perhaps the most successful Jesus movie ever made was Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to Matthew." This 1965 release, directed in black-and-white by a non-believer, is at least faithful to the gospel text. There is not a word in it that is not from St Matthew's gospel. For this reason, as well as because of its cinematic style, the film has an iconic character, a transparency to it that leaves the viewer free to interact with it, at least more so than with other Jesus movies that seem constantly to be interpreting the events.

Mel Gibson, a pious Roman Catholic believer, would have been more honest if he hadn't promised that his film was true to the gospels. The film draws heavily on the gospel accounts, but also upon the visions of two 18th-19th century Roman-Catholic nuns. He adds words, events, and imagery which serve to enshrine particular interpretations of the combined gospels' passion narratives. As no reviewer has failed to notice, he adds a great deal of violence and blood.

How one takes these additions and interpretations depends on one's background and disposition. As to the violence, viewers have offered several explanations: brutal violence is necessary to get your average 21st-century filmgoer's attention; the violence depicted in the film was nothing more than what would have come to any 1st-century reader's mind on encountering the simple scriptural words "scourged" and "crucified." I'm not convinced by these justifications. Yet the violence of the scourging, and the endless road to Golgotha, conveyed something very specific to me, and did so in a way for which I am grateful. It spoke to me of Jesus' total clarity of vision concerning himself and his mission. By the time of his trial and passion, he knew without a single doubt that he was the messiah, and that the messiah needed to die voluntarily in order to despoil death once for all. Neither the scourging, nor the weight of the cross, nor the sadistic hatred on the part of those whom he loves, none of this will slow him on his way. And because he loves, and so fully understands what is happening and what must happen, there is not a trace of bitterness for his persecutors.

These are not new revelations or insights from the gospels, but they were conveyed, at least to one viewer, in a clear and fresh way. There is no guarantee that the violence, or other aspects of the film won't be taken in a wrong way. A misguided piety has already provoked some viewers to a docetist position, saying that he could endure all these beatings because he is the divine Son of God, and not fully human.

Yet in a time when the top five grossing films were "The Passion of the Christ," "50 First Dates," "Twisted," "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," and "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," one has to feel a certain gratitude that we had something of substance to engage with.

Indeed, one has to bring reasonable expectations to the movies. It would be hard to imagine a cinematic depiction of Christ's perfect fulfillment of the vocations of prophecy, priesthood, and kingship, or of his two unconfused and unchanged natures, wills, and energies. For all of its flaws, and in some ways because of them, this film has managed at least to bring people to think in some way about Jesus Christ, and at most to convey some fresh insights on His passion. Until the world becomes Orthodox, we take what we can get from popular culture.

Peter C Bouteneff is Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

Read this article on the St.Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary website (link closed). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 3/9/04

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