Are You Passionate?

[Editor’s note: as always, the opinions expressed by Joe Moser, my contributor at large, are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Olive Press … boilerplate boilerplate … As with his previous piece, this review covers something I haven’t seen, so I’m in no position to concur or critique. In this installment, Joe breaks from his series on “Growing Up in Our 20s” to review a movie about Jesus that you may or may not have heard about.]

OK, so Mel Gibson’s pappy is nutty as a fruitcake, and the man himself has some considerable shortcomings. Anyone who strives to be more Catholic than the Pope probably could use a couple months in the Betty Ford Clinic. Does that mean we shouldn’t see his movie? Neil LaBute is a devout Mormon, and I still think In the Company of Men is an incredible film. Roman Polanski is a statutory rapist, and I’m still a huge fan. Bob Crane was a sexaholic pornographer, yet Hogan’s Heroes remains one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Michael Jackson is a pedophile, and I still worship the man . . . but I’m afraid that’s going too far. Everyone has to draw the line somewhere. Thus, if your political differences with Mel Gibson prevent you from enduring the long lines at the local cinema to see The Passion of the Christ, I can’t blame you. Let he who is without grudges cast the first stone.

This film has effectively polarized critics, with reactions ranging from superlative praise to abject repulsion. For what it’s worth, count me among the admirers, not the haters.

Is the movie as violent as you’ve heard? Yes and no. It’s incredibly graphic and gory, but Gibson does show some restraint, particularly in cutting away from the horrifying torture sequence to show Mary’s reaction, as Jesus is being literally beat to a pulp. If you can sit through those scenes (about midway through the film), then you’ve endured the worst of it. Contrary to the statements of some critics, the violence is not “relentless” or “sadistic”–Gibson lets his audience, not to mention Jesus, have a few welcome respites along the way to Calvary. Whatever one might say about it, the violence is absolutely necessary to the purpose of the film, which I see as dramatizing the incomprehensible humanity of Jesus in the face of atrocious cruelty. When the Roman soldiers are pounding in the nails, and he says, “Father, forgive them,” we know he means it. Gibson makes this point emphatically clear in cutting from the scene of the crucifixion to a flashback of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus exhorts his followers to “love” and “pray for” their enemies.

Is the film anti-Semitic? Many of the not so admirable people in the film are Jews, including Judas and Caiphus, but since all the sympathetic characters are Jews, including Mary, Peter and Jesus himself, I think not. Those looking for messages of hatred in the film can undoubtedly find them, though, just as people have been using the Bible as the foundation of their bigotry and hatred for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, in this film, Jesus is a man of peace–he speaks, sweats and bleeds nothing but peace–and that’s what the film brought home to me, even though I’m not much the churchly type. Thus, if people are looking for a message of love and humanity in the film, they are bound to find it.

As I sat in the theater this past weekend, though, I couldn’t help but become a little cynical as I listened to some college-age people behind me complain about how many times Jesus collapses as he bears his cross up the hill. Indeed, he falls a lot, but so would anyone who had just been beat within an inch of his life and then forced to carry his own cumbersome instrument of death. I kept thinking of the Woody Guthrie song, “Jesus Christ” that ends with these lines:

This song was written in New York City,
Of rich man, preacher and slave,
But if Jesus was to preach like He preached in Galilee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in His grave.

Unfortunately, most people are no more receptive to a message of peace now than they were 2000 years ago.