September 19, 2020

Two Reviews of The Passion

Two Reviews of The Passion

I’ve devoted a remarkable amount of space to The Passion, and it’s time to bring some closure to that chapter by posting two brief reviews of the movie. Please read them both, and thanks to all of you who have read my reviews of other “Jesus movies” and sent along notes of encouragement.

Review #2: “For me, who Him to death pursued…”

One of the marks of the uniqueness of The Passion is the fact that so many people have blogged their personal reaction separate from their review of the film. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important one for me is that this movie concerns the core beliefs of my life. Everything about me that I carry about in my life and will hold on to in my dying is conveyed in this film. Unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen, I am totally, personally involved with the story, and of course, with the main character. Many other Christians apparently have similar feelings.

For that reason, a personal reaction needs to be separated from a review. Bias isn’t the right word to describe what I mean. The word has to be something like “conviction.” I am convinced that the events pictured in The Passion are the defining events of all human history. No matter what happens anywhere, anytime that shapes our world, what happened in those 12 hours matters more. This isn’t an argument, or even an opinion like other opinions that I feel strongly about. This is a conviction. An anchor. A definition of truth for me, and for millions of others.

I am not a “crier” in movies. I can tear up at a sentimental scene, and I can get choked up as well. But for me to weep in a theater is unthinkable. Particularly when I have spent months blogging, reading and researching the film. I knew what was coming at every turn. Yet, I was deeply and emotionally moved by the film. Not so much by the cinema, as by the connections made with my own life and experience.

This is the Jesus to whom I’ve entrusted my life. This is the Jesus I’ve raised my children to believe in. It’s the Jesus I told my father to trust as he declined and died. It’s the Jesus I preach about and offer every week. I Peter says that we do not see him, yet we love him, and that is true. When Mel Gibson is able, through film, to connect me to this person for two hours, I am going to be emotional.

As I have blogged in this space and elsewhere, Jesus movies are a hobby of mine. Only in rare instances do those movies cause me to feel genuine emotion. When the shepherds kneel before the baby in Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” in The Gospel of John. But in this film I cried often.

Not at the violence. The beating of Jesus was a part of the movie I had researched extensively, and I believe Gibson exaggerated it beyond what we can know. (In fact, showing the soldiers going beyond their orders to beat/whip Jesus 80+ times was a flaw.) What moved me were two things:

I was deeply moved by the forgiveness Jesus showed to his tormenters. This wasn’t just a mumbled line, it was an intense embracing of the very meaning of grace. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus repeated words of forgiveness and mercy for those killing him stands in start contrast to human nature on so many levels, from the way we treat one another in ordinary relationships, to the violence in the Madrid subways.

I was also deeply affected by the clear intention of Jesus to embrace this death as our salvation. From the beginning to the end of the film, and many times throughout, Gibson again and again gives us opportunity to see a Christ embracing the cross, and fully aware that by his death, he makes “all things new.” That Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him, despising the shame..,” was a deeply personal encounter with the love of God for the likes of me.

Charles Wesley said, “… Died He for me, who caused His pain–for me, who Him to death pursued?” In The Passion, I deeply felt the truth of those words.

I am 47 years old. Old enough to have done many things that I regret. Most of my sins are the stale sins of our American culture. I can easily forgive myself for them, and I do not struggle with the forgiveness of God. This is wrong, because all sin is rebellion against God’s goodness and holiness, and all sin is part of why Jesus suffered and died. But that is the truth.

Of course, there are many sins that I cannot overlook, and that I know are wrong. I have confessed them, and I believe God has forgiven me for Christ’s sake. I can preach that Christ forgives sinners, and I know the truth of what I am saying.

Yet, in those 47 years, there is one sin- one season of sin really- that has escaped any kind of forgiveness. It was premeditated through years of wrong thoughts and actions. It hurt me, and those I love. It was the sort of sin the Bible points out as being heinous and life-ruining. I once knew the mental gymnastics to believe I could excuse myself from it, but I am past that now. I know it for what it is: the very worst thing I have ever done. My lowest, most wretched human moment.

And I have never been able to walk out of a church and feel that this matter was done. It followed me and taunted me over months and years. I never felt that God had forgiven me, even if I said I believed it. Maybe because the repercussions of this sin continue even today. Maybe because my conscience is outraged on a delayed schedule. Maybe because Satan is an accuser. I don’t know, but I have never felt forgiven for the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Until last Tuesday. When the stripes that healed me were repeatedly in my eyes and ears. Till the blood that covered my sin was lying in pools for me to see. Until the body of Jesus, broken for me, was whipped and nailed and pulled apart before me. Until I saw Jesus enduring what I should endure, and then saying “It is accomplished.” I cried. And I left that theater like I was leaving the most sacred church in all Christendom. Forgiven.

The Passion is a strong and provocative piece of art. It is offensive and controversial. At this moment, I don’t know if I will ever see it again. It doesn’t matter. For a few moments, the art of Mel Gibson made the Gospel blessedly real to me. As a soldier knelt there, showered in blood and water, I thought “That is me. My sin. My wretched choice. His innocence. His blood. My forgiveness.”

What anyone else may have thought or experienced doesn’t matter as much to me as that moment. Why didn’t I find this same forgiveness in some sermon or book? I don’t know. Why am I so hard, that it takes this brutalizing film to bring home to me the simple message of substitution and atonement? I do not know.

My personal reaction to The Passion isn’t an attempt to say it is flawless or anointed or that you should see it. All I can say is that for a few moments, the artist allowed me into that place where Christ’s suffering, and my sin could meet. And I could leave forgiven.

(Here’s my previous review of the film. Not quite as personal 🙂

Two Reviews of The Passion

Two Reviews of The Passion

I’ve devoted a remarkable amount of space to The Passion, and it’s time to bring some closure to that chapter by posting two brief reviews of the movie. Please read them both, and thanks to all of you who have read my reviews of other “Jesus movies” and sent along notes of encouragement.

*Minor Spoilers*

Review #1: The Passion: Prayer, Cinema and The Haunting of the World

The Passion is a cinematic Eucharistic meditation that focuses on the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. In that sense, it is an unusual film to review as cinema, as it doesn’t particularly play by the rules, and really isn’t looking to entertain. My son found The Passion boring in many places, and I can easily see why he thought so. Gibson’s view of events is almost microscopic at times, and where most movies spend considerable time on character development and action, The Passion passes by many things with the assumption of familiarity, in order to take long and unblinking looks at things we know were part of the story, but we rarely consider in any depth.

Jim Caviezel dominates the film, as he should, and brings a distinctive vision of Jesus to the screen, one that is a long needed healthy corrective. Though physically probably too tall for the role, Gibson wanted Caviezel’s charisma and presence to convey the manliness of Jesus in a film where the brave and willing endurance of evil would be the central focus. The flashback sequences build a semi-complete picture of Jesus, but I can think of many other flashbacks that could have aided in Gibson’s cause. In these days of three hour plus epics, another 40 minutes could have been well used to bring us the many precursors of the Passion that are present in the Gospel accounts from the very beginning.

As far as casting goes, Gibson hit solidly every time he came to the plate. Maia Morgenstern’s Mary probably does more for Protestant understanding of Catholic views of Mary than centuries of art and apologetics. Riveted on Jesus throughout his sufferings, Mary is intimately aware of what is happening. At key points, it is her eyes locked upon Jesus that gives him the strength to go on. Her devotion to him- and his sufferings- is the primary way the viewer experiences the movie. It is powerful, human and deeply spiritual.

Hristo Shopov’s rendering of a pragmatic and torn Pilate has been faulted by some as soft in comparison to the historical Pilate, but I was pleased to see that Gibson placed the historical reasons for Pilate’s reluctance to kill Jesus plainly in front of the audience. While the Jewish religious leaders have reasons to hate Jesus, the Romans do not, and Pilate has been twice warned by the Emperor to control the explosive situation in Judea. Gibson takes some artistic license in presenting Pilate’s wife (Claudia Gerini) as a secret follower of Jesus, but this creates an even more plausible influence on Pilate to show restraint.

Accusations of anti-Semitism, which sounded misplaced to me before viewing the film, now sound completely bizarre. I did not leave the theater with a thought of what any Jew did to Jesus. But if a Roman soldier had been in the parking lot, I can’t say what I might have said. The soldiers in The Passion are sadistic, cruel, beasts. Their brutal destruction of Jesus drags you into a desire for vengeance, only to be confronted by Jesus’ own repeated pleading words of forgiveness. It is an effective use of the director’s art, and by the time the film has taken Jesus all the way to the crucifixion, you are as exhausted of the cruelty of the soldiers as you are of the physical abuse of Jesus himself. All the more reason to be shocked again when a soldier is showered in the blood and water from Jesus side, and kneels in guilty submission.

I was especially impressed with the weaving of various themes of The Passion together. When John comes bursting into Mary’s home to announce the arrest of Jesus, she asks the first question of the Passover Seder: “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” It’s this sort of interweaving of Biblical themes that will make the movie enjoyable to those Christians who might be tempted to judge Gibson harshly for creative departures from the Bible.

But it is in the use of the Last Supper as the commentary on the crucifixion that Gibson is particularly brilliant. As flashback after flashback goes back to the night before, and the words of Jesus in instituting the Lord’s Supper are given a visually stunning meaning, the viewer is repeatedly compelled to see that these events are not random, but part of something universal in scope, yet highly personal in meaning. As one person said, “As my body shook, as the tears flowed, as certain as the ugliness of my sin, the horror of His suffering, there was the joy of His forgiveness, and the giddy dread of His presence. I didn’t want it to end. My only comfort is that I can do it all again. Next Lord’s Day: The Table of the Christ.”

The taunts of anti-Semitism were, as expected, pointless. The Religious leaders were reacting exactly as the Bible portrays them in all four Gospels, and in accordance with what we would expect at the time. Yes, they are angry. Yes, they are insistent on Jesus’ death. And everything we know about the Sadducees is in accord with this portrayal. Of course, it is a very Jewish- but not black- Simon of Cyrene who becomes a co-sufferer with Jesus, and apparently, a believer. There are Jewish leaders who protest the treatment of Jesus. But primarily, there is the constant awareness that it is a spiritual struggle, not a political one, that is carrying Jesus to his death.

If I were looking for anti-Semitism, I could try to find it in the presence of Satan among the religious leaders or in the destruction of the temple in an earthquake. But it’s simply not there. Satan is present throughout the movie, taunting Jesus and testing his resolve. The destruction of the temple says what it should say: Jesus has done something that all religions fail to do, as is apparent from not only the temple itself, but the blind ambition and arrogance of the religious leaders themselves.

I can criticize the movie for a number of Hollywood touches- particularly in the demonic special effects department- but this is a language today’s filmgoers understand, and it is put to good use without over use. The resurrection, while welcome, seemed too short. The movie should have explored the devastation of the disciples post-crucifixion. Good Friday is about the darkness that falls on the disciples after all is over and they are left with nothing.

I could also say that the film’s flashbacks were not as carefully written and executed as the central story. The sermon on the mount was poorly staged, and the invention of the modern kitchen table and chairs by Jesus was unlikely. Herod was pointless. Mary Magdalen was not the woman in John 8. But these are quibbles over details. The film was magnificent.

The Passion is Gibson’s visual prayer for our conversion. Offered in the context of the Eucharist, Gibson wants us to be Christ-haunted as we leave the theater. He wants the images of Jesus’ suffering to haunt us, but he really wants to haunt us with the love of Christ embracing the cross, forgiving his enemies, and finishing the work of forgiveness for all of us. It remains to be seen how the non-Christian world sees this movie. Perhaps it will be confusing, or perhaps it will spark healthy curiosity. But no one who sees The Passion will ever think about these events the same way again. Gibson’s prayer is compelling art, with a vision that burns itself into your consciousness, and will not leave you unaffected.

Next: My Personal Reaction to The Passion