As part of my Holy Week preparation, I subjected myself to viewing again, Mel Gibson’s film “That Passion of the Christ.” It is not a pleasant experience.
Twelve years ago, when Gibson’s film first rocked the entertainment and theological worlds, I wrote a review which may never have appeared in public. So, my slightly contrarian opinion of Gibson’s film is posted here:
The list of charges against Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” has grown since its first release. Movie critics, theologians and cultural commentators clamour to dismiss this film. Even its supporters hurry to protect their credibility by qualifying their support with a few jabs to prove their credibility.
Most of the criticisms of this film arise from a misunderstanding of what appears to be the director’s intention.
Gibson’s film is not a theological treatise on the doctrine of the atonement, nor does it aim to fan the flames of anti-Semitic hatred and violence. And, as much as Gibson has attempted to honour the history of his story’s setting, his film is not a history textbook.
Mel Gibson’s film is a poetic meditation on the horror of violence and the power of gentleness and love. Gibson has given us a picture of the human condition and a glimmer of hope in the midst of the darkness that characterizes so much of life.
This film is not about Jews. It is not about Romans. The film is about human beings. Human beings do terrible things. Human beings behave violently. People in positions of power who feel threatened will go to terrible lengths to protect their position. Violence once unleashed can take on staggering proportions.
Visit Haiti. Travel to Iraq or the Middle East. Live for a while in the midst of the devastation of so much of the continent of Africa. Spend time in the dark underbelly of the drug world that lurks beneath the surface of polite civilized Western society.
Yes there is a lot of blood in Gibson’s film. But, I’m pretty sure Roman flagellation and crucifixion were not tidy affairs.
Gibson’s greatest crime is that he holds up unflinchingly for our consideration the violence, the unforgiveness, the resentment, and the viciousness that lurk around the edges of our own lives. He asks us to stare relentlessly at the dark possibilities that dwell within all human beings. And this we do not want to do. We do not want to believe that humans are capable of such evil. We do not want to believe that moving silently and relentlessly at the edge of the crowd is the possibility of an evil darkness.
Unwilling to face the darkness Gibson portrays, we are unable to perceive the gentleness scattered throughout his film.
“The Passion of the Christ” demonstrates the central message of the life of its central character. Jesus taught and embodied the truth that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Gibson’s film challenges us to face the fundamental question – Do we believe that the darkness and the horror that are a real part of life and of our own hearts is the final reality or is there something more? Gibson, without shame and without apology, announces his conviction that at the heart of the human condition lies the power of forgiveness, the triumph of love, and the truth of light that transcends all powers of evil and darkness.
But the truth of Gibson’s message can only be known by those willing to acknowledge the horror. There is no short cut around the pain, no way to Easter that does not pass through Good Friday.
As much as we might prefer a candy-coated message, the cross at the centre of this film and at the heart of Christian faith, refuses to allow us to escape from the realities of life. We must not look away. We must not pretend that life is not as it is. Our refusal to see the darkness, blinds us to the light.
The light does shine in this film. Again and again, the light rises to the surface. And ultimately, if we are willing to stay with the film and to acknowledge the awful brutality, the light does triumph.
The final vision is a vision of hope. It may not be a vision that we can easily understand, or fit into our tidy little rational boxes. It is a vision that can only be known as we open ourselves in the depths of our being to the vulnerability and love that are at the heart of this film and at the core of the universe.
Perhaps the upset caused by Gibson’s film is that what the director has really given us is a sermon. And, like all good sermons, this one requires of its audience some kind of response. The response Gibson seems to hope for is that our hearts might open to the shards of light which shine through the overwhelming brutality. He hopes that some faith might be stirred in our depths that there is a power of love and forgiveness that the realities of violence and hatred cannot undo.
It may be one more sign of the tragic hardness of the human heart that we seem so to miss this message of light and hope.
When Gibson’s “Passion” first appeared Roger Ebert gave a remarkably insightful and balanced review which can still be read here: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-passion-of-the-christ-2004