At this time of year, as Christians worldwide are focusing on the passion—the suffering and death—of Jesus, there is a perennial resurgence of interest in films on the life of Christ. Of course, in recent years, The Passion of the Christ has risen to the top of a short list of such films as a favorite for many people. Since its release in 2004, it has incited intense emotion—from pastors urging their congregations to the theaters in droves, from critics assailing the film as defamatory and from film-goers moved to either tears and life-changing decisions or disgust and anger by a theatrical experience. Seven years after its theatrical debut (seven is a good Biblical number, right?), I thought I might return to The Passion of the Christ and ask how one film can wear so many faces.
When I first heard that Mel Gibson was making a new movie about Jesus, I was incredulous. Yes, my mom had read it in the newspaper, but so many things get printed in newspapers about movies that never materialize. I thought this was surely a rumor, misinformation, even a hoax. But, of course, Gibson did make that film and in no time its figure loomed large in the genre of Jesus films and the culture at large.
It was infamous almost from the beginning. A big Hollywood movie about Jesus was coming. Would it portray him in a positive light? Was Mel Gibson a Christian? Should Christians see the film? Then came the news that the film was actually independent and was to be shot in Aramaic and Latin, followed early accusations of Antisemitism, reports of extreme violence, church screenings, endorsements from Christian leaders, and debates on TV. It unfolded like a national drama, like the OJ trial or a presidential election. No matter how early in its theatrical run you saw the film, its reputation preceded it.
But, now that the presses have run, the DVDs are in the clearance bin and Mel Gibson’s drunken, rage-filled reputation has once again overshadowed his artistic brilliance, what are we left with? What is the film’s message, its legacy, apart from the media tumult? Does it, can it have one?
I’ve made films on the life of Christ an area of personal study for 20 years. I’ve explored over a century’s worth of film history to learn as much as I can about this curious little sub-genre. As you can imagine, I was therefore in the theatre for The Passion of the Christ as fast as I could get a ticket. I saw it theatrically three times and have seen it numerous times since. I’ve read essays, listened to commentaries, read books and have learned and continue to learn all I can about the film. And I have an answer for you:
It’s up to you.
I know that may sound like a cop-out, but it’s also my honest assessment. The film’s message depends a great deal on who is watching. Of course, that’s true with every movie. But somehow, The Passion of the Christ seems particularly able to evoke strong and specific responses in its viewers. And I believe that openness to interpretation is inherent in the film’s structure, perhaps more so than most films of this genre, because of one essential fact: Gibson, for all his dramatic abilities as an actor and director, is still an action movie guy.
That’s not an insult, by the way. Many people see action films as unthinking, vacuous and unintelligent. It is this thinking that has helped make the word “muscle-headed” one of the most overused in the film critic’s lexicon—implying that a film is all brawn and no brains. Often, unfortunately, this critique is ably earned. But action films don’t have to be mindless; in fact, they can make powerful statements. What most people don’t realize, though, is that they communicate in a different cinematic language than we’re often used to. They use action—what the characters do—far more than dialogue to convey character development. They are highly symbolic and, in the best hands, great cinema. The same is true of horror films.
Gibson understands this and employs the “showing rather than telling” method in most of his films. The Passion of the Christ is no different. Watch the first 25 minutes sometime and ask yourself what this film looks more like stylistically: A Biblical epic…or a horror movie? There are as many scares in the first several scenes of Passion as there are in most films of that genre. The tools of the horror trade are in full effect—cold, shadowy lighting, startling cuts, still moments punctuated by wide eyes and strong vocalizations interrupting the quiet, the demon lurking in the dark, the mysterious hum of the unknown.
It’s just one arrangement of the many kinetic, visceral, action-oriented tools Gibson uses throughout the film. From deep, resonant bass tones added to sound effects to quick cuts between flesh being ripped from Christ’s back, Mary gasping back tears and Roman soldiers’ faces spritzed with blood, Gibson doesn’t want to fill our heads with theology—he wants to hit us in the gut.
Action movies and horror films do this. They speak in the language of human instinct and ask us to respond to quick cuts and striking physical feats, changes in film speed and dynamic camera angles in basic, human ways. We are meant to experience a collection of autonomic responses—increased heart rate, adrenaline production, changes in breathing patterns—that inform the way we think and feel about the story and its characters. So, why would Gibson choose these tools with which to make a film about Christ?
Perhaps it is because they allow the film to speak in symbols, in actions and images that can be imbued with very deep, personal meaning by audiences. In this way, it can create a response that is very specific to each viewer. Perhaps Gibson also knows—whether instinctively or with specific, calculated forethought—that this kind of filmmaking puts the audience in a state of active response, that it demands even on a physiological level that we do something. He seems to want to compel us beyond emotion into an active state of mind that will confront us with the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ and ask us, “Now what?” demanding, daring us to respond.
So, that’s my recommendation. Put yourself in the position to respond. The film is an intense experience; it needs to be a valuable one. If we allow ourselves to have that gut-level response, we can then begin to think seriously about what God might be asking us to do with that experience. This process is different for everyone, but it is almost universally powerful. Why? For the reasons I’ve listed above and also because, for all its faults, this film focuses deeply and at length on Jesus—not just his life or teachings, but the arduous process of his sacrifice. That’s powerful—because he is powerful. If we connect with nothing else through The Passion of the Christ or any other Jesus film, we should connect with that.
This article was the basis for my forthcoming paper, “Rescuing The Passion of the Christ: Viewing an Action/Horror Film About Jesus on its Own Terms.” Get the paper, read more of my thoughts on Jesus films or book me to speak at your church, school or event at www.JesusFilms101.com