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Mel Gibson’s Passion - 2004-05-05

Blockbuster films tend to be entertaining if not exactly thought-provoking. The idea is not to demand too much of an audience. But a major cinema hit today is quite the opposite. It subjects viewers to over two hours of barely relieved agony as Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity, is beaten and reviled on his way to a gruesome death. But in that agony viewers, Christian or not, have found a compelling message of faith and endurance. VOA’s Ed Warner reports on The Passion of the Christ and the reaction to it.

Jesus of Nazareth suffered for our sins, says the Christian New Testament, and suffer he does in the remarkable film conceived and directed by Hollywood actor Mel Gibson, who has proved as adventurous in real life as the characters he portrays on screen.

With his project turned down by major Hollywood studios where Christian themes are not supposed to sell, he financed The Passion of the Christ with $30 million of his own, taking a chance that has paid off handsomely. The film has made more than $360 million so far.

Profits aside, it has accomplished what Mr. Gibson hoped for and beyond that. Viewers say it has brought the last days of Jesus to vivid life in all their agony and exaltation. It has energized Christians who have seen it and led to conversions. There are reports that after viewing the film, people have confessed to crimes they committed. Such is the power on occasion of cinematic art.

The film follows the text of the New Testament, blow by blow as it were, not sparing the viewer any more than Jesus was spared. For those who complain of the violence, Mr. Gibson says that is the point. Jesus embodies the suffering of humankind then and now. Watch what he endures on the way to crucifixion and note how man deals with man. The film is meant to provoke.

And to give hope. That can be seen on memorably tragic faces and finally with the removal of the burial stone and a resurrected Jesus emerging – an ending as believable as the horrors that have preceded it. Do your worst, the film seems to say, and I will rise again. That message resonates beyond the borders of Christendom, where Muslims too may identify with such suffering and the possibility of redemption.

Viewers have emerged silent, stunned, in tears. Newspaper columnist Armstrong Williams was one of them: “And as I left with the tears streaming down my face and had the comfort of seeing others who were also weeping, I realized, hey, I was not alone. There were so many other people weeping, clapping, praying that I realized they had some of the thoughts I had. And I started thinking how can I live more like the man who suffered and died for my sins.”

Director Mel Gibson explains what the film means to him. “I focused on the Passion because I found it healing for me,” he says, “because like most of us you get to a point in your life when you are pretty wounded by everything that goes on around you, by your transgressions and other peoples’. Life is a kind of scarring thing. If wounded in life, I use the wounds of Jesus to heal myself, and it works.”

Still, many viewers are forced to cover their eyes at times. Jesus is repeatedly lashed until he is drenched in blood, and at his crucifixion, the pain of the nails in his flesh is all too real.

Is this much violence necessary? ask some viewers. Newspaper columnist and essayist Joe Sobran writes that The Passion is the first film to convey the full horror of the Crucifixion. Mr. Gibson “chose to abandon the conventional decorum of Christian art and imagine the crucifixion with all its blood, agony and humiliation.”

“For centuries we have seen lots of pious art,” Mr. Sobran says, “some more graphic than others but little of it conveying what a crucifixion really was. So we have lost the meaning of the word really, and in the first century that was not the case. If you told somebody in the Roman era that somebody had been crucified, he would shudder. Now to us, crucifixion has lost its force, and people rarely understand what a really horrible torture it was and was meant to be. This movie brought it back.”

Mel Gibson says it was the splendor of Jesus to transcend that pain. “Jesus’ death and crucifixion was not a pretty sight,” he says. “I want people to understand the reality of the story. I want them to be taken through an experience. I want them to feel this is the ultimate hero story for all mankind. He suffered, died, and he still won.”

As a Roman Catholic altar boy, film critic Roger Ebert says he was encouraged to meditate on Christ’s suffering, and this he did without much of a spiritual experience. “What Gibson has provided me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of – a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion.”

The film has also stirred fears of anti-Semitism since, as the Gospels relate, a Jewish gathering demanded the crucifixion of Jesus. The film is faithful to the St. Matthew text, including famously the line: ”His blood be on us and on our children.” Some Jewish groups denounced the movie even before seeing it. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind told a rally: “This film is dangerous for Jews all over the world. I am concerned that it would lead to violence against Jews.”

There are, in fact, no reports of such violence. Though the Jewish high priests and elders in the film are a scheming lot, they hardly compare to the brutal Roman soldiers who have great sport torturing Jesus. And only the Romans could order the crucifixion. There is plenty of blame to go around is the message of Christianity: we are all guilty to some extent.

A truly haunting face flows through the film. It belongs to Maia Morgenstern, a devout Jew who portrays Mary, Mother of Jesus. Her family suffered in the Holocaust, but she detects no sign of anti-Semitism in her film. When Jesus is arrested, she whispers: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That is a question asked at the Jewish Passover celebration of Seder. The addition was approved by Gibson.

Considering The Passion’s box office success, say observers, Christian themes may become more popular in Hollywood. Paul Lauer, director of marketing of Gibson’s films, thinks producers may soon be saying: “Somebody get me a Jesus picture.”

Culture critic and radio talk show host Michael Medved, who is Jewish, says the film is “by a wide margin, the most artistically satisfying treatment of a Biblical story that has ever been put on film. I think it is going to change people’s lives. I think it is going to inspire them. But I don’t think there is going to be any anti-Semitic backlash based upon the film.”

Critic Roger Ebert concludes that “the filmmaker has put his artistry and fortune at the service of his conviction and belief, and that doesn’t happen often.”