I was in one of those massive Cineplexes the first weekend after The Passion of Christ opened, but not to see the movie. My husband and I enjoy going out together once a week to see films, and while they are not always light or funny — in fact, rarely — they are not supposed to be work.
Going to see the latest biblical blockbuster felt like work to me. So, we decided on Fifty First Dates, a highly entertaining comedy with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. But it was, and is, impossible to go to a movie theater right now that is not showing The Passion.
Winter and early spring are not ordinarily times when big movies, and this is a HUGE movie, in terms of money-making, come out — this time after the Oscars have been won and the dreadful leftovers are released. It grossed $43 million its first week of showing and over $200 million by the end of the second, if not the highest, one of the highest box office takes of all time. So the prospect of a windfall seems to have convinced even some small art film houses, like the one near us, which co-billed The Passion and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to go Hollywood.
Perhaps because The Passion looks like a foreign film, with its subtitles in Aramaic and Latin.
So, no matter what movie we chose to see on our faithful Friday late-matinee date, we would be in what turned out to be a House of Worship, instead of a movie house. This was evident even before we went through the ticket stile, in fact, as soon as we pulled into the parking lot.
There were several large vans from local churches, and lots of cars with religious bumper stickers and dangling Jesuses. When we got up to the box office, there was a sign posted indicating that, in the eight theaters that were showing The Passion, there would be no previews.
And when we walked past the concession stand, there was no one in line.
No previews. No popcorn. It instantly reminded me of one of my previous vocations, when movie-going was never a date night. When I was a paid film reviewer and critic, and the only time I saw a film was weekday mornings, and the only places were small, smoke-filled screening rooms.
No popcorn then and there, and it was serious business. Even spaghetti westerns and screwball comedies. We would file in with our pen lights and our narrow-lined notebooks and stare at the screen. Deadpan. Not laughing or crying, not groaning or cheering. One was not to give away his or her reaction to what was being shown for fear of influencing one another on our verdicts.
And after the credits were run, we filed back out into the harsh light, not going for coffee to talk about the movie, just back to our own desks to render our opinions.
For that, despite our pretense otherwise, sometimes, was what they were — our individual responses. On a given day. There were always some people in the room whose words reached more people and who could have an impact on the success or failure or a movie locally, but rarely. And few of us had any space or time to do much more than do a quick thumbs up or thumbs down, a little description of the plot, the characters, the performances, the direction, the cinematography.
A review, meant to signal potential viewers about whether it was worth plunking down the cash for tickets. Not world changing. It was write about this one and on to the next, sometimes two or three in the same day.
After all, we had to remind ourselves once in a while, they were only movies.
Even if they were based on Bible stories, or depicted events that are now thought of as part of biblical history.
A.O. Scott, an arts reporter for the New York Times, pointed out even before The Passion came out, that fifty years ago, movies about religious events, far from being the most controversial or weighty Hollywood offerings, were among the least. They were not meant to be sectarian or conversionary. Just large, extravagant, and enticing, to woo former moviegoers away from the small screen televisions that were killing the industry. Meant to attract wide, interdenominational audiences, Mr. Scott observed. Not meant to be taken as sacred text.
Movies like Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, and what he describes as George Steven’s all star Sunday school pageant, The Greatest Story Ever Told. In which, Mr. Scott tells us, Jesus, played by Max Von Sydow, wanders through a Holy Land that resembles a showbiz talk show.
While they might have been used in church classrooms and in youth Bible camps to teach and move people, they were not designed to be tools for conversion. They might have been sold as Bible stories, but they were pure Hollywood fantasy.
These motion pictures didn’t send reviewers running to books of biblical commentary, or text proofing (looking to see if the dialogue and events were actually in the Hebrew Bible or Christian scriptures). Or, in the case now of The Passion, to panels of religious experts and theologians for their counsel and wisdom. Or, at least, not so publicly. After all, most reviewers, and the large majority of the public, either saw these films as big-screen stories or, perhaps, scriptural interpretations, not scripture itself.
The Passion is certainly not the first movie that has caused controversy, even religious controversy. Previous screenwriters and directors have used the medium to express their worldviews, and used biblical stories, including Gospel stories, as the vehicle. Movies like the much maligned and also much awarded The Last Temptation of Christ, by Martin Scorcese, to which The Passion is now being compared.
Many Christian leaders were outraged in 1988 by this movie, based — not on the actual scriptures — but on a book by a religiously struggling Dutch Reform novelist, and directed by Scorcese, a struggling contemporary Roman Catholic. It is obviously a loose interpretation of the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. A midrash, in religious terms, which takes scripture and then recreates it.
This movie envisioned Jesus as very human, very tortured, in fact, a carpenter who makes the crosses upon which his fellow Jews died, who confronts temptation after temptation, most in the form of seductive females.
Even though it was clearly not scriptural, in the sense that the characters and dialogue were constructed by contemporary men, there was a large and, in many ways, successful movement to condemn the movie and ban it from being shown.
The similarity between Martin Scorcese’s personal Gospel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, is that they both knew — and desired — to stir up some passion around religious issues. The difference, and the dangerous difference, in my view, is that Scorcese knew, and most of those who saw his movie assumed, that it was a human creation.
In the case of Mr. Gibson and his biblical blockbuster, from the beginning, his movie has been spun and sold as divinely inspired Holy Writ.
Gibson has declared that his work was the product of the Holy Spirit, and much of the publicity, pre and post, has been centered around “The Truth,” in his movie. The way things were. The way things are. The final word. And that is what disturbs, even frightens, me.
The panel discussion I attended on the movie was not an interfaith one. There were no Rabbis or Imams, and the audience was strictly Christian, a smattering of seminary students on their lunch hour. The discussion was lively, and there were some wonderful insights, for example, on why The Passion would capture the attention of black audiences, for example, because the brutal beating of Jesus and sham trial would resonate with the reality of the “Beat-Down,” police violence on the streets against innocent victims.
Some of the speakers, well-respected academics, did make comments on the singular Gospel according to Gibson — the difference between his obsessive focus on the sadistic, savage scourging and whipping of Jesus during the last 12 hours of his life, “two minutes in physical suffering in the Gospels” as one person noted, turned into the central event. What happened to the rest of the narrative: the teachings and travels, the miracles and healings, that lead up to Good Friday? And what happened to the Resurrection? To any sense of redemption?
And where was the back story, they asked: the political climate and culture that also gives us perspective?
And another identified Gibson’s Christ story as being meshed text — that is, a conglomeration of scripture from all four major Gospel stories and letters, and then, other lines and incidents that are nowhere to be found. I kept wanting to talk back to the screen, he admitted, and say: That didn’t happen.
These well-read and thoughtful men and women moved quickly past the issue of whether Gibson’s Passion is the literal truth. Of course not, they said. In fact, they seemed to be more interested in having my old job — straight film reviewing, noticing the lack of dialogue, the cartoon nature, albeit dark, of most of the characters, and the gross improbabilities. Such as how Jesus could have possibly stayed alive and coherent on the cross after all that torture: endless kicking and pummeling, being crushed by the cross and falling over a bridge along the way. And the technical inconsistencies — like the chains around him, which were obviously of present day construction. How unbelievable and distracting. How lame.
I could have been right in there with them, arguing whether it was really a completely inept and tedious movie, as one of the scholars proclaimed, or whether, as I thought, when I did go see it, that there was just enough visual beauty, engaging cinematography, and even a few nicely realized characters: Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene and some of the other women, ironically, that it could not be so easily dismissed.
But, as much as they insisted and presumed that The Passion is really just another movie, just a movie at all, I could not go there with them. Could not be so easily reassured that the majority of people who will see it, or who won’t see it but will be exposed to it second and third hand, will keep that in mind.
The problem, the scariness, to me, is not so much the movie, which is, after all, only a movie.
It’s the way it has been packaged and is being sold. The way it was released on Ash Wednesday and billed as the lead off to Lent. The way, as the International Catholic Weekly described, church networks block-booked multiplex screens, 2,000 at the outset, to view, as it were, the last 12 hours of Christ’s life. The bringing of buses full of parishioners to screenings where the minister or priest conducts them in. Where previews are forbidden, where the movie house is turned into a Christian House of Worship.
Not the way I saw it, midweek, with just a few other viewers, with their bags of popcorn and their sodas, with the traditional ten minutes of upcoming movies — including one starring the actor who plays Jesus in The Passion, only this time he is the savior of a small midwest town, winning a speedboat race. These signs and symbols that reminded us that this was and is, just one movie made by one man and his own story of what has been sold as the Greatest Story Ever Told.
What I am afraid of is that too few people will be made aware, or even allowed to research on their own, Mel Gibson’s back story and his own relationship to the Christian story. The fact that he was born into a strict Catholic family, where his father has spent more than 30 years arguing against, organizing against, the conciliatory reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Hating the conversion from Latin mass to native languages, and other reforms, including the statement — nearly 2,000 years coming, that Jews as a people were not at fault for the killing of Christ. Gibson’s father Hutton published documents calling the Council a “Jewish Masonic” plot and has been active among those seeking to greatly downplay, even deny, The Holocaust.
Gibson has not denied his father’s worldview: his reactionary Catholicism, his disavowal of church reforms, including the efforts to be in right relationship with both Judaism and the Jewish people. Including efforts to take extra care in presenting and packaging The Passion Story, even if it means striking language that has been used to indict and punish Jews throughout church history.
The one line of scripture in the Gospel of Matthew, and the tone of the entire Gospel of John, that the blood of Christ’s death will be on the hands of the Jewish people: the depiction of Jews as cruel, capricious killers of an innocent man, has not been harmless.
It has been the stuff of slaughter, rape, and genocide, often following other Passions, the Passion Plays that have been presented this time of year, the Lenten season, since the Middle Ages.
In these plays, where the Jews mock, arrest, and then kill Christ, even despite the reluctance of the benign Pontius Pilate, who offer them a real criminal, Barabbas, and they demand that Jesus be crucified, were meant to stir up and have effectively stirred up — not love and compassion, not hope or reconciliation, but hate. Hate that has nowhere to go but towards vengeance and retribution. These plays that were and are plays, but are viewed as the Truth, this movie that is a movie, even without popcorn and previews, but is once again being sold as Gospel, have a life of their own.
In this Lenten season, may we be righteously afraid for those who may be once again targeted.
And speak our truth, that there is no truth being shown.
Only a dangerous religion.