It Is As It Wasn't - My Take On The Passion of the Christ
I just got back from viewing The Passion of the Christ.
I was under whelmed, to say the least.
On the positive side, I very much enjoyed listening to spoken Aramaic. That much of the movie rang true to the times. Unfortunately, not much else did.
Mel took liberties with the scriptures. Some of these liberties could very well be construed as anti-Semitic.
Among the most glaring (and disturbing) to me (and I'm surprised that none of the many reviewers I've read have commented on this) is the scene where Judas is approached by a cute, curly-headed Jewish boy who then morphs into an accusing demonic figure and is subsequently joined by other curly-headed Jewish kids, likewise morphed into demonic figures, who then all join together like a pack of hyenas to hound Judas to his self-inflicted death.
Curly-headed at-first-cherubic-then-demonic Jewish kids used to give a visual for the internal demons hounding Judas into commiting suicide? There's nothing very anti-Semitic about that, now, is there? < /sarcasm >
That scene was just wrong on so many levels. But it wasn't the only one.
Inaccuracies and a general obliviousness to the Torah-steeped world of the Jews he was trying to depict are evident throughout. Some are quite jarring, at least to me. Here's a short list:
- Satan speaking words to Jesus in the garden. It never happened. According to the gospel accounts, there was indeed an angel present with Jesus in the garden, but it was an angel of God there to give Jesus strength; it was not Satan.
- Jesus crushing the snake sent out to him by Satan. Nice metaphor, but it never actually happened.
- A general melee between the disciples, Jesus, and the Temple guards. This never happened either. Only Peter lashed out. No other disciple did, for Jesus rebuked them quickly. Only the servant Melchus was struck. No other blows were exchanged. In fact, the scriptures tell us that, when Jesus formally identified himself, the delegation from the High Priest "drew back and fell to the ground". But such evidence of inner-conflicted-ness about their mission and demonstrated awe and respect towards Jesus would not have been consistent with Mel's preferred depiction of the Jewish Temple guards as a bunch of frenzied, sadistic apes. Is that why Mel omitted it?
- Jesus' subsequent beating by the Temple guards and his "bungee jump" from the bridge (only with chains instead of a bungee cord). Not only did it never happen, but this scene is an over-the-top only-in-Hollywood howler. Again it portrays the Jewish Temple delegation as a bunch of frenzied, sadistic apes. Anti-Semitic, much? You bet, especially since, according to the Gospels, Jesus was not struck by a Temple guard until AFTER he was sentenced to death for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin. Big difference, don’t you think? And so begins a disturbing trend that continues throughout the movie: Mel takes Jesus' afflictions way beyond what is recorded, as if what really happened was insufficient for atonement. Maybe it's a Catholic thing to think that Jesus' sufferings on the way to the cross had to be something unusually callous and cruel. Just your everyday, run of the mill callousness and cruelty won't do, apparently. So, Mel embellishes. Much. And in so doing, makes a mockery of the real, live, flesh and blood, historical event.
- Peter beset by a frenzied mob denies Jesus thrice. Only it didn't happen that way. Peter was not beset by a frenzied mob. His first two denials were in response to the quiet queries of a servant girl; his third, in response to a query by an unnamed man. Peter was at no time in any immediate physical danger. No howling mob extracted his denials by intimidation, as Mel depicted. Peter in reality had far less cause to deny Jesus, which made his denials all the more soul-searing. And they didn't happen in rapid succession, but were separated by spans of time. So, why did Mel take such liberties with scripture? One can only conclude that it was to continue his characterization of non-or-not-yet-believing Jews as frenzied mobs out for innocent blood.
- The Sanhedrin as emotional lynch mob. That's the way Mel depicted it. But it just doesn't ring true to me. These were learned men. The elites of their society. Mobs act like mobs out of insecurity. But these men were nothing if not secure. They had all the power in their world and they intended to keep it. Moreover, they were well-practiced in the exercise of it. We know how powerful and learned men behave when exercising their authority. They rarely raise their voices. There's no need to, especially to mere subjects. A cool, confident, and calculating calm would to me seem their more likely posture. Unflappable. In total control. Exuding their authority. And I have no doubt that many in that assembly were pious men who genuinely thought Jesus guilty of blasphemy and who condemned him with the purest of motives, believing they were acting in defense of their people and their Torah as they understood it, as well as in defense of their own personal power and privilege. That's why Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." But such a complex, multi-diminsional portrayal wouldn't provide for yet another cartoonishly evil caricature of Jews, now, would it?
- Pilate's wife, the believer. Nowhere in the gospels is Pilate's wife said to be a believer. All we know of her is that she cautioned her husband "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." That's it. It is extremely unlikely that the wife of a Roman Governor would have been a follower of Jesus at that point in time -- before his crucifixion, before his resurrection, before his ascension, and before the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentacost. The first Gentile believer is revealed in Acts to be Cornelius, and he was accepted by Peter into the fold a good ten years after the events of this movie. It was not Claudia, the wife of Pilate. Moreover, had she truly been a believer at that time, she wouldn't have told her husband what she did, for had he followed her advice, Jesus would not have fulfilled all that had been prophesied of him.
- More frenzied, sadistic apes, but this time, dressed up as Romans. It would seem that to Mel, it is not evil enough merely to do an evil deed; one must also be cartoonishly over-the-top evil in the doing of it. So, we have the Roman goons, not so different from the Jewish Temple guard goons, more like rabid monkeys than men, taking great delight in flogging and then flaying Jesus with a cat-o-nine-tails into a bloody pulp. But such cartoonish buffoonery is not an evil one can take very seriously. It's not real. It's entirely too one-diminsional. Real human beings are far more complex than that. And, yes, even the Roman soldiers enforcing the edicts of their Governor were real human beings. How much more chilling would it have been had they been portrayed more like what they were: ruthlessly efficient military professionals just routinely following orders, doing their daily duty to maintain order within an empire, like an ancient version of the American troops presently attempting the same hard job in Iraq? That would have had a much more powerful resonance. The cackling cartoonish monkeys wielding the whip in Mel's movie are mere caricatures of evil in comparison.
- The flogging and flaying of Jesus into a bloody pulp. Did this really happen? All the Gospels say is: "Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged." That's it. Whipping Jesus into a blood-spattered pulp of scarred flesh -- front, back, and sides, looking more like 180 pounds of ground up hamburger meat than the still living body of a man -- that was Mel's idea. Did it happen that way? Is it even physically possible? Could a man survive long enough to make it to the cross after such a scourging? I seriously doubt it.
- Pilate's wife giving Mary the first century version of a roll of Bounty paper towels. It never happened.
- Mary soaking up Jesus' blood pooled and splattered all around the flogging post (so much blood, it's a wonder Jesus had any blood left). This never happened either. The fetishism regarding Jesus’ blood imputed to Mary in this scene must be a Catholic thing. I seriously doubt that Mary, Torah-obedient Jew that she was, would have engaged in such weirdness. There’s certainly no record of it (or even a hint of it) in the Gospels.
- Jesus carries a full-blown crucifix-style cross (ahistorical, but oh-so-affirming of the Catholic crucifix archetype), while the two thieves carry only the cross piece (historical). At least Mel got it two-thirds right. But that only made the blunder of Jesus' crucifix-style cross-carrying stand out all the more.
- Jesus whipped and beaten some more (by the same frenzied, sadistic apes that whipped him before) while carrying the cross to Golgotha. There's no mention of this in the Gospels, but what does that matter? This is art, right? < /sarcasm >
- Flashback to Jesus as carpenter sharing a laugh with his mother, Mary. It's not scriptural either, but unscriptural depictions of a mother and her son in a light-hearted moment are a much welcome break from unscriptural depictions of sadistic gore.
- An unknown women wipes Jesus' bloodied face and offers him water, which the apes naturally knock away before he can drink it. No mention of this in scripture either, but it sure makes for good drama. I can't get enough of frenzied, sadistic apes acting all frenzied and sadistic, can you?
- Flashback to the Last Supper, where Jesus and disciples are shown supping on LEAVENED (looks like pita) bread. No Torah-keeping Jew would touch that bread with a ten foot pole during Passover week. Jesus and his disciples, Torah-keeping Jews that they were, certainly didn't...and wouldn't.
- Holding fast to uninformed notions from the Middle Ages, as opposed to evidence from archeology and history, Mel nails Jesus to the cross through the palms of his hands, instead of through the bones where the hand and wrist join, as it was actually done.
- The Roman apes flip and drop a now cross-nailed Christ over, slamming his bloody pulp face-first into the dirt as they pound nails into his special full crucifix-style cross from the rear (for reasons known only to masochistic Mel). Then, for good measure, they flip and drop him back on his back. Needless to say, this never happened.
- Three men crucified together by the Romans; one's a bloody pulp, but the other two hang there virtually unscathed! Where were the frenzied, sadistic Roman apes when the two thieves were being processed for crucifixion? On a coffee break? How come Jesus got such special treatment, flogging-wise and cross-wise? In Mel's Catholic vision, Jesus got a special crucifix-style cross different from the other two and he also got punished with much, much more cruelty and outright sadism than the other two. That's obviously because, to these Roman goons, Jesus was a special case, much more deserving of the maximum level of cruelty they could dish out than two Jewish thieves. Do you buy that? I don't.
- The Roman apes rip Jesus' clothes to shreds. This expressly violates scripture. But, why follow scripture? It's much more dramatic the other way, right?
- A crow lands on the unbelieving thief's cross and pecks his eye out while he's still alive. Yet more over-the-top unscriptural sadistic cruelty from masochistic Mel, only this time, instead of frenzied, sadistic apes in Jewish or Roman garb being the perpetrators, it’s implied that God himself is through the agency of an eye-pecking crow. This may be the most offensive scene in the movie because it impugns the very character of God by imputing to the divine the same kind of gratuitous sadism we've already seen way too much of at this point in Mel's movie. One can only wonder why Mel didn't direct the crow to peck out Jesus' eye too, since he rarely misses an opportunity to gratuitously add to his chastisements beyond what the scriptures themselves relate.
- When a Roman ape pierces Jesus' side to confirm that he's dead, a veritable fountain of blood and water sprays out and all over all concerned, but all over the spear-wielding Roman goon especially. This was a very weird and unreal special effect. Even weirder, the Roman ape is suddenly and mystically transformed into a contemplative, reflective human being by this bizarre shower of bodily fluids. This must be another weird Catholic thing. But, need I add, it didn't happen like that. The scriptures do not imply ANYWHERE that some mystical transformative experience comes from being showered by Jesus' bodily fluids.
- Not only was the veil of the temple rent when the earth shook (that misbegotten set was supposed to be the Temple built by Herod, right?) but it looked like the entire edifice was split asunder, so much so that chunks of rock were falling all about the Priest's heads. That didn't happen. Herod's Temple stood in all its glory for another 40 years. It was not destroyed (or even damaged) on the day Jesus was crucified.
- Finally, the resurrection scene, featuring that naggingly ahistorical (and now special-effects enhanced) nail hole in the palm of his hand. Ugh. It's as flat a note to end this clinker on as any.
As a Christian, I value truth. And the truth is this movie of Mel's is not a true account of Christ's passion. Every time it deviates from the Gospels, not only is it not true, but it's often just plain weird. And, at times, it's anti-Semitic to boot.
That Christians generally have uncritically embraced this deeply flawed and sometimes disturbingly weird movie is indicative to me of a kind of desperation. Are we so needful of affirmation from the society at large that we'll embrace any cultural work that purports to be Christian no matter how fast and loose it plays with our most sacred texts? I was girded by a lifetime of study of these texts to reject what is false in this movie. But how many will come away from this film thinking it an accurate portrayal when it is not? How many will come away with an indelible image of Jewish children as demonic hounds of hell imprinted on their mind believing that that's actually in the Gospels? That that's what Christianity is all about?
It's no small thing to play fast and loose with the word of God. Unfortunately, Mel has done so. So now, it's up to every Christian to point this out and set the Gospel record straight.