The National Catholic Review

You have to hand it to Mel Gibson. Whether his decision to screen The Passion of the Christ in advance for only a hand-picked cadre of sympathetic reviewers (mostly evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and sympathetic rabbis) was motivated by fear, money or faith, it was an excellent marketing tool. His canny strategy all but guaranteed that the mainstream media, whose interest was already piqued by charges of anti-Semitism, would be whipped into an even greater frenzy by being shut out of the in-crowd.

Mr. Gibson’s bizarre comments over the past few months raise the question of whether he was being shrewd, foolish or simply unguarded. (My guess is some combination of the second and third.) In case you’re wondering about his view of non-Catholics, you can reflect on his observation in The New Yorker that, nice as she is, his wife is probably not getting into heaven, since she’s Episcopalian. If you doubt his openness to Jewish worries about the movie, you can think about his comment that if he included in his film the infamous blood libel quote from the Gospel of Matthew, They’d [the Jews] come kill me. And if you wonder whether his attraction to Jesus goes beyond just a morbid fascination with the crucifixion and includes an interest in, say, Jesus’ message of forgiveness, you can ponder Mr. Gibson’s comments about one of his detractors: I want his intestines on a stick. So much for turning the other cheek.

But in these matters, it’s always good to remember St. Ignatius Loyola’s dictum, in the Spiritual Exercises, that every good Christian should be more eager to place a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. If Mr. Gibson says he did not intend to make an anti-Semitic film and desired only to make a compelling film that would draw moviegoers to the story of Jesus, it is better to believe him.

The finished product, however, is another story. I found the film in some places moving, in many places anti-Semitic and in most places simply repellent. (Richard A. Blake, S.J., will offer a full review in next week’s America.)

After seeing the movie a few days before it opened, it dawned on me that Mr. Gibson had made two serious errors in judgment over the past several months. First, in the public discussion surrounding the film, he has consistently overlooked the fact that, though the story of the Passion is true, it also needs to be treated carefully. After centuries of persecution, Jewish leaders have legitimate worries; and Christians who raise questions about accuracy are not simply watering down the Gospels, as he has charged.

How much better it would have been for the director to give his critics the benefit of the doubtsomething he asked them to do for him. And how much more would it have shown Mr. Gibson to be a true Christianeager to learn and even critique himself and thereby deepen his appreciation of the impact of the story he hoped to tell. For a good evangelizer not only believes in the Gospel but also knows how to present it. Sadly, a film that could have been an obvious way to invite non-Christians into the life of Christ was instead turned into a cudgel with which to beat those who disagree with its viewpoint.

Finally, with a reported $25-million budget, Mr. Gibson would have done far better to film The Life, not simply The Passion. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection are far more meaningful, and understandable, when set alongside the story of his ministry. It was the life of Christ that gave meaning to his death, and the resurrection that ultimately ratified his ministry.

By the end of the movie, I was left depressed, not only in response to the film’s graphic portrayal of the death of Christ, but over two lost opportunitiesfirst, for real dialogue, and second, for a chance to reflect not just on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, but on the years before he made his long climb up the hill at Calvary.

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

Comments

Philip C. Fischer, S.J. | 3/6/2004 - 3:31pm
Mostly disappointed with James Martin's critique (3/8) of Gibson and his "Passion," I specify only one thing. Martin says, "Mr. Gibson would have done far better to film 'The Life,' not simply 'The Passion.'" Regarding this film, I have not seen or heard of anyone mentioning Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," the 1928 silent film restored and re-released only in recent years. Of it musician Richard Einhorn ("Voices of Light") says it "makes virtually every movie critic and scholar's short list of masterpieces." The film focuses exclusively on Joan's trial and execution. Jean Cocteau said it "seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn't exist." I wish commentators would keep this silent film and its film history and its acclaim in mind while making their observations about Gibson's film. That might put their comments in better and truer perspective. I hope it would.

Lawrence Caines | 3/1/2004 - 2:48pm
I do wish that Mel Gibson would have had one of the Church's many superlative teachers of Catholic-Jewish relations advise him. Or perhaps Gibson himself should have read some of the many documents that have come from the Second Vatican Council. However, I believe Gibson when he says that he is not anti-Semitic and that he did not want the movie to be anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, I feel he should have recognized and meditated on the horrific history of anti-Semitism that has been fueled by Passion plays through the ages. In so doing, he would have perhaps emerged with greater sensitivity and sought out broader spiritual counsel.

Still, there are good things about this film. Hearing the Aramaic language is beautiful. The movie is based just as much on the Stations of the Cross and Sorrowful Myseries of the Rosary as it is on the Gospel-- this integration can be poignant for Catholics. The flashback scenes are very well thought out, in some cases showing enlightening aspects of Catholic theology-- particularly the raising of the cross during a flashback to the Last Supper.

This movie is too horrific to watch at some points, but these scenes are not what I left the theatre remembering the most vividly. This Jesus movie, unlike others, paints a more extensive picture of Mary. One of the scenes toward the end is particularly moving-- Mary holding the corpse in a pose like that of the Pieta sculpture, her eyes leave the scene and look directly into the camera, staring for an almost uncomfortable length of time into the viewers' eyes. This scene/image has been engraved in my mind since.

Joseph Kash, MD | 3/19/2004 - 7:12pm
The "professional" reviews of Mel Gibson's Passion seem so different than the individual opinions that I have heard from friends and family. My brother saw this movie on Ash Wednesday evening. He was impressed with the image of Mary in the movie. He was impressed with the way Jesus accepted the cross almost kissing it. He said that he left the movie alone but he did not feel alone. He just telling me yesterday how this Lent has been the best experience in his 50 years of life.

I contrast this example of the many opinions that I have gotten with that of Fr. Martin's. He seems to be looking for something wrong with the movie rather than finding something spiritual and redeaming. I was completely horrified in contrasting this to his recent lament about losing "Sex in the City". He did not seem to struggle to find something spiritual and redeaming in this vulger show.

What is Fr. Martin's point? I read America Magazine weekly not only for news but to help me focus on issues in a spiritual, Catholic way. I think that the America Magazine reader deserves better.

Sister Loretta, IHM | 3/11/2004 - 3:43pm
I appreciate your column on the PASSION. However, It seems to be more of a critique of Mel Gibson than it does of the film. I, too, wish he had included Christ's ministry as part of the presentation.
Joan M. Compton | 3/5/2004 - 12:33pm
After reading David Denby's savage New Yorker review of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (complete with a ghastly full page full color cartoon of Mel Gibson crucified), I was disappointed to read your dismissive comments in America. The patronizing "though the story of the Passion is true, it needs to be treated carefully," is insulting in the age of "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" and "Freddy Meets Jason." I have seen the film and I was moved to tears. What's wrong with a "chance to reflect...on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus" when He made the ultimate sacrifice of love to save us all? I agree this is not a film for preteens or younger, but it is a rewarding spiritual experience for mature viewers.

Ed Gleason | 3/4/2004 - 2:35am
Fr Martin sounds like a spokesman for the secular chattering class that has mocked the film. Fr Martin wants GIbson to have done a full life rather than a 12 hour Passion. I say get yourself 25 mil and do it yourself. I suggest having Jesus holding lambs I'm for every artist on his own bottom. A Subtitle film was brave and brilliant. Know that it was not entertainment ... it was an experience... A high priest who protested the trial of Jesus was pushed out...and by critics, never mentioned, along with Simon, identified as a Jew... so much for the anti-semitic blather.

Joe Schmidt | 2/29/2004 - 9:47pm
I saw the movie last night and was totally blow away by it.

I don't know what Mel Gibson's strategy is but as Franklin Graham, (Billy Graham's son,) said on TV the other night, "How long has it been since everyone in the country was talking about Jesus," which is really the point of the whole thing.

The Evangelical Christians are going to use this as a tool to convert thousands if not hundreds of thousands, which is what the Catholic Church should be doing instead of kowtowing to the elite media. I chatted with a couple of people from a local Protestant Church after the movie and they were going to meet back at church to plot their stategy to bring people to Christ. Christ came to save souls, not make everything smooth for everyone.

You may have forgotten the message of the Gospels.

John F. Desmond | 2/9/2007 - 10:55am
Amid all the discussion, debate, charges and countercharges about Mel Gibson’s film (3/8), one should not hesitate to state the obvious that “The Passion of the Christ” is a pornographic movie. With its obsessive “objectifying” and destruction of the body, its desacralizing of the flesh, its voyeurism, its erotics of violence and above all its suppression of the word made flesh, it becomes a lurid tale that reflects the spirit of the culture more than the Gospel of the risen Christ. In short, Gibson has made a truly hopeless film.

Robert V. Levine | 2/9/2007 - 10:49am
The clear and balanced comments on the movie “The Passion of the Christ” that have appeared in America over the past several weeks have been appreciated (3/8, 15). I find myself in the socially awkward position of not having seen the film and having neither a desire to watch it nor an intention to do so. I am thus left out of many “religious” conversations today.

Perhaps my situation arises from my understanding that there is nothing “unique” about the specific mode by which Jesus died; that tens of thousands of humans have been crucified. Yet I also recognize its centrality to our faith, and while I am not drawn to sanitized crucifixes, I have long kept a print of one of Matthias Grunewald’s “gory” crucifixions on my wall to help root me in historical reality.

Perhaps also it is my ingrained Jewish cultural unease with the history of Passion plays, which have for centuries fueled and triggered anti-Semitic prejudices and behavior. I am uncomfortable with and generally decline to participate even in the communal Gospel readings at Palm Sunday and Good Friday liturgies. Yet I recognize and appreciate the centrality of the Passion and Crucifixion to the Synoptic and Pauline traditions of our faith.

I wonder what sort of catechesis would be effective in inseparably linking the incarnation and life and teaching of Jesus with his death, and linking his resurrection and ascension with his identity and life in the minds of Christians. If the basis of much historical error is an overemphasis on one particular truth to the exclusion of the whole of truth, then despite the orthodoxy of our Catholic faith and the progress made in recent decades, we are still far from effectively communicating and transmitting that salvific truth, both within the church and to others.

Philip C. Fischer, S.J. | 3/6/2004 - 3:31pm
Mostly disappointed with James Martin's critique (3/8) of Gibson and his "Passion," I specify only one thing. Martin says, "Mr. Gibson would have done far better to film 'The Life,' not simply 'The Passion.'" Regarding this film, I have not seen or heard of anyone mentioning Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," the 1928 silent film restored and re-released only in recent years. Of it musician Richard Einhorn ("Voices of Light") says it "makes virtually every movie critic and scholar's short list of masterpieces." The film focuses exclusively on Joan's trial and execution. Jean Cocteau said it "seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn't exist." I wish commentators would keep this silent film and its film history and its acclaim in mind while making their observations about Gibson's film. That might put their comments in better and truer perspective. I hope it would.

Lawrence Caines | 3/1/2004 - 2:48pm
I do wish that Mel Gibson would have had one of the Church's many superlative teachers of Catholic-Jewish relations advise him. Or perhaps Gibson himself should have read some of the many documents that have come from the Second Vatican Council. However, I believe Gibson when he says that he is not anti-Semitic and that he did not want the movie to be anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, I feel he should have recognized and meditated on the horrific history of anti-Semitism that has been fueled by Passion plays through the ages. In so doing, he would have perhaps emerged with greater sensitivity and sought out broader spiritual counsel.

Still, there are good things about this film. Hearing the Aramaic language is beautiful. The movie is based just as much on the Stations of the Cross and Sorrowful Myseries of the Rosary as it is on the Gospel-- this integration can be poignant for Catholics. The flashback scenes are very well thought out, in some cases showing enlightening aspects of Catholic theology-- particularly the raising of the cross during a flashback to the Last Supper.

This movie is too horrific to watch at some points, but these scenes are not what I left the theatre remembering the most vividly. This Jesus movie, unlike others, paints a more extensive picture of Mary. One of the scenes toward the end is particularly moving-- Mary holding the corpse in a pose like that of the Pieta sculpture, her eyes leave the scene and look directly into the camera, staring for an almost uncomfortable length of time into the viewers' eyes. This scene/image has been engraved in my mind since.

Joseph Kash, MD | 3/19/2004 - 7:12pm
The "professional" reviews of Mel Gibson's Passion seem so different than the individual opinions that I have heard from friends and family. My brother saw this movie on Ash Wednesday evening. He was impressed with the image of Mary in the movie. He was impressed with the way Jesus accepted the cross almost kissing it. He said that he left the movie alone but he did not feel alone. He just telling me yesterday how this Lent has been the best experience in his 50 years of life.

I contrast this example of the many opinions that I have gotten with that of Fr. Martin's. He seems to be looking for something wrong with the movie rather than finding something spiritual and redeaming. I was completely horrified in contrasting this to his recent lament about losing "Sex in the City". He did not seem to struggle to find something spiritual and redeaming in this vulger show.

What is Fr. Martin's point? I read America Magazine weekly not only for news but to help me focus on issues in a spiritual, Catholic way. I think that the America Magazine reader deserves better.

Sister Loretta, IHM | 3/11/2004 - 3:43pm
I appreciate your column on the PASSION. However, It seems to be more of a critique of Mel Gibson than it does of the film. I, too, wish he had included Christ's ministry as part of the presentation.
Joan M. Compton | 3/5/2004 - 12:33pm
After reading David Denby's savage New Yorker review of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (complete with a ghastly full page full color cartoon of Mel Gibson crucified), I was disappointed to read your dismissive comments in America. The patronizing "though the story of the Passion is true, it needs to be treated carefully," is insulting in the age of "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" and "Freddy Meets Jason." I have seen the film and I was moved to tears. What's wrong with a "chance to reflect...on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus" when He made the ultimate sacrifice of love to save us all? I agree this is not a film for preteens or younger, but it is a rewarding spiritual experience for mature viewers.

Ed Gleason | 3/4/2004 - 2:35am
Fr Martin sounds like a spokesman for the secular chattering class that has mocked the film. Fr Martin wants GIbson to have done a full life rather than a 12 hour Passion. I say get yourself 25 mil and do it yourself. I suggest having Jesus holding lambs I'm for every artist on his own bottom. A Subtitle film was brave and brilliant. Know that it was not entertainment ... it was an experience... A high priest who protested the trial of Jesus was pushed out...and by critics, never mentioned, along with Simon, identified as a Jew... so much for the anti-semitic blather.

Joe Schmidt | 2/29/2004 - 9:47pm
I saw the movie last night and was totally blow away by it.

I don't know what Mel Gibson's strategy is but as Franklin Graham, (Billy Graham's son,) said on TV the other night, "How long has it been since everyone in the country was talking about Jesus," which is really the point of the whole thing.

The Evangelical Christians are going to use this as a tool to convert thousands if not hundreds of thousands, which is what the Catholic Church should be doing instead of kowtowing to the elite media. I chatted with a couple of people from a local Protestant Church after the movie and they were going to meet back at church to plot their stategy to bring people to Christ. Christ came to save souls, not make everything smooth for everyone.

You may have forgotten the message of the Gospels.

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