Wednesday, April 21, 2004


I had meant to have this online much earlier, but had "lost" it for awhile. Having seen the movie twice now, and having the benefit of almost two months perspective, I still stand behind my initial review.

Until tonight, I thought I had seen the most powerful movies the big screen had to offer. Movies like Schindler's List, The English Patient, Dances With Wolves, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But nothing done before, and quite possible after, can ever compare with the marriage of cinematography, musical scoring, acting and storytelling I bore witness to this evening. Others who know more on this subject than I may not agree with my attempts here, but I did my best.

What began a few years ago as an internet rumor about a little film about the greatest story ever told has become a very real and very major motion picture. Perhaps the only reason it received notice over two years ago was because of the name attached to it: Mel Gibson.

I wanted to sit down in the quiet of my office downstairs and type out a few thoughts on this movie before I attempt to go to sleep. Was the movie worth all of the waiting, the hype, and the controversy? In one word, a resounding "yes!"

I guess the only way I can approach this is by addressing the "controversies" one at a time and debunking them once and for all.

The movie is anti-Semitic.
This is utter nonsense. If the movie is, so are the Gospels. This was attempt #1 to get people to stay away from this movie by critics. It is utterly false. Others have dispelled this notion better than I can, so I won't go much further into it except as to say that I saw no such notion in the film. Remember, except for the Romans, every character is a devout Jew. And there are Jewish heroes besides the main players such as Simon (who helps Jesus carry his cross) and Veronica, who wipes his bloodied face when he fell along the way.

The movie is too gory.
This is when the critics turned into cartoon caricatures of themselves. Too gory? This from those who glamorize as "gritty and edgy" such movies as Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill? Please.

Do not misunderstand me. This is a very violent film. But here's a news flash for everyone: the flagellation, beating and crucifixion of Christ was a bloody affair. Growing up a Protestant in various churches, I had no idea about the brutality of crucifixion as the messages of love, charity and of course the Resurrection were the main focus. And rightly so. But I have to ask: if you do not suffer, work hard, or struggle to achieve something, does it really mean as much to you afterwards? Does working hard, and saving your money to buy that house or that car make it all the sweeter when you close the sale and take ownership?

Perhaps that's a poor analogy, but my point is this: if we as Christians do not understand the true nature and horror of all that Christ suffered for us, do we appreciate it as much? Are we as thankful? Or do we gloss it over and speak only in empty platitudes to make ourselves feel good when talking about His resurrection, etc.?

The best example I can think of to show that most critics do not have a basic understanding of why Christ died is the critic who wrote that "no man could have endured all that Gibson's Jesus did before being nailed to the cross...he would have expired long before. All this violence left me feeling empty and is totally meaningless." No, the violence perpetrated by the Nazi's against the Jews as dramatized in Schindler's List was empty and meaningless. And the critic is right: no MAN could have survived as long.

This was a hard thing for me to grasp upon my conversion to Catholicism eleven Easter's ago. I, like many critics, thought that there was too much emphasis on suffering and not enough on the ultimate victory. But I have discovered over time how necessary one is in order to have the fullness of the other.

A brief note: I was better prepared for this movie by watching a superb one-man drama of The Passion put on each Easter by a former parishioner at St. John's, Doug Barry. In a few hours of lighting, music and the power of his acting, Doug gives you a glimpse into the horror of Roman flagellation and crucifixion. I think it was because I shed so many tears at his performances that I did not at Mel Gibson's movie. In case you wish to know more (and please forgive the advertisement) click here.

Mel Gibson did this to make money.
Andy Rooney, in a most contemptible, and sad really, "commentary" recently ended it by asking "Mr. Gibson, just how much money ARE you going to make off of the death of Christ?"

An equally as offensive question would be: "Mr. Spielberg, just how much money are you going to make off of the horrors of Auschwitz?"

Get my point? Steven Spielberg made his movie because he had a passion for getting the word out of what happened during that horrible period of history. Is that not what Mel Gibson is doing as well?

Mr. Rooney, and those who agree with him, are grasping at straws. What are they afraid of?

No man could have absorbed all this punishment before being crucified.
I addressed this a little earlier, but also wished to touch on the focus of the film. This movie is about the final twelve hours of Jesus' life on earth. It is not about the Sermon on the Mount (although it is briefly alluded to), his miracles or teachings. Again, I've read too many reviews of people who want only films about his "message of love, peace and understanding." What greater love IS THERE than to lay down your life for those you love? Now, do it for all of humanity. Get the picture?

The movie is out of context and confusing. The focus is all on the suffering.
I will admit that this movie is easier to follow if the viewer has a basic understanding of the Gospels, as well as Jesus' life and ministry beforehand. But once again, I feel this complaint is a red herring by those who don't understand it.

The subtitles make it hard to follow.
While the language of the movie is spoken in languages of Jesus' time, the subtitles work seamlessly, and I believe help to make the experience more authentic. After a few minutes you do not even notice them. Again, a basic familiarity with the Gospels helps.

In the end, we bear witness to the suffering and death of Jesus through the eyes of many, but most effectively those of Mary, Mary Magdalene, the apostle John, Pilate's wife Claudia, and a Roman soldier named Abenader.

While it's true that this is a combination of the Gospels, the writings of German mystic and nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, and Mel Gibson's artistic vision, it is incredibly well done and very powerful. When I cried the most were the times that Jesus made eye contact with those he loved as he suffered: with Peter after being denied three times, with Mary as she runs to him when he falls carrying his cross to Golgotha, and numerous other moments. I felt as if those eyes were looking right into my own.

My wife Janell made the observation as we were driving home that the whipping and beating of Jesus was so hard to take because she "realized that each stripe was applied by me. By all of us." It was that reality, as well as the interplay between Jesus and his mother that were most emotional for me, particularly in one "flashback" scene added by Gibson that is perhaps the most emotionally powerful visual in the entire movie.

One other point I will make. This movie is steeped in symbolism. I will never look at the Mass the same. Or the Stations of the Cross. Or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. It is there for all to see, from the ripping of his linens with a flashback to the unwrapping of bread before the Last Supper; and to the flashback of his raising the bread in prayer during the Last Supper interspersed with his body, nailed to the cross, being raised and set into place.

This movie was superbly made, cast, and filmed. Quite honestly, Jim Caviezel deserves an Oscar for his portrayal of Jesus, but even more so Mia Morgenstern in her role of Mary. And the role of satan, played by Rosalina Celentano was incredibly effective.

I went to the movie thinking it was one I would only see once, and certainly never own on DVD. But I will see this again in the theatre and will own the DVD. If nothing else as to serve as a reminder for me...of what Christ went through so that I may have what I have. And it is my hope that it serves to remind me to be a better human being. In the end, isn't that what we are all striving for?

Two of the better reviews are here and here. Why? Because they "get it".


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