Sunday, March 07, 2004

The Pivot on which all history turns

Today, I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. Before today, I read many editorials and reviews, and saw several of Gibson's televised interviews about the film.

Before getting into my own thoughts, let's leave the charges of anti-Semitism aside; I believe that fears of the film inciting violence against Jews should be fading now, since it has done over $200Million at the box office, and there hasn't been a single incident that has been linked to a recent viewing of the movie, as far as I know -- and I'm very confident that had there been so much as an insult hurled across a schoolyard, we'd have heard about it, all day, all the time, with an "I told you so!" air about it.

But, no, not yet, and not ever, at least until someone who's already not right in the head takes it upon himself to do something stupid. So we can leave that issue, and move on to discuss the main criticism I've heard, which seems to be that Mel Gibson didn't make the movie that all the critics wanted him to make.

Gibson focused on the last 12 hours of Christ's life: His Passion, the suffering He endured for our salvation. None of the mainstream critics understand this. They say it's out of context, or misguided, or just plain incomprehensible, to focus the film so narrowly. Why not spend more time on Christ's ministry and teachings?

Gibson himself has answered that question on numerous occasions, saying, basically, he made the movie he wanted to make. And if that raises the question, "Why?" in people's minds, then perhaps they would be inspired to pick up The Book and find out for themselves.

I don't have any trouble at all in understanding Gibson's decision regarding the content of this film: the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the single most important event in all of human history. It is the pivot on which all history turns.

Whether or not you believe in Christ, there is no denying the impact His life, death, and resurrection have had on human history. But of those three, the defining moment was surely His death.

Had Christ not been crucified, would we even now remember His name? Would His teachings, so radical then and so commonplace now, ever have endured, and spread, and taken firm hold in the world? And what of the Resurrection? Without Christ's sacrifice, there would have been no Resurrection... nothing to talk about.

Before I continue, a little about me. I am a practicing Catholic now. At one point, I was a "cradle Catholic", born into a Catholic family and raised a Catholic. When I was a teenager, I rejected the Church entirely. Later, I converted to Judaism when I was married to a Jewish man. Sometimes, I still pray the schma:

Schma, Israel, Adonai elohenu, Adonei ehud!

(excuse misspellings, my Hebrew was never that great) -- "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One." There's more, but I can't remember it now, and besides, that one line? Says it all. That's the basis for all the beliefs of Judaism, and Christianity, too. I learned a lot during that time.

Later still, that marriage disintegrated and left me profoundly questioning everything, and that's when I went back to the Catholic Church, maybe because it was comfortable, because it felt like "home" after having been away and isolated for so long.

But I didn't just walk back in blindly. I had been through too much and went back only after a lot of thought. I weighed everything carefully through the seive of my experiences and I saw that Catholicism and its beliefs fit me very well indeed. This is not to say I agree with everything the Church says or does (now that's a scary thought) -- the Church, being staffed by humans, has screwed up royally throughout a lot of history, but I don't condemn the faith for the faults of its followers. (That would lead to a whole baby-bathwater situation, never a good thing.)

There is, of course, the whole issue of birth control, which has very interesting political history and will someday, I have faith, get straightened out. I don't want to digress too much further into this subject, but I also want to mention that everyone, including -- or especially -- Catholics, is responsible for his own formation of conscience (begin with paragraph 1783, and go from there), and our consciences of course dictate our actions. Nobody gets a free pass.

OK, now, having said all that, I went to see The Passion knowing the story very well indeed. Yet, from all the criticisms of lack of context and exclusive focus on gore and violence, I was surprised by how much Christ's teachings were actually included in the film, and by how often the director cut away from the actual violence to focus on the effects it was having on the then-present witnesses.

Here are examples of Jesus's ministry that were included in the film: the sermon in which He preached "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you;" the incident in which He saved Mary Magdalene from death by stoning (the "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" line was not uttered, but it didn't need to be -- it was clear: He drew the line in the sand, and all the bystanders dropped their rocks and turned away, and then Mary Magdalene reached out to Him); washing the disciples' feet and several other scenes from the Last Supper, including His commandment to "Love one another as I have loved you," and His prayers over the bread and wine. Also, and most importantly, the "No greater love is there than for a man to lay down his life for his friends" speech. (bad paraphrasing, sorry)

Given this list, it seems to me as if Gibson hit the high points, as it were. What, exactly, did these critics want to see included that was left out? What was Christ's message? Love. Forgiveness. And sacrifice. Were the critics peeved that The Beautitudes were left on the cutting room floor, or that the loaves and fishes party trick didn't make it, either?

Those are nice stories with worthy morals, but in light of this film's subject matter, irrelevant. Gibson had a lot of material to work with, and I find no fault with his executive decisions on what to leave in and what to take out.

I was surprised, too, by the astonishing quality of the acting. The entire movie is in subtitles, so my brain was always a little ahead of the dialog. But now I remember Caviezel crying out on the cross "Forgive them! they know not... they know not..." My brain has substituted in the English, maintaining Caviezel's anguished tone. And so it goes.

But so much of this film is told without dialog at all. Peter's terror when Jesus is first caught and the crowd in the courtyard is roughing him up, his frantic denials, his shame; all are conveyed in just a few lines. Mona Morgenstern's Mary is brilliant in her grief, her eyes reflecting every mother's pain upon witnessing the horrors visited upon her child. John, Jesus's dear friend, was perhaps the weakest of the supporting cast, easily eclipsed by the outstanding Simon, pressed into service to carry the cross when Jesus could no longer do so.

Simon understood his fundamental task was to deliver Jesus, still alive, to Golgotha. It was obvious that, without help, Jesus would have died upon the Via Dolorosa, given the thoroughness with which the Romans had scourged him. Without Simon, there could be no crucifixion. In the space of an hour, he is transformed from an unwilling porter into an instrument of God's Will. His tiny encouragements, "Nearly there, nearly there," were heart-breaking.

The Roman guards, too, impressed me as an outstanding ensemble. At first they were mindless thugs, although they did have the decency to look troubled when they were told they were not supposed to beat Christ to death, just rough him up a bit. Then, the mockery with the crown of thorns and the purple robe; then, their relentless stupidity as they continued to beat The Man every time He fell -- as if that would somehow help Him get up. It was obvious that these guys lived very much on the surface and never let a thought sink in very far -- until the moment of Christ's death.

Even before that moment, Cassius's face was a study in conflict: fear, and hope, and awe. When Cassius speared Christ's side to insure that He was, indeed, dead, the scene played to me as Cassius's baptism. The reverence in his eyes and his entire demeanor conveyed his wordless conversion.

I could write about still more things: the portrayal of Satan, Caviezel's eyes -- those eyes! -- the soundtrack, the cinematography, but already, I've written so much. Maybe I can come away with all these powerful images and impressions of terrific performances only because I know the story so well? Or is it because I wanted to see the film in a positive light, I'm purposely missing it's faults?

That's entirely possible. I first read my good friend Walter Chaw's review at FilmFreakCentral, and my friend Curtis Edmonds' review at Texas Reviews before I had had a chance to see the film. I tried to keep their specific criticisms in mind as I watched the movie. I wondered if I would agree with them when I finally got to see it.

The sensibilities I brought to this film are very different from those of my friends, and I have come away with a very different opinion. I did not find this film strange, nor terrifying, nor revelling in violence for the sake of violence. Now, having seen it, I feel I have a better understanding of what Christ's sacrifice was really like. Certainly, elements of this film may have been exaggerated, but I'm just as certain that this version is a lot closer to historical accuracy than the spiffy-clean Jesus we always imagine, standing before Herod and Pilate, being judged and condemned.

This movie helped me understand, down in my bones, what He did for us, for me. This deeper comprehension calls to mind a similar moment of clarity for me: Christmas of 1996, I was eight months pregnant with my first child, a boy. At Mass, I was struggling to get up from kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer. I was awkward, I was uncomfortable; the baby was riding low and there wasn't really anything I could do to get comfortable, the kneeling had made my lower back ache.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself when it struck me, how would I have withstood the trip from Galilee to Bethlehem, on a donkey, so pregnant? Mary did it. When my son was born, I had no anesthesia, and a relatively easy labor with a nice quick delivery. In a hospital, with doctors and nurses and plenty of experienced people around to help me -- I had some idea what to do, since I read so much, but reading is not experience. I was fine. Would I have been fine, giving birth in a stable with only the animals there for warmth? Mary was.

As a mother, I understand Mary, and the physical sacrifices she made in bearing Jesus. I could not fathom how profound her faith was, to bear a child, knowing what His fate would be. Gibson's film reveals to us all her faith, her love, and the love Her Son had for all of us.