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The Passion of The Christ: The Movie Should Have Been Called “The Pietà”

Gil Bailie, teacher, lecturer, and writer, is the foremost interpreter of the work of René Girard and the author of Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads.

A few have asked if I have any thoughts on Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.” Not only have wiser observers than I have opined at great length about the film, but I am rushing to prepare talks I will be giving in North Carolina and Oklahoma next week, and whatever thoughts I have about the Gibson film will be more or less spontaneous ones. With those caveats, I suppose it does no harm to share a few impressions, for I was impressed, in ways that I had not anticipated.

First, perhaps, a word about the controversy that surrounds the film. It’s helpful to remember that In John’s Gospel controversy is forever swirling around Jesus. Over and over again, those who encountered Christ immediately started arguing over who he was and what his presence among them might mean. The hubbub about Gibson’s film is a contemporary instance of the consternation the world experiences when faced with the reality of Christ. At the very moment when secular liberalism’s hostility to Chris-tianity is becoming explicit, Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has simply brought the question, “Who do you say that I am?” a little closer to the surface. The film is by no means perfect, but Gibson has presented us with a Rorschach test for measuring our respective devotion to an increasingly intolerant form of secularism and a Christianity that is sufficiently unapologetic to be found offensive to secular dogma.

I liked the film very much, but I did have a quibble or two. The violence was too much. It was too much, not because it offended one’s sensibilities, but because it anesthetized them. Gibson obviously wanted to shock us out of our piety and complacency, and he’s to be saluted for that. But what distinguishes the crucifixion is not the unequaled physical pain Jesus suffered. Christ’s death changed the human condition forever, not because he suffered more than anyone else ever did, but because, as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” he suffered the fate of every victim everywhere. “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” He took upon himself the violence and viciousness borne of sin, conquering it once and for all, and freeing humanity from the grip of sin and death. By focusing so exclusively on the physical torture Christ endured, Gibson overlooks the true uniqueness and singularity of the Passion. The shocking thing about the cross is that it is God’s Anointed One who died on it, revealing once and for all the otherwise unimaginable truth about the depths of God’s love.

On the question of anti-Semitism, I saw no grounds for that accusation. It is refuted in many ways in the film, none more explicitly than when Simon of Cyrene is forced to help Jesus carry the cross. The brutal Roman soldier, in pressing Simon into service, shouts a contemptuous “Jew!” at him. In the very next frame, these two Jews are shouldering the cross of Christ arm-in-arm. It is an extraordinary scene, and one that shows great appreciation for the abiding link between Judaism and Christianity.

What most surprised me and moved me about this film was the role of Mary. For me, she is the heart and soul of the film. Throughout the film, Mary’s face is an oasis in the surrounding desert of violence and brutality. So central is Mary in this film, and so stunningly did Maia Morgenstern portray her, that the film might be better entitled: “The Pieta” than “The Passion.” Not only is the film’s penultimate scene Gibson’s pieta, but emotionally the entire film centers around Mary and her anguished attention to her son’s suffering. The Gospel of Mark has been described as the Passion story with a long prologue. Gibson’s Passion could be described as a cinematic Pieta spread over the course of the two hour film.

I would be tempted to register another disappointment: the depiction of Evil incarnate: the satanic figure that lurks and leers during the Passion and exults in Christ’s death. What at first made this pale, ghoulish figure troubling was the very thing that, on later reflection, redeemed it for me. Only after the film, while thinking of the centrality of Mary in it, did I realize that Gibson had substituted for an “anti-Christ” figure an “anti-Madonna” one. The demonic figure is hauntingly androgynous, but at a certain point it appears cuddling a wretched homunculus, an obvious parody of the motif of Madonna-and-child. In hind-sight, it seems appropriate to the underlying Marian theme on which the film was, for me at least, emotionally grounded.

One scene early in the film, which one reviewer called “a quite bizarre scene,” was, for me at least, an extraordinarily delightful one. It takes place in the carpenter’s shop of Jesus’ home before the beginning of his public life. I won’t ruin it for those who have not seen the film, but it depicts a relationship between Jesus and Mary that is warm and touching and convincing. Has Jesus’ humanity ever been portrayed as well as this? This scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, July-Aug. 2004