Like most other US Christians, in 2004 I saw The Passion of the Christ in the theater. I was dismissive of it, saw its depiction of Christ’s suffering as purely physical, was bored by the storytelling, troubled by the portrayal of Satan by a female actor, and I know I called its violence pornographic. In the ten years since, I’ve avoided several screenings organized by churches during Lent.
Then, a week ago, on Good Friday, I streamed it on Netflix. And I thought it was great.
The Passion of the Christ is a very strange film, because it is one in which you have to know the story beforehand in order to understand what is happening. I cannot think of a another case where I would praise a film adaptation of a book that worked that way. Imagine, for instance, a film adaptation of Macbeth, but only Acts Four and Five are covered, with a few references to past scenes thrown in, which you assume are meaningful to the people who know the story, but which are meaningless to you as the viewer.
Rotten Tomatoes (recording a 49% from All Critics and 80% from Audience) summarizes the critical response: “The graphic details of Jesus’ torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey.” That’s right: the graphic details make a story which is difficult to follow and unclear in its purpose even more difficult to follow and even less clear in its purpose.
While that represents the mainstream of critical responses, another strong trend of criticism (mainly among Christians who mostly liked the movie) lamented that while the movie was supposedly dedicated to showing every gruesome detail with historical accuracy, it failed at some points. The nails went in Jesus’ hands, some said, when everybody knows they would have actually gone into his wrists, or he would have fallen off the cross from his own weight against weak flesh. My own part in this stream was that I wondered aloud (even as I knew) why Gibson wouldn’t depict a naked Jesus on the cross.
I returned to the 2004 film ten years later prompted by a conversation with my wife in which she said she found the movie meaningful, and in tearing down the movie I found myself tearing down her (and millions of other people). Why is it that 80% of the people who saw The Passion disagreed with me and most established critics? (While a decent question, honestly, I know it’s not for the reason I came to my own change of view.)
My own reason is that (I think) I’ve come to see The Passion of the Christ for what it is rather than what I thought it was or should be. Film critics expected and therefore saw a film that could be judged by the genre conventions of narrative filmmaking and of film adaptations of preexisting works and of other film adaptations of the life of Jesus. Evangelical Christians saw a Passion that brought Hollywood money to bear on telling the most important part of the Most Important Story. Liberal (this is before “progressive” was the preferred term) Christians saw a Passion marred by a right-wing fringe Catholic filmmaker’s bloody misunderstanding of what atonement is and who the God of Jesus is.
In reality, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a big-budget film continuation of and representation of a hundreds of years’ old tradition of Roman Catholic devotional art focused on the suffering and death of Jesus. This is why so many of the scenes are composed like classical paintings and why parts of the narrative make no sense without a knowledge of the Stations of the Cross and the various extra-Biblical traditions of how the Passion happened. It’s also why Jesus is not shown naked and why the nails go through the palms of his hands rather than through his wrists. The biggest clue, however, to Gibson’s real intention, however, was right in front of our noses the whole time: the movie’s title.
The Passion of the Christ as a phrase is a theological interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth from inside particular theological, devotional, and artistic traditions. “Christ” makes particular claims about who Jesus is, and “Passion” is a much different term than “Death” or “Crucifixion” or even the basic English translation, “Suffering.”
Finally, this doesn’t mean that we cannot judge the Catholic devotional interpretative traditions or the film itself on any merits or against any standards we choose. It is just to say that when we do, we should recognize we are no longer judging the work by its own intentions or on its own terms.