March 30, 2004

In Defense of 'The Passion', Part II

The other day, I wrote a blog in which I defended The Passion of the Christ against some artistic criticisms that have been raised against it. In his blog today, Ray (aka michaelray) takes issue with my argument and claims that, as a film, the movie "falls short." I don’t like arguing for the sake of arguing, but I can’t help but think that my friend is completely wrong. So today, I’d like to respond to the main points of his argument.

Ray begins by writing that The Passion is not a "complete film" and he defines a complete film as one that has "a strong narrative arc and developed characters." He further writes that The Passion "fails to develop any of the characters in the movie (including Jesus) and the plot structure fails to create any real interest in the events." I have three responses to these comments.

First, I disagree that the movie fails to develop Jesus’ character. I think it superbly delves into his personality, showing us his kindness, his sense of purpose, his intensity, his frailty. Second, I think the movie excels at developing such secondary characters as Mary and Simon of Cyrene. And, by the way, why does it even matter if the movie fails to develop its secondary characters? This is The Passion of THE CHRIST, not The Adventures of Jesus and His Twelve Disciples, not The Story of Jesus and the Men Who Killed Him.

Third, I have no idea what Ray means by "strong narrative arc." I also don’t know what he means when he writes that "the plot structure fails to create any real interest in the events." I thought that the subject matter of the story was interesting and that the story was presented in an interesting manner. I know that some critics complain that the focus of The Passion is too narrow, only covering one event in Christ’s life. But if we are to criticize The Passion for being too narrow, then we must also criticize some of our greatest stories. For instance, James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses takes place in only a day and covers very few external events. Likewise, many of our best films—e.g., Leaving Las Vegas and Lost in Translation­—are not event-driven.

Ray also argues that, while Gibson intended for the film to "show the humanity of Christ," the film instead "presents Jesus in a heroic Braveheart style, a Jesus who is a superhuman able to stand up to any torture or pain." I don’t see how the film fails to adequately portray Christ’s humanity. The film shows Jesus filled with tremendous anxiety before his arrest, pleading that, if possible, his Father prevent his impending death. It shows Jesus grimacing with pain during his flogging. It shows Jesus so weak after his beatings that he needs someone to help him carry his cross. It even shows Jesus briefly questioning God, as, on the cross, he asks why his Father has forsaken him. Would Ray have been happier if Jesus would have cursed God? After all, that’s what many humans in that situation would have done. Would Ray have been happier if Jesus would have bled to death when the Romans were flogging him? That, too, might have made him more human-like, even though it didn’t really happen that way.

Ray further writes that "no human would survive the graphic flogging presented in the movie—or at least could be conscious and standing up minutes later." On what basis does Ray make this claim? Has he witnessed such a torture? Does he have any scientific backing for this claim? We know that the Romans were barbaric and the Gospels tell us that Jesus was punished exceedingly. Does he think that the Gospels are lying?

Ray goes on to write that The Passion is "not very interesting drama (who wants to watch an entire plot of a person passively accepting punishment except those who are followers of Jesus?)." First, even if no non-Christian enjoyed watching The Passion, I fail to see why this makes it bad drama. A work of art's success or failure is not measured by the way its partakers react to it. For instance, most white men I know didn’t enjoy reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but this doesn’t make it a bad book. Second, on what basis does he claim that only Christians enjoy watching the movie? Roger Ebert, for one, is not what you’d call an orthodox Christian, but he thoroughly appreciated the film.

Ray concludes his blog by asking, "Can we honestly say this would be interesting to us if we were watching someone else besides Christ?" The answer to this question, of course, is no. The Passion would not be interesting if its central character were someone other than Jesus. But so what? I fail to see the argument here. Romeo and Juliet would not be interesting if it were about two old people falling in love. The Grand Canyon would not be beautiful if it were filled with cow dung. But so what? It is irrelevant whether something wouldn’t be interesting or beautiful if it were different than it is.

In conclusion, I think The Passion of the Christ is a great film. It is interesting (I don’t know anyone who was bored by it), beautiful (musically, visually, etc.), and transcendent (having already touched the lives of many who have seen it). Moreover, it achieves all of its particular intentions, giving us a detailed, realistic, and spiritually informed portrayal of Jesus’ last hours. Therefore, I think it succeeds, not only as a religious statement, but also as a movie and work of art.

(By the way, I want to thank Ray for sharing his thoughts on this matter and for having the courage to say things that he knows are unpopular. He’s a true seeker of truth, and I love him dearly—even when we disagree!)

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