The Passions Of Christ: In A Blaze Of ... Gory

As to the film, I want to say right up front that I was raised Jewish and now consider myself a deeply spiritual person with no formal religious affiliation, so I recognize and acknowledge that I am not the target audience for this film, which has been described by many as "the best Evangelical sales tool in history." My responses to the film are obviously colored by my own perspective. I also want to note here that I greatly respect Mel Gibson as a director (the film is beautifully mounted and acted) and I also respect him for having the courage of his convictions and for literally "putting his money where his mouth and heart are." He financed the entire $25 million cost of the film himself and has been unabashed in his advocacy of his--and the film's--conservative, Roman Catholic viewpoint. I deeply admire that kind of commitment to one's faith. This film, unlike most movies, makes it almost impossible not to respond in a very personal way to its philosophy and that's one reason why I believe that it will be looked upon as such a cultural milestone. Again, Gibson deserves much credit for bringing all of this into the public arena for discussion.

All that being said, I must also say that the entire film seemed like the dying gasp of an old ultra-religious paradigm that is slowly fading into oblivion. I had the distinct feeling that I was watching the symbolic conclusion to 2000 years of human history that, in the West, has been dominated by the Catholic Church. If, in fact, that turns out in the future to have been true, then Gibson has indeed ushered out this chapter of history in a blaze of... gory. The physical suffering of Jesus is the total focus of the film. The violence is as gruesomely depicted as you have heard, perhaps more so, and is simply unrelenting in its vivid and graphic detail. It is shocking to me that the film is rated "R", rather than "NC-17" which I think it should be. To allow--let alone bring--children of any age into this film could be considered a form of child abuse and even attempted brainwashing. Watching children in the audience reminded me of the scene in "Clockwork Orange" in which the main character is forced to watch violence with his eyelids forced open. There, it was to sensitize a violent man to violence. Here, I fear that the effect will be the opposite and much more traumatic.

So, please, do NOT go see this film without being prepared for the grotesque nature of the violence and PLEASE--no one under 17. Please also be aware that the film was shot with the characters speaking Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin, so the movie is subtitled in English.

On her ABC interview show with Mel Gibson on February 16, Diane Sawyer noted that, to Gibson and his Roman Catholic believers, the "Passion" in the title of the film is not defined as one might think but rather as being synonymous with "suffering."

What a perfect metaphor.

More than anything, the film is a relentless ode to "suffering." From a film making standpoint, Gibson makes no effort whatsoever to either illuminate anything about the LIFE of Jesus or explain WHY there was so much animosity towards him. The entire film is about the DEATH of Jesus and Gibson literally assaults us with never-ending images of the physical suffering of Jesus with the seeming intent to make us feel so indebted to Jesus for his sacrifice that we feel awful about being human beings. As an audience member, I felt like the human equivalent of what a dog must feel if its nose is brutally pushed into the carpet when it is being trained while it is simultaneously being called a "bad dog. Bad dog!"

Using the physical suffering of Jesus as the linchpin for the film puts brutality at the core of the film's Christianity and that attitude is inconsistent with both the beautiful humanity of Jesus' vision and the philosophy of modern Christianity. In fact, I have spoken to many Christians who are uneasy about the film, not to mention the numbers of people of the Jewish faith who fear its ramifications. The whole Protestant movement grew partially out of a dissatisfaction with the way the Catholic Church created a middleman, so to speak, out of priests and insisted that the only way believers could experience God was through the interpretations of those priests. Many Christians now fear that their faith will be misinterpreted by those who do not make a distinction between Gibson's form of Roman Catholicism and modern Christianity.

As to film's alleged anti-Semitism, I would note that the film has a very sympathetic and detailed depiction of Pontius Pilate and clearly makes the point that Pilate did not want to execute Jesus; however, Gibson's film does absolutely nothing to explain why the Jewish priests were so intent on Jesus' crucifixion. That glaring omission, coupled with the mob's insatiable thirst for Jesus' crucifixion (also unexplained), feel as though they were directed with absolutely no SENSITIVITY whatsoever toward the potentially galvanizing effect of the film on those who may come to the theater already harboring anti-Semitic feelings. And the film's depiction of bloodthirsty and sadistic Roman guards must also feel horrendous to many Italians.

In fact, more than anti-Semitic and anti-Italian, the film feels simply antihuman.

The life and death of Jesus and the stories of those around him are certainly the most famous in the western world. The entire raison d'Ítre (reason of being) of the Catholic Church is a very strict and narrow view of the life, death, and Divinity of Jesus. I believe that Gibson's film is so grim and so "in-your-face" that it may very well ultimately signify a symbolic breakpoint which causes the acceleration of the slide of this brand of Catholicism into "fringe" status.

As Gibson has made nothing less here than a recruiting film for ultraconservative Roman Catholicism, it will undoubtedly please much of its target audience. As, however, there have been simultaneous developments on two different levels that have shaken the very foundation of the brand of Catholicism to which Gibson adheres, the lasting effect of the film on everyone else may indeed be the polar opposite of what Gibson intended.

First, the last few decades have produced both popular ("The DaVinci Code") and scholarly (the Dead Sea Scrolls and many "radical" looks at the women of the Bible) breakthroughs that have produced a profound effect on the way we view the "gospels", upon which Gibson lays the foundation of his film, and that whole period of time. For example, I, among others, have a very different perspective on Mary Magdalene, who is played in this film by the luminescent Italian actress, Monica Bellucci (who played the wife of the Merovingian in the last 2 MATRIX films). I couldn't help thinking about what she could have done with the role if she hadn't been burdened by the director's (and much of the Bible's) take on her character as a "fallen woman." (Quite literally, we see Magdalene at the feet of Jesus after she is almost stoned to death.) For me, Magdalene may very well have been Jesus' twin soul who consciously incarnated with him so TOGETHER they could change the course of humanity. But--that's another belief system...another film...another time....

As for the Gospels themselves, the first one was written at least 50 years after the death of Jesus at a moment in our evolution in which that many years represented two generations; moreover, the Romans rampaged through Palestine around 30 years after Jesus' death in a pogrom-like campaign which killed a huge majority of the population. So, the "Gospels" (which have become synonymous with "literal truth") were first written after the death and extermination of two generations of human beings. There were no written or firsthand eyewitness accounts that could be relayed to the Gospel writers. Everything was based on no better than third hand oral reports and obviously also colored by the perspective of both the oral histories and the writers themselves.

What all this means is that any fair view of that period of time must be taken ON FAITH. There is no empirical "fact" in the Gospels. One either chooses to believe the narratives therein or doubts them. Indeed, as a dear friend of mine recently said to me--without doubt, we would have no need for faith, would we?

Second, numerous sex, criminal, and financial scandals have penetrated the core and sense of invincibility of the Catholic Church. Even true believers have looked at the Church and are demanding reforms and modernization. This whole distasteful descent also reminds me of a line I recently heard: "If Jesus came back now and saw what has been done in his name, he would never stop throwing up."

One of the basic tenets of Gibson's form of Roman Catholicism is that "there is no salvation for those outside the Church." That may be a religious viewpoint (albeit a sadly intolerant one), but, to me, it certainly isn't spiritual. Contrary to the way the words are used in both the media and many comments about the film, RELIGIOUS and SPIRITUAL are NOT SYNONYMOUS! THE PASSION is a classic example of Religious Cinema, whereas a film like WHALE RIDER is a great example of Spiritual Cinema. Hopefully, discussions of Gibson's film will also provide the opportunity to make that very clear distinction. (For a more extensive definition of this difference, please see

When one reviews Gibson's film choices as both an actor and director (as recently illuminated by Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times on February 8), the pattern is very clear: he has never starred in or directed a movie that was not, in some way, about a martyred character. THE PASSION reflects that kind perspective on the death of Jesus and we have certainly seen it before, albeit not with this kind of brutality; nevertheless, box office for the opening week of THE PASSION will, I'm sure, be huge. Evangelicals and conservative Church groups have bought massive blocks of tickets and there will also be a lot of curious people who show up just to see what the "fuss" is all about. After word gets around about the film itself, it's brutality, it's subtitles, and it's message of the degraded state of humanity, I believe that the second week box office drop off will be at least 50%, if not more. This is not to say that Gibson will not profit handsomely from the film. He will, and I salute him for that. He put his faith out there for all to see and those who believe in that message are rewarding him.

Contrary to the perspective of THE PASSION, the teachings and inspiration of Jesus, the man, have taken on a new meaning over the last fifty years or so. Many are beginning to see him as an extraordinary visionary who came to life as a human being to show us the beauty and potential for our humanity. Throughout the film, I kept thinking about Spiritual Cinema and the next 2000 years of our evolution and believing that the time has come for us to stop being martyrs. Stop dying for our beliefs and live for them. And exalt our humanity as a species who consciously loves and forgives without needing to feel guilty or ashamed.

Truly, "we are the ones we've been waiting for."

The time of our humanity has come.

Let's get on with it.

With affection and gratitude.

Stephen Simon