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A spaghetti eastern

“The Passion of the Christ” has already elicited a lot of unusual tributes, as well as some intelligent writing on related points. In the former category, Michael Novak’s National Review Online piece provides a compelling account of his reponse to the film: “Brother Gibson’s Passion.” S.T. Karnick’s “Violence to scripture?” is to the same effect.
Also in the former category, Matt Labash has a piece written from a believer’s perspective with a good-natured “interfaith dialogue” on the film in the new issue of the Weekly Standard: “Popcorn and passion.” (I’d like to do the same with Rocket Man on Power Line if I could, but I don’t share the warm feelings of Labash’s Jewish interlocutor toward the film.)
In the latter category, Rabbi Lapin’s National Review Online piece on the insipid response of Jewish organizational spokesmen to the film is excellent: “The dividers.” As far as his column goes, Rabbi Lapin speaks for me. As Rabbi Lapin suggests, the efforts of these organzational spokesmen directed at a phenomenon such as “The Passion of the Christ” frequently seem calculated to alienate the closest friends and allies of the Jewish people. Rabbi Lapin, however, does not appear to have seen the film as of the time he wrote the NRO column.
I didn’t read Jon Meacham’s Newsweek cover story on the film until after I went to see it last night. His article summarizes the historical context of the story and the gospel accounts on which the film is based: “Who killed Jesus?” It’s a useful article if you, like me, need some reminders to help differentiate Gibson from the gospels in the film’s details.
As I wrote in “The passion of Billy Jack,” I went to “The Passion of the Christ” wanting to like it, but I didn’t. My purpose in that post was to come indirectly to Gibson’s defense (not that he himself needs it) against the mean-spirited attacks on him from enemies of Christian belief.
I hope that the film renews the faith of lukewarm Christians and deepens the faith of believers. However, the praise bestowed on the film by Novak and other intelligent viewers did not accord with my experience (as a nonbeliever) viewing the film, and I want to make a few observations in the spirit of inquiry suggesting why.
First, I found the depiction of the temple establishment throughout the movie to be revolting. Caiaphas and the rest are extraordinarily crude and cruel figures. They are all bearded bigwigs dressed in finery and look remarkably alike. The fabricated elements of the trial scene that are specified in Meacham’s article made me extremely uncomfortable. Gibson in addition shows Caiaphas following Jesus around to witness his suffering and death. Why?
Second, I found the depiction of Pontius Pilate to be somewhat weird. If there is responsibility to be apportioned among humanity for the death of Jesus, this film shifts it away from the Romans and in the direction of the Jews. Given the fact that crucifixion was a solely Roman punishment, Pilate is an unbelievably reluctant executioner. To Pilate’s initial reluctance and hesitation Gibson adds the discouragement by Pilate’s wife Claudia of Jesus’ execution.
Claudia looks on the proceedings soulfully from the wings. Unlike the “filthy [Jewish] rabble” vociferously demanding the crucifixion of Jesus, Mrs. P. sees that Jesus is a holy man (I believe it is Mrs. P. who says “sanctus est” — “he is holy”; the Latin is intoned here in the accent of the traditional Catholic mass). If I am not mistaken, the evidence to support this characterizaton is pretty skimpy. What’s going on here?
Third, I found the film’s depiction of the pre-crucifixion torture of Jesus to be an absurd artifact of Hollywood. The repeated beating, scourging, whipping, and flaying inflicted by the film’s Romans would have disabled or killed him long before he reached Golgotha. The depiction of the filleted flesh of Jesus likewise seems absurd. The slow-mo, repeated falls that Jesus takes carrying the cross look like something out of the late “Rocky” sequels.
The camera seems to revel in the blood of Jesus. His blood is spattered liberally throughout the final 45 minutes of the film, a kind of Passion a la Tarentino. All in all, the Passion portrayed in the film comes across to me like a Biblical spaghetti epic. The failings here seem both artistic and intellectual.
Fourth, I found myself wondering how this movie would be seen by Arabs and Muslims — the kind of Arabs and Muslims that surround Israel. I think Gibson’s film is crude in ways that would make it popular viewing on Arab television outlets that otherwise specialize in 45-part serializations of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Where am I wrong?

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