Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Telling the Greatest Story Ever Told

"By his wounds ... we were healed"


Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was, without a doubt, one of the most controversial movies of my lifetime.

Movies with religious themes typically are controversial because they are usually so biased. I felt at the time that Gibson's movie about the final hours of Jesus' life was controversial primarily because it accepted without question so many things as literal truth.

Now, personally, I didn't really have a problem with that because I grew up in the American South. Church plays a huge role in daily life in the South, always has, and you grow up there accepting certain things as fact. (Truth is another matter.)

Call it indoctrination if you wish.

(That's especially true of my home state of Arkansas. After all, that's where creation science got its first real legal foothold.)

Consequently, it wasn't hard for me to accept what was presented on the screen. I don't consider myself a religious person, but I don't usually get into religious debates with Christians, either. I may not necessarily agree with their interpretations of the biblical accounts of Jesus' life and death, but I have heard so many different interpretations in my life (my father was a religion professor, as was his father before him). I was exposed to a lot of faiths when I was young, and it is easy for me to accept the idea that a man named Jesus lived in those times; whether I believe in many of the things that people say about his life is fine print.

I realized at the time, though, that Gibson's movie was more problematic for people who were not Christians. And it did spark a controversy, in part by being released on Ash Wednesday 10 years ago today.

That didn't really bother me, either, but the other thing that made the film objectionable was what was seen as excessive violence, and I must say it was a very violent movie. How could a movie about the Crucifixion be anything else? The answer is, it couldn't, but I thought Gibson went over the line in the scene where Jesus was scourged.

My understanding of Jewish law in those days is that scourging traditionally was limited to 39 lashes, and all the Protestant pastors I have known since I was a child accepted that as the number of lashes Jesus received. That was the number they always mentioned when they spoke of Jesus' crucifixion. I'm not sure if it is ever mentioned in the Bible, but, as I say, Jewish law limited scourging to 39 lashes, a number that was based on the accepted belief that 40 lashes would result in death. Therefore, 40 minus one was considered the most severe scourging that could be administered without causing death.

(No doubt there were those who received 39 lashes — or fewer — and died, anyway, but 40 was the number that was considered certain to cause death.)

The scourging in "The Passion of the Christ" went far beyond 39 lashes. I don't know if Gibson's version was correct, only that it was excessive when compared to what I have been taught since childhood. I couldn't even tell you how many lashes were re–created in Gibson's movie. I lost count long before the scourging ended, so engrossed was I in what I was seeing.

But the thing that I found truly fascinating about Gibson's production is that it was made entirely in reconstructed Aramaic and Latin. That required a lot of meticulous research. Of course, there probably weren't many people in the world who could authoritatively dispute the authenticity of the script or the actors' pronunciations of the words.

But most people could probably tell what the characters were saying.

Of course, the stories of the gospels differ in many ways. They don't attribute precisely the same quotes to the same individuals, they don't always identify the same individuals, and they don't include the same details. But, to believers like Gibson, that is fine print. The challenge when making a motion picture based on the gospels is to reconcile them so they tell essentially the same story.

One of the intriguing examples of this reconciliation from within the New Testament could be seen early in the movie when Jesus was arrested. All four of the gospels mention a servant of the high priest who participated in the arrest. One of the disciples struck him with a sword, cutting off his ear. The gospels agree on that — but that is where the accounts begin to differ.

The servant is only named in one of the gospels, and another gospel, which does not name him, is the only one to report that Jesus healed the ear. In the movie, the servant is called by name and his ear is healed, as if it had been reported that way in all four gospels.

Still, there were other parts of the story that can only be explained as Gibson taking poetic license. Early in the movie, when Jesus is praying in the garden, he is visited by Satan (a character who pops up regularly in the movie), and Jesus crushes a snake beneath his heel. For those who are familiar with the Bible, this is a reference to the prophecy of a Messiah in Genesis. The gospels do not mention this event in the garden.

Nor, for that matter, do the gospels mention Judas being tormented by demons who look like children, but that scene also appears in "The Passion of the Christ."

Like any good dramatist, Gibson made effective use of symbolism.

The story of Jesus' life was told through a series of flashbacks — and I will admit that this is where I paid the most attention to the subtitles. The story didn't follow a chronological thread so the subtitles helped me make sense of the flashbacks. Once I knew what was being shown (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount or the Last Supper), I seldom felt the need to look at the subtitles.

But there were parts that had to have been inserted as symbols of things Gibson wanted to be sure the audience remembered. There is a flashback scene in which Jesus is building a table. As far as I know, there is no such story mentioned in the gospels. Its purpose in the movie must be to remind people of Jesus' earthly father and the trade Jesus was taught as a boy.

While Gibson acknowledged that the New Testament was the primary source for the movie, it is known that the Hebrew Bible also was used along with other sources.

I thought Jim Caviezel did a credible job as Jesus, not so much for what he said but for what he represented in the re–creations of Jesus' brutal final hours.

Roger Ebert called it "the most violent film I have ever seen."

Ebert pulled no punches: "You must be prepared for whippings, flayings, beatings, the crunch of bones, the agony of screams, the cruelty of the sadistic centurions, the rivulets of blood that crisscross every inch of Jesus' body."

But this movie tells the story of Jesus' death by crucifixion. From all the accounts I have read, it was a particularly brutal, painful and lingering death.

An honest depiction could not avoid those facts.

I can't say that I always agreed with Gibson's filmmaking choices or his biblical interpretations, but I thought he deserved a lot of credit for a realistic treatment of the event. As a student of history, I appreciated that he didn't do as others did and overemphasize the resurrection while glossing over the particularly brutal parts.

If anything, Gibson was guilty of going too far in the other direction. But, I suppose, from his perspective, it was necessary to show what Jesus suffered on behalf of all mankind. Putting people to death 2,000 years ago was not a quick task.

"This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness," Gibson said. "[Jesus] died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. It's time to get back to that basic message."

Gibson tried to edit some of the most gruesome footage in an attempt to get a PG rating on re–release — and make it more accessible to more people — but the rating still wasn't changed, and the re–release only lasted a few weeks.