I finally got around to seeing the Mel Gibson movie. I was one of the throng that made it the biggest five day opening in history (beating Return of the King by a million dollars or so). I saw it on Saturday.
To understand what this whole thing was like for me, you have to know what movie theaters are like in my hometown, Logan, UT. Basically, most of the movie theaters in town are owned in a chain, so one small group decides what plays where. Also, the LDS church (again, I'm in Utah) has a standing rule that R-rated movies are non-watchable to faithful LDS people. As a result, some shadowy character made a decision that this movie would be shown at the small, somewhat crappy Logan Art House theater. It wasn't going to play well here. No stadium seating. Just three shows a night.
I spent a little time with some friends before the show, reading the story in Matthew, and talking about it. There were nine or ten of us, and we took up a whole row of the theater. We bought our tickets early, thank goodness.
It's a couple of blocks from my friends' house to this small theater on the highway through town, that goes south to Salt Lake City and north to the Idaho border. The show was at 9:30, so we left at about a quarter to 9. It's still cold here, but we had heard rumors the show had been selling out, so we wanted to get there in time.
We rounded the corner in front of the theater, and sure enough, there was a line; not to buy tickets, just to get into the building. It already had something like 60 people when we got there.
We waited and talked, or just stood looking around at each other. I remember seeing very young children going to it, under 10. Some guy in stubble and a cap said, in a roughened voice, "This is the movie that's supposed to change my life," but then he laughed. He said it again to someone who hadn't heard his joke. All this time, the line was stretching, past the theater, past the next business, past the next, and person after person headed toward the end of the line, until I couldn't see the end of it down the sidewalk. And all this time, people who knew what we were all standing in the cold to see at the theater would drive by on the highway, and honk their horns at us.
I didn't know what to expect, exactly. I had read Roger Ebert's review, which was basically favorable, and had read about the stations of the cross (in Catholic tradition) to try to get another handle on the traditions Gibson might intermix with the text of the New Testament stories. I had followed the anti-Semitism debate over the movie, and had formed an opinion just from the things people were saying and the way they were saying them...
Is it fair to say all that preparation fell away when the previews ended and the movie began?
I was drawn in immediately by the language. I was a Linguistics student at University of Washington. A lot of the Aramaic sounded like the Modern Hebrew I had studied (not well, but studied), and the Latin sounded familiar in the same way, from our own English and my own study of French. Mostly I read the Bible with built-in English subtitles, so this was very different for me.
The violence, somewhat surprisingly to me, didn't shock me the way it should. I watched it all, sometimes crying, but all. And no, kids should not see this movie.
I have seen some criticisms of the movie that accuse it of being too narrow. Even my brother-in-law thought that it concentrated too much on the death, not enough on the resurrection. I disagree. They are judging from the standard that the movie should match the gospels in form and content; that is, that the ministry and resurrection should be included in equivalent detail, and that there should be explicit interpretation of the meaning of Christ.
For what it is worth, these categories correspond to something like the different systematic theologies of the Protestants and Catholics, with a wild twist. One Protestant friend I talked to about the movie said it was about more suffering than Protestantism usually is, pointing out that crosses in Protestant churches are often empty to symbolize the resurrection, while crosses in Reformed or Catholic churches often depict Jesus hanging. But the theological emphases of Protestantism and Catholicism are primarily on the suffering of Christ (that indicts us all for sin, accuses us all of perpetrating the shame of the cross on God-with-us, and then informs us of the way of forgiveness), and on the incarnation of Christ (emphasizing the presence of God on earth and in nature and renewed intimacy with God). So is this a Protestant or a Catholic movie or what?
The answer, fortunately, is no. This is not a movie just for one sect of Christianity, or one religion. This is the retelling of the Passion of the Christ in the New Testament. I did notice some Catholic flavorings: the increased focus on Mary as she follows her son through these trials; the matching with the stations of the cross, as Ebert suggested; Saint Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. Fortunately, these are not louder than the rest of the movie; the details take their rightful places surrounding the true story, the death of Jesus.
It is an awful story, and the images and the violence lingered long after I left the theater. Only a few more notes about my own viewing, then I am done. I took my own advice and pictured myself as the Roman soldiers while they savagely beat him, Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry the cross, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas. The result is not pretty; not those people but all people, all are in the story. I am in that story, still, I am in that story. But I also noticed something else. While Jesus is being beaten, in scenes that will not seem to end, it came to me: this is what hell is like. That's one thing that hell is like; savage violence, pain, and loss. And he went through hell for me.
Last, there is a shot at the end, when Jesus is alive and clean, where his hand fills the screen. For an instant, the scene can only be seen through the wound in his hand. That, to me, is what life is like. All abstract philosophies, all ideas about human nature, the world, God, must be seen through his wounds.
I suppose there are many more meanings, but I will have to stop here.
And I will probably go and see it again.