Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

Stop filming! The Passion Should Have Been a Painting.
Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 27 2004 3:51 PM

Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?


Dear Stephen,

You make an important point in regard to the possible reception of this film (which is a somewhat different issue from its intrinsic merits or lack of merit). As you note, this is a film that will have worldwide distribution, and that fact puts the issue of possible anti-Semitic effects in a sobering perspective. Despite a recent modest increase in acts of anti-Semitic vandalism in this country, I agree that any widespread serious resurgence of animosity toward the Jews here is unlikely, with or without Mel Gibson. In Western Europe, Indonesia, the Arab countries, even Japan, the situation is quite different, and the Gibson film might in some instances inflame already ugly feelings. Under pressure, Gibson deleted from the subtitles—but not from the spoken lines—the declaration of the Jews that the responsibility for killing Jesus was theirs and their offspring's for all time, but what will happen with the Arabic subtitles, or the French?


Your highlighting of the figure of Mary in the film is very interesting. I confess that I didn't share your emotional response, perhaps because I had no prior investment in Mariolatry. But of course the role of the suffering mother in the Passion story is the very core of the human appeal of Christianity, especially in its Catholic versions. John's initial, rather abstract notion of the Word made flesh is given a powerful dramatic focus in the weeping Mary, who, as your response bears witness, touches a deep chord in most of us—the primal bond between mother and child. We Jews have always preferred our God to be less palpably human, and by and large we have strenuously resisted the idea of incarnation (even if refracted images of it surfaced in the Kabbalah). This goes to show that all of us inevitably respond to a film on this fraught subject through the predispositions and preconceptions of the religious culture in which we were raised—as the difference between your reaction and mine demonstrates.

Having said that, I'd add that I did not see Mary as having quite the central role in the film that you did. The actress who played her has a fine face, faintly lined by the years, with noble, plausibly "semitic" features, and she made excellent use of facial expression. She did not, however, have much of a speaking part in the film, and so her presence as anguished, loving mother was largely conveyed by tearful eyes and repeated looks of infinite compassion. (In order to play just this role, she is shown in the film constantly running after Jesus to watch every moment of the unspeakable torture to which he is subjected, and I frankly found this rather improbable for any mother.)

The underlying difficulty for me in the treatment of Mary as well as of Jesus is precisely the consciousness of Christian iconography in the film that you properly identify. Many shots of her are carefully posed to be reminiscent of a long tradition of religious paintings, down to the pietà at the end, and the same is true, far more insistently, for the images of the suffering Christ. The problem is that a film is not a painting. The religious painting extracts one moment from the temporal sequence and uses color, contour, composition, light, and facial expression to concentrate the spiritual and human meanings of the story. A film, on the other hand, is after all a sequence of moving pictures. Through them, characters come to life, speak, interact, play out the story, however artful the visual definition of their motions and the scenes in which they move. We all have duly noted how violent Mel Gibson's film is, but it is worth adding that it is as static as it is violent. For me, Mary is not sufficiently realized as a character in a cinematic narrative because she is mainly represented in a series of poses as compassionate mother. And for the Christ figure, the underlying conception seems to be to take a particularly gory painterly representation of Jesus on the cross—the German Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) particularly comes to mind—and to do a very long sequence of overlapping takes, each meant to evoke a painting of the agonizing Jesus done in somber oil colors. Imagine a slide show of nearly identical Cranachs going on for two hours and you have something of the effect of Gibson's cinema of cruelty. For this reason, with no intention of revoking your Boston University I.D. card, I can't agree that this is a damn good film, or a good film at all.


Robert Alter is the author, most recently, of Imagined Cities.



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