I’d read the reviews, heard about all the hype, read yards of stuff giving all the reasons for not going to see the film, and was prepared to give it a miss. That is, until local clergy were invited to a free viewing, and a number of us went. Some, fearing it would be too much of a horror movie, stayed away.
Those who went found the film moving, profound, and thought provoking. It may not be one you would advise your elderly, churchgoing granny to see, but for anyone used to adult movies, this is well worth seeing. In Passiontide, the pictures will fill our familiar hymns with deeper meaning, and add a new depth to the Stations of the Cross.
Once, rich visual imagery was available in England as an aid to prayer and meditation. The fourteenth century mystics saw prayer as starting with a meditation on the Passion, not by looking at texts, for the Latin scriptures were inaccessible to many people, but from the familiar picture set up at 10,000 altars and on rood screens throughout Europe. A contemplation of Christ’s sufferings, for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, was seen as both a road to conversion and the beginning of the life of prayer.
As painting and techniques improved, the crucifixion was depicted with increasing realism, culminating in works such as that by Grunewald.
But printed, vernacular Bibles and the Puritans destroyed much of this culture in Britain, leaving us with whitewashed church walls, and smashed stained glass. The ear, through the word of God, became the prime means of stirring the heart to devotion, and even music for a time was questioned. The result is that we have not understood the power and the place of devotional art.
But, with the rise of cinema and television, the visual arts can now reclaim their former place. With Mel Gibson’s film, the biblical epic has come of age. Raw reality and even savagery are displayed to an extent that makes previous biblical epic films look like chocolate-box illustrations. Yet “epic” is hardly the right word. There is little more than a following of the Stations of the Cross, given that the film only begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. As with any good meditation on the Stations, Mel Gibson introduces other scenes which comment on these final hours. And with these, and with the reactions of the bystanders, particularly Jesus’s mother, we are time and again taken away from the gruesome torturing of Jesus just at the point when it might appear unbearable.
The shifting of scene means that instead of being presented with unremitting gratuitous violence, we see something of the loving purposes of God, precisely at the point when we want to cry out “Why?”
Unless the film had brought us to this brink of feeling that it would be unbearable to go on, we might have come away thinking that this was just one more sanitised view that made the Christian faith just an interesting diversion for children. But this, with an “18” classification, is not a children’s film.
It is a very honest piece of propaganda for the Christian faith, the best that Mel Gibson could devise. In this I would see him as standing in the tradition of great religious artists of the past who have wanted to convey their faith through their art, and express their own Passion for Christ. It is precisely this which has made it difficult for the critics to know where to aim their arrows. The complaint that the film is anti-Semitic, for example, misses the point. Those who condemned Jesus are portrayed as very believable human beings in whom we should be able to identify our own failings. They are only as Jewish as the Virgin Mary. What is depicted is part of the history of Judea, and the history of the world.
There is a great deal to think about in the film. Don’t go alone, and allow yourselves plenty of time afterwards to reflect together on what you have seen.