Some thoughts on The Passion of the Christ by Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt, Jr.
The musing of Gandalf the White herein, at which all hobbits, dwarves, elves and others may scoff and take potshots at will, or in which, perhaps, one may occasionally delight . . .
Volume 8 Number 1 (2004:1)
[February 27, 2004]
Mel Gibson's Iconic *Passion*
a review by Burnell F. Eckardt Jr.
It's not really surprising that Mel Gibson's *The Passion of the Christ* has ignited so much passion. This movie, I think, ranks first among the movies which culminate on Good Friday, and there is a slew of them, most notably Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 "The King of Kings"; Pasolini's 1965 "The Gospel according to St. Matthew"; the 1959 epic "Ben Hur" that made Charlton Heston famous, and who can forget George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told," with John Wayne's cameo line, "Truly, this was the Son of God." But now we have in *Passion* a retelling of the highest caliber, due in part to the adept use of special effects unavailable to DeMille and his generation, but more so to the remarkable skill with which Gibson has handled the Biblical material.
It's aptly named an Icon film, and we briefly see the in the Icon logo a cutout of the Our Lady of Vladimir icon, arguably the most famous and beloved icon in all of history, wherein the mournful gaze of the Blessed Virgin Mary invites the viewer to enter her sorrows over her Son. Truly, that is what one is compelled to do upon seeing this film. Some have complained that the movie is too gruesome (hence the R rating), but I think their complaints might in part be due to a failure to recognize the gruesome nature of the Biblical accounts themselves.
A two-hour treatment to scourging, brutality, bloodshed, and crucifixion is a bit much to take, and this kind of movie doesn't quite qualify as entertainment. But I don't find this a harmful thing (especially during Lent), since in fact the 'thing' in question here is, according to the Scriptures, the very means by which the world was redeemed and reconciled to God. The film's opening words, from Isaiah 53, really say it all: He was bruised for our iniquities. Here we are given ample opportunity to ponder this bruising. Say what you will about dramatizations and their the ill effects they can cast on the meaning of the Gospel-and if there is a downside, that would be it-I find in the viewing of *Passion* more of an experience like unto the viewing of an icon.
The American culture knows little of icons, because the great majority of our churches, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Protestant, spring from the 'Western' branch of the Christian historical tree, whereas it is from 'Eastern' branch that icons largely come. Yet the West never condemned iconophilia (the love of icons), and indeed a prominent fifth century Pope (i.e., Western) once defended their use against the Emperor and the Constantinopolitan (i.e., Eastern) patriarch, and for that matter the Seventh Ecumenical Council (mid 8th century) approved the veneration of icons among all. But since West and the East split apart in the mid eleventh century, icons have become increasingly unfamiliar in the West.
*Passion* is clearly iconographic in at least the sense that it evokes serious contemplation on the Holy Mysteries of the Gospel. Icons are really not for idles glances, but for serious and sometimes prolonged meditation. Likewise *Passion* invites us into the world of contemplation. This is a powerful and masterful film, and though Gibson himself admits that its intention is to "shock" the viewer, I do not take his meaning in a pejorative sense. To the contrary, I might even venture to suggest that this film is tastefully done, for several reasons.
First, the brutality is only as realistic as the Gospels themselves, and I do not find it overdone, unless one finds the evangelists' accounts overdone as well. Sometimes squeamishness is a good thing, even as we do not come to church on Good Friday in the expectation of relaxation.
Second, in the long tradition of Passion Plays, this movie is presented from an unabashedly Christian perspective, as, of course, are the Gospels. The occasional appearance and final demise of satan comes off as an underlying plot to the entire event, from Jesus' crushing of the serpent's head to the final wail of demonic defeat. These insertions employ an entirely acceptable traditional interpretation, reflected in the early church fathers and springing from the proto-evangelion in Genesis 3:15: He shall bruise thy head.
Third, the film does not Hollywood-ize by the addition of a host of dramatized fictional additions which have become all too commonplace in such epics: there are a few, but Gibson has exercised admirable restraint in his use of occasional conjecture. The tender flashbacks to Jesus' life at home may not be historical, but serve well to characterize the Blessed Virgin's sorrows, coupled as they are with her (also conjectured) thought, "When, how" will he end this travesty and vindicate himself? Depicted with her grief is also her calm reserve of undaunted faith, all the way to the Pieta, her cradling of the dead Christ. Gibson also gives a respectful nod to venerable tradition, with the brief appearance of Veronica on the Via Dolorosa and her veil receiving the image of Christ's face.
Fourth, the resurrection is acknowledged, but ever so briefly. This is, after all, a Passion. The traditional Passion accounts, read during Holy Week, do not contain the resurrection; to hear that account, one must wait until Easter.
Speaking of the hearing of the Gospel, most importantly this film does not appear to replace what the Church exists to give, in the name of this Crucified Christ. One poignant scene suggests the very opposite: from a flashback to the institution of the Lord's Supper we break suddenly to the dripping of His sacred blood from the cross, the very same blood of which He spoke. But of course no one gets the Sacrament by attending a movie. Nor do I find in this movie any attempt to supplant the Church's purpose: the preaching and administration of the Gospel. The Gospel, to be sure, is proclaimed by this film; but the abundance of tearful faces I saw when the lights came up suggests to me a longing of souls which no film can placate. That longing, I dare say, can only be filled upon the regular hearing of the Gospel, as the Apostle Paul declared, "We preach Christ Jesus and Him crucified."
The Shire 2004:1
Copyright 2004 Gandalf the White