126 minutes of intense and bloody suffering
The qualifications are important, but this controversial film is worth seeing. It is a big film: the colour is intense, the movement bewildering, the drama overwhelming, even the music is all-encompassingly loud. I left the cinema drained and exhausted; but also unexpectedly joyful.
Is it anti-Semitic? No, but there is a serious failure of biblical scholarship, and were I Jewish I would undoubtedly feel aggrieved. When it comes to the trial, we must be clear (and make it clear) as Christians (teachers and preachers especially) that this is not how the Bible describes it.
The sophistication of the filming is entirely contemporary, all the latest forms and techniques have been used, and this sits badly with an uncritical nineteenth-century presentation of the supposed history. Ours is an age more cynical of and interested in the mechanics of political power; that interest and cynicism should not be ignored. If you seek a political explanation of the Passion, and most filmed presentations have done so, then you must do more than merely combine elements from the four evangelists. You must provide some credible framework, or else the trials become a mere sequence of unconnected and unconvincing events, of men shouting at each other and at Jesus. (And if you do that, and give Pilate the leading role, you must give the religious leaders better lines than they have here.)
If the condemnation of Jesus is not political, then it is moral or theological? The crucial response, ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children’, is not translated in the subtitles; as it is shouted, the camera focuses upon Jesus, so that we in the audience can also implicate ourselves in that guilt and salvation. If, as we believe, only those who can make that cry can be redeemed by Christ’s passion, how is it that Pilate is allowed to say, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood’, as though it were a statement of fact. The devil appears many times in the film; why did he/she not appear then? Why was no attempt made to highlight the profound irony of this text?
The strangest twist is the lack of Greek. The use of Aramaic and Latin is one of the most powerful features of the film, but why does it ignore the Greek? I cannot believe that Jesus and Pilate would have spoken Latin. True, few people will notice, but there seems to be a sub-text: why, clear contrary to the biblical record (John 19.20), is there no Greek on the notice on the cross? If there really is no hidden agenda, why make it seem as though there were?
It is unacceptable to pick and choose from the four gospels, and then say, ‘It’s in the Bible.’ To destroy the integrity of the individual evangelists, and pretend that you are not putting something else in their place is poor scholarship, or something worse. The sheer power of this film, and its success in so many other ways, makes this a matter of real importance. Clergy, in particular, must give careful teaching; and if that means doing some serious study, so much the better. We may know that the Scriptures are not anti-Semitic, but we also know that men have so used them, and this film presents just such an opportunity.
His blood be upon us
It is an astonishingly bloody film. As one who cannot watch Casualty or any hospital drama because there is too much blood, this was one film I had no desire ever to see; I feared it would sour all my devotions this year and for years to come.
It is appalling, harrowing and emotionally disturbing, but it does make sense! Its uncompromising presentation gave a meaning to the flagellation I had not grasped before. I still cannot explain to myself how I was able to watch the hammering in of the nails, but it was something to do with the sheer power of the filming. ‘His blood be upon me.’ The passionate intensity of the film draws one into the very details of the suffering. It hurt, but I still wanted to feel the blood. Different in form from the quiet participation in a Good Friday liturgy, but similar in intention.
Direct film narrative cannot properly transcribe gospel, and there are inevitable failures: one should not take them too seriously. The manner in which Jesus heals Malchus’ ear in the garden of Gethesemane, by simply picking it up off the ground and sticking it back on, is pure slapstick. The worst moment of sheer bad taste, for me, was when Pilate’s wife brings clean white cloths during the scourging of Jesus to the two Marys, for them to wipe up the blood afterwards from the courtyard paving: I was half expecting a Monty Python voice-over saying, ‘Incidentally, these relics will be on sale in the foyer.’
A good example of the effects of cinematic cliché were the two most poignant scenes between Jesus and his mother. When she meets him on the way to Calvary, and there is a flashback to his childhood, we are drawn into a moment of immense tenderness, deeply moving. So too when she stands watching, with Mary Magdalene and John, at the foot of the cross. But when she comes forward and weeps over his nailed feet and smears his blood over her face, it fell heavily into Hollywood bathos.
A serious work of art
So the production is uneven, but that is as it should be. The most effective parts were often the most chaotic, for they allowed the full range of unscripted, contradictory responses. The Roman soldiers gave increasingly subtle and nuanced performances as the drama unfolded, as though the actors were learning during the production.
The focus on the passion, with a well-chosen selection of contrasting flash-backs, and the use of two at least of the original languages are the defining characteristics of this Jesus film, and would alone be enough to make it worth seeing. Its uncompromising intensity occasionally tips over the edge, but takes it into a quite different league to many of its more reverential predecessors. This is a serious work of art. I am genuinely sorry that its political scholarship is so seriously flawed; but I remain deeply grateful for its commitment to painting so powerful a picture of the central event of all human history – the redemption of the world by Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the most important overtly Christian film in forty years.
Will it convert? Will it make new Christians? No, of course not. The film can show a man suffering for love, it can show his death most powerfully, but it cannot make the viewer feel responsible for that death, or desire to be washed in his blood: that is the work of grace. This is not the gospel, but it may allow the gospel to be heard.
Nicholas Turner is Curate of the Parish of Broughton-with-Elslack