The Passion of Christ: a Great Opportunity Missed
First of all, it is hard to fault a $450M+ return on a $30M investment. Call it an act of God or a successful marketing concept - either way, many would say this alone makes the movie a success. Herds of Christians (and others who wanted to know what all the hubbub was about) piled into theaters to see the spectacle, to discover Mel's vision of the Greatest Story Ever Told.
So why argue? Because the story could have been much better. If people were that hungry for that story, the story should deliver the best emotional experience it can.
Yes, it's beautifully shot and well acted. And let us set aside Mel's tedious pacing, his irritating pauses of icon-building close-ups, and the manipulative slow motion violence. Let's focus on what's significant: the storytelling and theology.
Fault of Storytelling
Simply put, Mel's plan was to accurately portray Christ's agony in going to the cross so we will have a greater understanding of what Jesus went through for us. Right?
Some could argue that Mel aimed low with the film's purpose. If you're going to spend the time and money, do it in ancient languages and stir up public debate, he could have added more to the scope. After all, this is a film about the Act II climax of Jesus' life. The meaning can get lost simply because this is only a brief slice, not the whole life.
However, Mel's great mistake is the assumption that we will come to the film with all of our knowledge of the story and fill in the gaps. He assumed not only that we all know who Jesus is, but also believe the same stuff about him. The audience had to BRING the full meaning of the film to the film. That should never happen. You can't rely on the mass audience to know much of anything of the socio/political landscape, especially since the Bible has a diminishing influence in American society.
A screenwriter needs to create the world of the story and populate it with characters that make moral choices, and by that, we will know who Jesus is, and what's going on. Also, since it is a familiar story to many, we should expect something new: a new outlook, a different perspective. We've seen the other versions, and all have had violence. At least Scorsese's vomitous Last Temptation of Christ tried to show us a Christ who wished for a normal life but chose to die for us instead.
So what does Mel tell us about Jesus? Well, his protagonist is a tall, nice guy with unnaturally intense blue eyes. He knew he said the wrong thing somewhere, but after an anguished prayer, he decides to step on the serpent, defy the demon that lingered around him, and face his accusers. And keep his mouth shut. We're not told why he decides that, but at 10 minutes into the film, that basically concludes his Jesus' moral choices. He does repeat his choice to keep his mouth shut later, and refuses to help Pilot make a decision later on, but all other decisions, moral or otherwise, are made for him.
Mel's response to this, and many other criticisms, is, "But that's what the scripture says!" Well, the Bible doesn't mention Jesus stepping on the serpent (actually a good example of creative license), the bald demon guy in black (probably Satan though I don't know who the baby is), Jesus making a strange, new-fangled table for the Romans, mother Mary and Mary Magdalene soaking up Jesus' blood after his scourge, a young Jesus falling down and mother Mary helping him up, Jesus telling mother Mary, "Behold, I go to make all things new", demon children driving Judas out of town, the crow pecking out the eye of the unrepentant thief, etc.
Do ANY of these creative choices reveal character and move the story forward? No. Jesus makes the table. The scene indicates that Jesus is human, nice, and has a good relationship with mom. That's it. It would be more effective to show Jesus raising Lazarus, which would show Jesus as kind, and GODLIKE, and it propels his antagonists to want Jesus dead (if set up correctly). And that's what the scripture says.
I was most offended by clip of a young Jesus being helped up by mom, by far the most blatant attempt to extort cheap tears from an audience. He could have used the actual story of Mary searching for two days for young Jesus and finding him in the temple, where Jesus tells her he is "about His father's business." That would have reiterated Mary's maternal instinct and illumine Jesus' character far better than that manipulative non-Biblical clip of Mary helping Jesus up.
Another missed opportunity: Barabbas. He was shown as a violent, mindless thug, and the crowd chose to have him released instead of the bloody, silent Jesus. If we didn't know better, we might have flipped a coin. What difference does it make?
Based on the history of the time, Barabbas was quite possibly a rebel leader as well as a murderer. With almost no creative license or screen time, that crowd could have chosen between a leadership based on power and violence, and one by love and self-sacrifice. That's a dynamic choice, and it would have forced the audience to think for themselves: which do they prefer?
Mel also missed one other crucial connection: Mel's Jesus was tortured and crucified, but for whom? Do we feel that he is dying to save his disciples? No. For the whole world? No. To save ME from MY sins? No. I didn't see myself in the story, making the same choices the participants and bystanders made. Who struggled with the meaning of the events in the story? Mary and Mary Magdalene thought it was a horrid tragedy and Pilot saw it as a conspiracy to kill an innocent man, and Judas felt guilty over his betrayal, but we were not in any of it.
Take an example to illustrate: in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the missionary goes to China, struggles to share God's love with the town, and after a long struggle, after everyone loves her and she's changing the culture. And we're invested in her success - the Japanese invade. The audience's heart sinks. We want her to get to safety, but she must bring the town's children to safety. She says THIS is why God called her to China, and we feel guilty for doubting. She's truly a savior and we weep for her to fulfill her destiny.
A more intimate example: Braveheart. We know the country looks to William as their savior, but he's going to die. He could take the poison and be done. He could take the pain-killer and risk saying the wrong thing. He fears he'll lose heart and beg for mercy. After all, we would!
But he doesn't. He cries "FREEDOM!" as his followers watch him die, and even his dead wife appears with the crowd to embrace him in their hearts. Powerful.
Mel's Jesus didn't convey that. We like him, sympathize with him, but we're not forced to emotionally connect with his Jesus, so the impact is weakened.
Now about the violence. Much has been said about the anti-Semitism and violence in the piece, but how could someone blame the Jews when there are so many Romans to hate? Both were so pathetically one-dimensional, and both were pointlessly violent. At least the Jews seemed to have their own reasons for striking Jesus; the Romans just laughed and punched, laughed and struck, over and over. I thought they were far worse.
Did all this violence happen? According to Mel's reading of the scripture, yes. Do we need to see every moment of it? NO. This is pornographic violence because it is excessive without being illuminating. We know Jesus suffered. We didn't have to see every lash in order to get the picture. The continued brutality didn't convey any more meaning so why were we subjected to it? Mel was punishing the audience.
Fault of Theology
Based upon my experience with the film, Mel believes that Jesus died to make all things new, by being killed at the hands of vicious Jews and Roman thugs, and if you don't side with him, God will get you.
Let's break that down: "Make all things new?" That's not particularly well defined. We have go in believing that Jesus is our savior, that he died for our sins, because we didn't get that from the movie. We didn't get any more theology from Mel than Jesus died because the Jews hated him for saying he was God. If there was more, I missed it.
Jesus suffered and died to save us, to save us from separation from God. The brutality of the passion is not in the violence, because Christians, now as then, are not exempt from that. The wages of sin and the separation from God are significant. Where are those concepts in the story?
"Vicious Jews and Roman thugs?" This story problem is mentioned above, but when anyone asks who killed Jesus, the correct response is, "WE did." That's the whole point of the Gospel! Christ can't die for my sins unless my sins put him there. Mea culpa. That point was not clearly made in the film and it weakens the impact of the story.
"God will get you"? How else can anyone justify those long scenes of Judas being driven out of town by demon children, and the crow pecking out the eye of the unrepentant thief on the cross? If that wasn't Mel intention, he probably shouldn't have included them (because it's not scripture). The Bible says that God gives people over to their sinful desires, but He doesn't terrorizes them. Those additions call into question the character of God, and muddle the film's message.
The Passion of Christ could have been a best-picture Oscar, but the reason it wasn't nominated is not anti-Christian discrimination. It has to do with the story. It's impact could have been greater, cinematically speaking, and as a Christian, I don't think it's to our cultural advantage to uncritically hail or despise a film because it agrees or disagrees with our theology. Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ was a bad movie with bad theology. Period. All the boycotting did was raise ticket sales. On the other hand, Mel should be applauded for his attempt to bring Jesus to the culture, and we should encourage others to make dynamic, significant films that challenge audiences and move the culture toward God. As the screenwriting gurus say, stories are a metaphor for life, about how best to live in this world.
In the end, the Passion made a boatload of money thanks to the anti-Semitic controversy, and started millions of conversations. If those conversations added pages to the Book of Life, then who cares about Oscar?