N.T. Wright has spoiled me. He has given such vivid portrayals of Jesus that I had difficulty getting into and appreciating Gibson’s The Passion . The film seemed so context-free that it’s hard for me to see how anyone could make much sense of it without already knowing who’s who and what’s what. Here are some of my complaints about the movie:

1) I think starting the film in Gethsemane was a big problem. You have no idea who Jesus’ enemies are, or why they are His enemies. If you wanted to start in Holy Week, why not with the triumphal entry, the provocative action in the temple, and the debates that ensue. Gibson’s Jesus is not a crucifiable Jesus.

2) This non-crucifiability was reinforced by the flashback scenes, which to me were the worst scenes in the film. There were some nice touches here and there, but overall the teaching and Last Supper scenes could have been filmed in the 1950s. There was a holy hush over all the scenes; they could have come from some 19th-century liberal. Why would anyone want to kill Jesus, who’s just preaching love and kindness to everybody? The one scene that stretched beyond the pious stereotype was the one with Jesus building a table, but that was so corny that it didn’t work. There was little or nothing of Wright’s shrewd, passionate, festive Jesus in the film; there was little of Jesus the “folk hero” who constantly outwits the Jewish leaders. And the excuse that the film was about the last week of Jesus’ life doesn’t wash; the flashback scenes could have shown a more interesting and biblical Jesus, but the film goes with the Jesus of modern piety.

3) Oddly, one complaint is that Gibson adhered too closely to the text of the NT. Of course, he had some legendary scenes, but overall he stuck very close to the text. That made for a poorer movie, since the text doesn’t give (and isn’t designed to give) a cinematic picture of Jesus’ life. Making the text work as a movie requires going beyond the text. The places where Gibson did this (eg, the Roman torturers) are not only very effective as film, but also actually give insight into the text.

4) I found the resurrection scene very weak. I have seen many, many “resurrection” scenes in film that were more powerful. The “resurrection” of Hero at the end of Much Ado and the “resurrection” of Sebastian and Viola at the end of Twelfth Night are both more moving scenes than the resurrection in Gibson’s film. The problem, I think, was that the film stopped before Jesus actually encountered anyone. What makes the resurrection scenes in other films work is the unexpected wonder of the dead coming to life. No one on the screen was given a chance to express that wonder. The garden scene with Mary Magdalene would have been effective, a scene with Peter at the sea (who just drops out of the film after denying Jesus), the road to Emmaus ?Eany of these would have been more effective.

5) Pilate’s dilemma is described by Pilate himself, but I would have liked it better if Pilate’s dilemma had been shown. We just have to take Pilate’s word for it that the Jews are difficult to rule. We don’t see much of that in action (though we see a bit). Some effort to set the political situation would have appealed to me.

6) One quibble: The effects of the earthquake on the temple moved too quickly for me to tell for sure, but I wondered where the priests were standing as they surveyed the damage? Was that supposed to be the temple?

In the end, I suppose I’m complaining that Gibson didn’t read Jesus and the Victory of God or consult with N.T. Wright while making the film.

More on: Film

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...