Gibson the Great

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Passion for the Truth

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

I was robbed! I went to see the movie the mainstream media described as Mel Gibson’s "anti-Semitic," "gratuitously graphic" film, The Passion of the Christ, and saw nothing of the kind for my six dollars. I saw an entirely different movie. Worse yet, having steeled myself for all the purported blood and gore, and having adopted the pose of a reviewer, mini-notebook in hand, I was fairly impervious to the film’s emotional impact for the first several minutes. Alas, eventually, I realized I had not been cheated by the theater or Mel Gibson, but by the reviewers and critics. I saw, not the critics’ film, but Mel Gibson’s — cinematic history’s first genuine effort to capture the horrible reality of the death of Jesus.

The film is not anti-Semitic. Though set in a time and place where there were mostly Jews and a few Romans, it accurately depicts humanity at all times and places. There are a few good people with the courage of their convictions (mostly Jews, one Roman). There are a few bad people with the scourge of their convictions (some of the Jews; nearly all of the Romans). Then, there is the mass man who blows with the wind of the moment. They had cheered Jesus the previous week. As in our own time, and all times, the bad people use the state to trespass against others. The hero is a Jew who explicitly and repeatedly exculpates his executioners and their cheerleaders.

The film is excruciating, as befits a movie whose subject, as Joel Siegel noted, is the root of that term: crucifixion. But it is no more excruciating than Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, The Grey Zone, parts of Goodfellas, and any slasher movie. I thought Goodfellas was superb, in spite of a disgusting scene in which a man is carved up in a car trunk. I did not think that violence was gratuitous as I suppose that’s what the Mafia does. When some filmmaker makes a movie about the Iraq War and graphically shows that little boy getting his limbs blown off by American smart bombs, the liberal press will cheer the director’s courage in rendering a scene that will be worse than anything I saw in The Passion.

Was the depiction of the torture and crucifixion too graphic; too violent? The scourging was six minutes long; the brutal opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan lasted twenty-four minutes. I remember reading about how physically destructive was the tightly-controlled punishment of caning as administered in modern Singapore. I recently reviewed a sickening photo of judicial caning’s aftermath. I’ll spare you the sight even though it would have made my case. A few strokes of the cane seared off several surface inches of human skin. "The skin at the point of contact is usually split open and, after three strokes, the buttocks will be covered in blood.” (Singapore Director of Prisons, September 1974)" Yes, being beaten by uninhibited Roman soldiers could be far worse.

Though the modern state executes with regularity, the liberal reviewers could not even find value in The Passion as a mundane condemnation of capital punishment. What about mob violence? If this was a movie about lynching, it would have been praised as an object lesson against mob violence. The lone man versus the mob was a theme praised in To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Waterfront and High Noon — three liberal favorites. Where is the similar praise for The Passion?

To a certain extent, what is excruciating is a subjective judgment. I had to avert my eyes during parts of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. In The Passion, I was only tempted by the nailing scenes. I find all movies about capital punishment, regardless of how lurid, to be excruciating. Liberal reviewers praise them though as most of them oppose capital punishment. Isn’t The Passion about capital punishment? As horrible as it was to watch the details of Jesus being nailed to the cross, I was horrified more by the cold calculation of it all — by the invisible, not the visible gore.

If Gibson is guilty of anything, it is artistic realism, brilliantly executed. If that’s an aesthetic crime, it’s one Hollywood has been committing for forty years now.

Regardless of how gruesome the crucifixion sequence is for the modern viewer, the original event was far worse. If we are squeamish about the kind of brutality that was commonplace back then, that is because, after Christ, such brutality, if not halted, was at least condemned.

I didn’t time the crucifixion sequences. They lasted quite a while, but were frequently interrupted with calmer scenes. There are many superb (non-lurid) scenes in the film. If you’re not struck by the scene of Mary running to the young Jesus, falling on steps, then you’re dead inside. My faade of being a reviewer ended at that moment. Veronica slips through mob fisticuffs to wipe the face of Jesus. This "is as it was," I think, discarding my thirty-five year-old Catholic schoolboy’s sedate and sanitized version.

Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. You feel for him as he apologizes to Mary because you know you also would have cowered to the mob. The flesh is weak. In one of the best scenes in the film, or any film, Mary races through the mob to see Jesus while a devilish figure races through the crowd to see Mary’s suffering visage. Pure malice; it’s out there. There are people in the world who go out of their way to make other people miserable. They like to watch, too.

"What is Truth? said jesting Pilate." Not what many reviews say about The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson faithfully captures history’s most famous event and it is indeed grim to watch as we are watching people much like our pretentious modern selves. The Passion of the Christ will cause "weeping and gnashing of teeth." Some will weep; others will gnash their teeth.

April 3, 2004

James Ostrowski is an attorney practicing in Buffalo, New York. See his website at http://jimostrowski.com.

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