Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Passion of the Christ was, of course, a masterpiece. It takes its place as one of the supreme examples of Christian iconography with the work of Piero della Francesca and Bach. One can argue that there exist greater depictions of Jesus such as the Harrowing of Hell at St Clora outside the Walls in Istanbul or the Christ Pancrator at St Catherine's in the Sinai, but neither of these portray the Passion but Christ as King. Gibson's Christ as man has no equal.

Art is dangerous and the extreme reaction of contemporary society to this work tells us all we need to know about just how dangerous this particular piece is. From the contemptible accusations of anti-semitism to the moaning of NT studies professors that it does match up to their own pathetic recreations, society has rebelled against this picture. But as surely as Carravaggio's Horse's Arse (usually called the Conversion of Paul) stands head and shoulders over its detractors, Gibson has left his critics standing. If all this seems impossible from the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, then all we have is further proof that God exists.

To understand a reality requires that one stands within it. This is why Christians have 'got' the film and others have often been left confused. The complaints about lack of context when we are clearly asked to make those choices for ourselves, are a case in point. Likewise, we are not just asked to watch this film. We must participate in it. Gibson forces us to do this in several ways by supplying us with proxies who join the action at crucial moments and bring us all into the narrative.

A few examples of this will suffice. The most powerful has been mentioned above where we join Mary in coming face to face with Jesus as he stumbles. During the scourging we have to watch and can do nothing just like the women who are reduced to vainly trying to clean up the mess afterwards.

More subtle, and a supreme example of the film makers art, is the case of Simon of Cyrene. As Mark Goodacre has pointed out, Gibson makes Simon a Jew although his source material says he was a gentile. Simon says what we want to say: "Stop". Simon does not want to be involved. But Simon is also drawn into Jesus as he takes up the cross. Like us, he is not given a choice. Circumstances force him to act: both in his initial defiance and then to become an actor in the drama. Then, he cannot drag himself away and leaves in the same way we leave the cinema, running to return to his old life but knowing nothing will ever be the same again.

Finally, we share the experiences of Jesus himself. The flashbacks are his thoughts and the camera puts us in his place. Again, the whole Christian tradition of shared suffering and shared redemption is thrust upon an unwilling audience. We don't want to be there but Gibson will not allow us to stand by. In the TLS, a reviewer remarks that in the Old Masters, the Passion always takes place against a background of agarian peace. Gibson rejects that: no one is allowed to just get on with life while the Christ suffers.

Most of all this film defies the modern world and categorically restates the eternal truths of good, evil and the impossibility of indifference. The message is as important as ever in a bland age where the only recognised virtue is tolerance.

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