As Holy Week approaches, crowds for Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” have begun to dwindle. Only last week, every day was reminiscent of last minute shopping at Plaza Las Americas the day before Christmas. From radio, television, and written press reports, the film’s first few days also gathered a motley crew, from agnostics to church authorities, from movie buffs to politicians—the extremes!
In the United States the previous month, reviews ranged from pious to irreverent, from good to mediocre, but mostly horrible. To one reviewer, it appeared “as if Gibson is measuring God’s love by the amount of blood he shows on the screen.” (LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS) Another considered it a “regrettably cramped historical account that stays doggedly on the surface of its overwhelmingly important subject.” (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR) And still another thought that it seemed “to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES)
Used as we are in Puerto Rico to reading subtitles in English and other foreign language films, it was not surprising that “The Passion’s” dialog in dead languages (Aramaic and Latin) did not distract, discourage, or provoke criticism. Of course, Puerto Rico’s Catholic background made the familiar plot—Jesus of Nazareth’s physical torture, crucifixion, and resurrection—easy to follow.
Elsewhere, a raging battle regarding the theological or historical correctness of the Gibson film is interesting, in its own right. There are those who have questioned the very existence of Jesus as a myth in human history. Prominent among these was Bruno Bauer, a 19th century German scholar, followed by turn-of-the-century writer Arthur Drews, G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, and others, prompting Christian apologist J.P. Holding to ponder why otherwise intelligent and educated people could be so uncritical in denying the existence of Jesus.
Then there are the discoveries of various versions of the life and fate of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene discovered in Egypt in 1896, the Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Book of John, among other so-called Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi (also in Egypt) in 1945, and a plethora of scholars—like Elaine Pagels, Lynn Picknett, and Clive Prince—have added a rich texture to the history of Christianity.
But the Gospel according to Mel Gibson is also culturally, visually, and conceptually enthralling for reasons that have a peculiar meaning in each nation. Culturally, the film invites a review of a thousand years of Christian art familiar to Western culture. Whether one is a devout Christian or not, it summons moments in the story of the Nazarene’s life that have been nailed to our “collective unconscious” – the interrogation before Pilate, the investiture with the crown of thorns, the crucifixion itself, and the emotionally devastated mother with a dead son in her arms, so movingly eternalized in Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Puerto Ricans, oftentimes more religious than even the Catholic Church would condone (witness the “apparitions” of La Virgen del Pozo), automatically connect with the archetypal images with which we grew up.
Visually, Gibson abuses the audience with stomach-churning violence through masterful photography graphically depicting Jesus’ submission to physical abuse. Despite the disgusting images portrayed, Puerto Ricans are not different from other cultures’ fascination with the daily bread of violence—verbal, political, and social. Contemporary society has been desensitized to bloodshed and mayhem by radio, press, and television to the point where audiences remain visually glued to the screen during the crudest scenes.
Conceptually, however, “The Passion” invites secular meditation on our peculiar social environment. In the United States, a raging controversy is whether Gibson’s vision is anti Semitic. This is hardly surprising. In a country plagued by a history of racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice, people naturally tend to see that to which they are accustomed, even if it is not part of the story. As Roger Ebert, the well-known critic, convincingly points out, “[Gibson’s] story is set in a Jewish land, there are many characters with many motives, some good, some not, each one representing himself, none representing his religion.” (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES.)
In Puerto Rico, the Calvary of our colonial condition immediately comes to mind. As Ebert reminds us, “The Middle East in biblical times was a Jewish community occupied against its will by the Roman Empire, and the message of Jesus was equally threatening to both sides: to the Romans, because he was a revolutionary, and to the establishment … because he preached a new covenant and threatened the status quo.” Thus, the imperial and colonial authorities’ suppression of the challenge is reminiscent of the imperial and colonial suppression of Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos and the independence movement in the 1930s, and its aftermath to this day.
But, then, there is the Resurrection that makes Mel Gibson’s “Passion” a thousand-year story of continuing moral relevance. It reminds us that, moral conviction, even at the cost of great suffering, is a God-given lesson that lifts humanity beyond its nature for all time.