A film to excite passions
Two brief and minor scenes in Mel Gibson's movie stick in my mind. During the long torment of Jesus, a flashback shows stones dropping slowly to the ground. We are not sure what we are seeing. Is this some sort of boccielike game? As the camera pulls back, we understand. It's the stoning of the adulteress, halted by Jesus's words "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." The placement of the flashback draws a contrast between the punishment Jesus recommended for the woman (none), and the punishment he suffered. Later Gibson shows Mary, on her knees in terrible grief and pain, picking up and tightly clenching two handfuls of pebbles as she watches her son being tortured on the way to Golgotha. She relaxes her grip and drops her stones too--no room for hatred or revenge for those who wish to follow Jesus. Two intertwined lessons in forgiveness, in a few seconds, with no words. This is brilliant filmmaking.
You can see why Gibson originally planned to release this film, The Passion of the Christ, without subtitles, with a sound track in three languages that nobody understands: It's a visual experience. He seems to say, of course you all know the story, but you live in a visual culture and have never understood it visually. In his last words to Mary, Jesus says, "See, Mother, I make all things new." It's a familiar line turned into an emotionally wrenching scene. Another image I found unforgettable: Simon of Cyrene and Jesus linking arms over each other's shoulders as they bear the cross up to Golgotha. Simon has grown more and more protective of the abused Jesus. He is no longer the randomly selected onlooker forced by the Romans to help carry the cross. He is literally walking with Jesus. In one evocative image, lasting just a few seconds, Gibson places all serious Christians in the scene in the figure of Simon. Some of us will never again be able to hear the phrase "walk with Jesus" without thinking of Gibson's image here. Many viewers will not be able to think of the passion and death of Jesus except in Gibson's images.
So far, Gibson's achievement here has been overwhelmed by the argument about anti-Semitism. His most dogged critic has been hounding him on this issue for a full year, arguing that while Gibson is not an anti-Semite, he holds anti-Semitic views--a way of alleging serious bigotry while seeming to deny it. One red herring after another has been hurled Gibson's way: His father seems anti-Semitic; Gibson is an unorthodox pre-Vatican Council Catholic, and he has been in a lot of violent movies and must therefore be in love with gore for its own sake (a charge rarely raised against the makers of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which shows heads and many arms and legs coming off, or the makers of Hannibal, which features a man forced to eat part of his own brain). Gibson contributed to the mess by a single outburst against a columnist (endlessly rehashed by his detractors) and by seeming to downplay the horror of the Holocaust in a recent interview in Reader's Digest.