I saw this movie Saturday night with tokuga, his father, and a friend of theres. tokuga's church group reserved the entire movie theatre and invited people to see the film. I accepted tokuga's offer not only because I wanted to see the movie, but also because I had hoped to be involved in a discussion about the film's merits on its theological basis with people more knowledgeable about Christianity than myself.
The film has to be commented upon in two separate ways; on its merit as art, and on its merit as a piece of religious art. In neither case did I much care for it. Now - in fact, I disliked this film.
As a piece of art, it is hyper-violent. If you separate it from its religious meaning, then you can only imagine that Mel Gibson is a disturbed man with a lust for blood. Taken in the context of his other works, like Braveheart, The Patriot, and various ahistorical revenge-dramas, it is by far the most violent. In two hours and ten minutes, there are few respites from sadistic abuse of a single man - and few of those respites anything other than grim. The damage done to the body of Jesus is recorded in loving detail. I imagine, were I completely ignorant of the religious context of the film, I would think the director a sadistic man, in love with violence and torture. There is little else in the movie, and it is unremitting and gut-wrenching.
Personally, I have never seen a more graphically violent movie. I don't care for slasher movies, as I find the dismemberment of human bodies quite distasteful. But even slasher movies are less violent than this - although perhaps the grossness of physical trauma in a horror movie is more severe, certainly less screen-time is filled with it. The pornographically violent aspect of this movie can not be overstated; indeed, there is little else to the movie.
On its religious merits, I'm also quite disturbed by the movie. In a movie about the death (and as an afterthought, the resurrection) of Jesus Christ, is not the meaning for its necessity somewhat central to the story? This is largely glossed over in the movie. Mention is made of the necessity of Jesus' death - but not of the reason for that necessity. No explanation is given for the absence of the Apostles, or their willingness to flee when Jesus is arrested. Little explanation is given for the emnity of the Pharisees. There is no context for the suffering and violence; merely the fact of it.
There are elements in the movie which I don't recall being in any of the Gospels, either. The Jewish Temple is rent in two at the moment of Jesus' death by a massive earthquake. Did that happen in the Bible? It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't recall it, and neither did any of the people I viewed it with.
But fundamentally, I asked myself this question; what does this movie tell us about what God wants? Apparently, in Mr. Gibson's point of view, God wants blood and suffering. Lots and lots of it. God doesn't want love, or adoration, or worship, or loyalty, or mercy, or compassion; none of those things has a role to play in this movie. There is only torment, blood, grief, and anguish. That is what Mel Gibson's God wants, apparently.
There has been a great deal made of the anti-semitism in the film. Most of the people who have seen it since then have come out saying, "I didn't see any anti-semitism." I, on the other hand, did. It took a while to sink in - it's not obvious, and there are only a couple of images that are overtly anti-semitic -- which is nothing compared to the bad wrap Roman legionnaires get. But - well... the creepy and androgynous Satan only kisses one person in the movie, and it's a Jewish temple-guard, while Jesus is being scourged.
The real anti-semitism comes not by inclusion, but by what is omitted. There is no context given for the emnity of the Pharisees to Jesus. No mention is made of Jesus' campaigning for a reform of the temple and an end to the corrupt practices of the Sanhedrin and his fancily-dressed Rabbi-Mooks. Nothing - just the charges of blasphemy, and a relentless hatred and thirst for the blood and death of Jesus. Ultimate the blame is hung on the practices of the Jewish temple (and the savagery of the Roman soldiers) rather than the petty greed of a few corrupt men.
When determining guilt in a crime, the question is "Cui Bono?" or "Who profits?". Despite three secular trials and one religious trial, no one asks this of Jesus accusers. No one questions the validity of their claims - because they all know that the charges are false. Pilate refuses to condemn him, and orders him to be tried by Herod. Herod finds the same, and sends him back to Pilate. Pilate again finds him innocent, and refuses to do anything - until the Pharisees claim that Jesus instructed his followers not to pay Roman taxes. Pilate practically pleads with the Pharisees not to insist on Jesus' death. He pleads with Jesus to allow him, the Consul, to release him. Jesus gives Pilate a complete pass, absolving him of all responsibility and allowing him to free another prisoner in his place.
At no point does anyone say, "They want to kill Jesus because he chased the moneylenders from the Temple, and now the Pharisees have lost money." Isn't that an important consideration? And it's one thing entirely to keep that out of the proceedings with Pontius Pilate (which surely must have happened) but another thing for it never to be mentioned in the movie at all. It is a curious omission, which would provide context for the implacable desire for the death of Jesus that is utterly lacking. I thought this a very telling omission.
In all, I think this was a movie in poor taste. The violence was so graphic it was lurid and crass. There is no context given for the death of Jesus, merely the fact of it. As a work of art, it is questionable; as a religious piece, it serves no purpose other than to celebrate the gory death of Jesus Christ. What was accomplished, when Jesus says on the cross, "It is accomplished."?
Gibson doesn't have an answer.