Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Passion of The Christ

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13

At last, we could get tickets. The astoundingly popular new movie in theatres nationwide at the time of this writing, “The Passion of The Christ” as directed by Mel Gibson, had sold out in my Midwest town on the first weekend of its showing. Joe, my better half, and I were disappointed. While admittedly feeling just a little anxious about seeing onscreen the brutality of a realistic crucifixion—I had heard so much about this aspect of it, and I otherwise avoid movies promoted as violent—I was increasingly eager to see with my own eyes, judge with my own mind, what I was hearing discussed so heatedly everywhere I turned. With record breaking sales, the movie was bringing in unprecedented crowds, and Joe and I had to be patient, wait for the following weekend. Finally, we held tickets in hand.

I had read and viewed countless interviews and reviews and op-eds about Gibson’s portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion, heard the talk around the water cooler at the office, shared the insights over dinner with friends, debated the message sent to viewers over a cold one at the pub. My daughter Lorena Audra, at Florida State University to finish up her internship at the Public Defender’s Office in Tallahassee and thus complete requirements for her degree in social work, had already called, more than once, to ask: “Have you seen it yet? Have you seen it? Hurry up, Mom! I want to talk to you about it!” I was impressed with her hungry enthusiasm for deeper discussion. Lorena is no na├»ve babe in the woods. She has recently completed a 10-month cross-country trek with AmeriCorps, has traveled much of the world, works in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, rolls up her sleeves in at-risk youth centers, routinely visits inmates at prisons, sings around the campfire with disabled adults and children, dances with Texas cowboys, demands justice from her congressmen, walks Tallahassee streets at late night hours sneering fearlessly at the boys who dare whistle her down after a hard night of waitressing at the neighborhood pool hall. She wears the scars of a broken family in her own background. For all her bubbling personality, for all the tenderness of her wise heart, this young woman doesn’t go soft easy. She’s been around the proverbial block, and then a few turns, to be fully as cynical as her middle aged Mom about stories involving miracles. But this movie seemed to have grabbed her attention by the throat, and shaken it—hard.

The theatre lights dim. I have a death grip on Joe’s hand. Maybe it’s not just the prospect of witnessing an uncomfortable degree of violence on the screen that has my breath coming a little short. I can’t quite explain it. There is this, this faint echo inside, this… guilt. I am about to attend an execution, I think, and I am one of those who determined the sentence. I feel Joe’s return grip, and it is just as firm.

The opening scene is blue with moonlight. The shadow of a man in a garden, silhouettes of trees surrounding him, the soft breathing of sleepers nearby. We hear the whisper of anguished prayer, the kind we pray when our hearts are raw with terror and loneliness. Christ prays, alone, to his Father, while his disciples sleep, and for a moment he is more son of man than Son of God, for he feels as we feel, and the sweat runs down his face, lit by the moon, as he trembles with premonition. A silent figure with haunting eyes glimpses between the silhouetted trees, watching, listening. Satan is played by a female figure, male voice dubbed over, androgynous and as oddly seductive in its manner as any evil. This silent figure is always near.

It is some time into the movie before I feel the first hot flush of tears wash over my eyes. Perhaps I have been prepared by all the talk. Perhaps I know the story well enough. There are no surprises. If my breathing strains at the merciless scourging, I do not, will not, look away. How can I? It is my hand that holds the whip. It is I who have dealt the punishment. It is I who nevertheless receive the reward of mercy and forgiveness. And so I bear witness.

The moment that breaks me down and pushes me over is one that taps into my mother’s heart. I have a daughter, I have a son, also, and like Mary’s, he is tall and handsome and strong. I have felt him grow inside my womb, I have birthed him, nursed him, guided his first step. I have taught him and I have sat through nights beside him when he was ill or woken from a nightmare. If harm were to come to him, I would give my life a thousand times over to save his, and give it again, without a moment of hesitation. If a blow would fall upon him, I would feel it on my own body and cry out. I watch as Mary’s face pales with pain. I watch as she struggles through the crowd massed around to see her son carry His cross, even as the soldiers continue to beat Him. She can do nothing, nothing to stop them, nothing to stop what must be, what her son Himself has accepted fully as the cup that is His to drink. She can, however, let Him see her among that crazed and maddened crowd, let His eyes meet hers for an instant, offering the support of her mother’s heart through eyes alone. This, I understand. When her son falls to His knees beneath the terrible weight He carries, Mary recalls instantly the little boy fallen in the dust of the road that runs along their house and how she rushes to Him, embracing him, soothing away His pain. This time, she can’t save Him, nor even hold Him, but her eyes send her love to Him across the crowd, and He is strengthened by it.

As witness of this scene, one that resonates in me so deeply that I grow dizzy with the pain of empathy and understanding, I allow my own tears to flow freely. I am broken and healed simultaneously. Beside me, Joe weeps with me, surely as a son recalling the infinite comfort of his own mother.

We all know how the story ends. Or, at least, where it ends when the last page of the Book is turned. Beyond that it is continued individually in our own lives and through our own daily choices and decisions, as lifelong witnesses to the sacrifice made for each and every one of us.

When the screen at last has gone black, we sit motionless as the rest of the crowd slowly clears. It is not the usual movie audience, I note, but one of most varied ages and types, including bent women with white hair, taking each careful step along the aisle behind a walker. The silence in the theater is heavy, and I still feel Joe’s fingers wrapped tightly around my own. We wait until the theater is empty, last credits scrolled from the screen, before at last we too rise and leave.

There had been plans to meet with others, somewhere across town, perhaps a dinner, perhaps a shared beer and friendly chatter. But we both decide to cancel. “Let’s go home,” Joe says quietly, “let’s talk, I’d like to talk about what we’ve seen…”

Only hours later, Lorena Audra calls again. Yes, I said, we’ve seen it. Yes, let’s talk. She tells me about the new church she’s found, a pastor who has a personal history of endured pain, reason to understand, harsh experience of the sort that makes the heart tender with compassion. We talk for a long time, we talk on another day, too, and then another. Her heart seems to be overflowing, her mind fills with questions, and new answers to questions. She sounds happy. She recalls a car accident she was in a couple years ago, her tiny red Toyota broad sided by another car, spiraling into the air and turning, turning, turning over and over several times, knocking her unconscious inside, where she sat behind the wheel without a seatbelt on. When she woke in the ambulance, a small cut bled along her hairline, now mostly hidden beneath the blond strands of her hair. One small cut. “Mom?” she says. “I’m thinking now… maybe that night I wasn’t alone in that car. What a comforting thought, that someone cares that much about me…”

Having held back from all the vapid discussions around water coolers and in neighborhood pubs previously, I'm glad now I can offer my own perspective. And that is: Gibson has courageously created a masterpiece. I would change nothing. I know the story so well, as many of us do, yet seeing it on screen so vividly left a powerful effect that haunts me still, days after seeing it, and perhaps lifelong. The entire movie is an invitation to explore one's heart, one's conscience, one's spirituality, one's life. It is a movie that changes lives.

And is the violence gratuitous? I have heard so much about this—the violence of Christ’s crucifixion. And I am offended by the accusation. How can our society be so hypocritical? In a time when we allow pornography on every venue, referring to this abuse of human rights and dignity as "freedom of expression", when we allow our children to play video games that glamorize murder, when every other movie on the screen today makes a sport of killing and torment, when child abuse has become rampant, and war rages across the planet.... we dare call a movie that realistically portrays the suffering one man, Son of God, endures for each and every one of us ... too violent? How dare we. I suspect it is our shame of the hammer and nail we each hold in our own hands that allows such rationalization.

I highly recommend this movie. You might wish to read the Book, too.

(Although I first reviewed this movie when it was in the theatres, my family watched it again on Christmas Day, 2004, in honor for the meaning of this holiday, too often forgotten. And so I post it on Christmas. My gift of good will to all men and women.)

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