Misinterpeting Mel

Apropos intellectuals misunderstanding religion, I remember being surprised how few liberal intellectuals (e.g. most film critics, and almost everyone I know) seemed to understand Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. They were mystified because they were making a category error: they reviewed it as if it were a movie. But it’s not a movie. It’s a devotional object, a Renaissance altarpiece, the stations of the cross. Mel was merely working in his own medium, which happens to be film.

Almost all the nation’s movie critics (former altar boy Roger Ebert being a notable exception)1 failed completely to realize what they were seeing. Among other things, they were displeased at The Passion of the Christ‘s focus on Jesus’ death, to the complete exclusion of the rest of his life, his ministry, and his teachings. They had expected it to tell a story of at least some part of Jesus’ human life, à la King of Kings or The Gospel According to St Matthew–or even Jesus Christ, Superstar or Life of Brian. But stories and narrative and indeed anything involving rational thought are completely beside the point. You’re not intended to watch it in order to appreciate the subtle nuance of the plotting and dialog2 or to learn about Jesus’ theology, but to experience fully the suffering of our dear savior.

Not surprisingly, The Daily Show seemed to understand this best (the quote is in the context of antisemitism in the film but I think it applies generally):

Jon Stewart: Rob, the big issue everyone’s talking about is antisemitism. Did you get any of that from the movie?

Rob Corddry [looking shellshocked, having just seen The Passion]: That’s kind of a brain question, Jon, and this is a movie you watch more from a stomach place…

I would have expected more critics to have figured out the film’s true nature. Didn’t some large fraction of them take art history courses in college? Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel were quite overt in echoing the look and feel of the aforementioned altarpieces and other Renaissance religious artwork.

As a side note, I think many of the evangelicals/fundamentalists who did relate to The Passion on its own level may not have quite realized what they were seeing–in particular I don’t think they understood how very very Catholic it was, in all its Marian imagery and whatnot. Not that they needed to understand that, or that it would matter if they did.

1 See also the discussion in Slate between Robert Alter and Stephen Prothero. Of course, they are religious studies professors, not movie critics.

2 Not that there wasn’t any. I loved the way Pilate questioned Jesus in Aramaic–and Jesus answered in Latin. I assume that’s because arch-Catholic Gibson wanted to hear the line “Quid est veritas?” in Latin.

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