‘The Passion’ feeds our passion for violence

One of the most hotly-debated movies to come along in a long time, “The Passion of the Christ,” finally hit the big screens last Wednesday.
I can’t remember the last time a film aroused such strong and disparate opinions among regular movie-goers.
The film stirred up controversy even before its official release date, when some people who had been invited to special screenings said the film demonized Jews and held them responsible for the death of Christ.
The local Fort Frances Covenant Church even is holding a discussion group tonight at the Rainy Lake Hotel for people who want to talk about the film.
Since the movie’s release, people have been talking mostly about the extreme violence in the film—and whether it is an appropriate or effective way to convey the story of Christ.
Let me say, before I join the debate, that I have not seen “The Passion of the Christ,” nor do I plan to. I haven’t the stomach for graphic violence.
And when long-time film critic Roger Ebert writes, “This is the most violent film I have ever seen,” that’s enough to convince me to stay home.
So while I cannot pretend to review the film on its technical merits, I can put in my two cents about the use of extreme violence—in this and many other so-called “historical” films.
More and more, North American audiences are demanding “realism” from traditionally fictional forms of entertainment, particularly TV and movies.
Witness the rise of “reality TV” which began a few years ago with shows like “Survivor” and which now has expanded to programs like “The Apprentice” and “My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiancé.”
But nowhere is this trend more evident than in people’s defence of Mel Gibson’s film. So strongly do people feel about the film that the Toronto Star has set up a link from its website for people to voice their opinions.
“This movie’s blunt gore is an honest depiction of what Christ must have went through,” writes one movie-goer on the Star’s site.
“Jesus didn’t have tea and crumpets with the Romans before they decided upon a game of crucifixion. It was and should be portrayed as a brutally violent event,” writes another.
The disturbing thing about these comments is they use the film’s so-called “realism,” its basis in historical events, to defend the director’s use of graphic violence—and their own bloodlust.
Since when is “realism” a mark of quality, or of talent? “Realism” in and of itself is not a superior form. It is but one out of dozens of styles for conveying a message.
Are Picasso’s paintings inferior to those of Caravaggio because he employed cubism rather than realism? Well-known works like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Picasso’s “Guernica” are powerful images that look nothing like the real world.
Instead, they are based on experiences and emotions. Sometimes you have to look for the meaning, but when you find it, it is all the more precious.
Gibson is not the only Hollywood director guilty of using realism as an excuse for a lack of imagination. Look at “Saving Private Ryan” or “Schindler’s List.”
While I commend Steven Spielberg for trying to convey the horrors of the Holocaust (an event which Gibson’s father denies ever happened), I didn’t find the film particularly enlightening.
On a trip to Germany some years ago, I visited Buchenwald—a concentration camp in the former East Germany. It is estimated some 56,000 Jews were starved or worked to death there. Or executed.
Looking at a silent row of cold ovens, at empty rooms where human beings once had been skinned to be made into lampshades, brought home the human tragedy of the Holocaust to me.
I didn’t see the skin lampshades, or piles of bodies waiting to be burned in the ovens. I didn’t have to. Just knowing what had taken place there was enough.
There is much to be said for subtlety and imagination—both lost arts in the 21st century, it seems.
To be clear, I would never deny a filmmaker’s right to use violence—or sex—in a film. If a movie doesn’t appeal to me, I simply don’t go see it.
But when a filmmaker pretends to offer some higher form of “truth” or insight into an event by portraying it “realistically,” when in fact he’s simply pandering to—and cashing in on—the public’s passion for gore, I am disgusted.
If you really want to learn about Jesus’ suffering, read the Bible, then imagine it happening to you.