Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev
First Things 141 (March 2004): 7-10.
It finds it "the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ"; here are some excerpts:
. . . . . Zefferelli’s movie is comparable to a Ghirlandaio painting—exquisite, but the figures occupy only half the canvas. By contrast, Gibson’s figures are in the style of Michelangelo, filling the screen, looming over us, threatening to enter our space. It is unnerving art. When the Roman soldiers call out “vertere crucem” the audience tenses. The soldiers lift the cross, prop it on its side for an agonizing moment, and then let it fall over towards us. As it crashes to the ground, an audible gasp sounds in the theater. The viewer is denied the detachment of looking through a window into a faraway world and is drawn into the scenes as a humble, perhaps helpless, participant . . . .The review also comments: "theological criticisms and concerns were expressed on the basis of an unofficial script apparently stolen from Gibson’s production company". Since this material about a "stolen" script is still getting regularly repeated, in my view unfairly, I will add a comment on this later.
. . . . . But all of this makes Gibson’s Passion nearly the opposite of the arcane and politically fraught tradition of the passion play. Such performances were often staged to incite the audience to choose sides, to “save” the integrity and honor of Christ by constituting a kind of party against Judas, the Jews, and the mob in Pilate’s courtyard. Had Gibson used the power of film to give this twisted but all-too-human political stereotype a new lease on life, concerns about the film stirring up anti-Judaism or hostility against nonbelievers would be justified. To his credit, however, Gibson denies the audience any shred of political or religious triumph, or, for that matter, defeat. Even a viewer who already knows and religiously believes in the final outcome of the story must struggle to keep watching, which is humiliating in its own right. There might be reason for scholars and religious authorities to raise questions about Gibson’s synthesizing of distinct scriptural accounts of the passion, or about his use of extra-biblical iconography. But it is hard to imagine anyone coming out of Gibson’s movie with an appetite for a religiously politicized passion. If anything, this is the definitive post-passion-play passion . . . . ."