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Monday, March 01, 2004

I saw TPOTC last night.

Part I of a multi-part review.

I wanted to see it yesterday afternoon, but it was sold out through the next-to-last showing. I think we are seeing the beginnings of a bona fide phenomenon here. I ended up seeing the last showing of the day--also sold out.

What do I think? It is hard for me to say I "love" the film--it does not lend itself easily to that characterization, but that eventually will bring me to a related point, so bear with me.

First, to the controversial points.

1. Anti-Semitism.

It's not for me to tell Jews how to react to the film. I think, though, that the wisest commentary on this issue has been from Dennis Prager, who says that Jews and Christians are seeing two different films. Honestly, I don't see how one could come to the conclusion that the film indicts all Jews of the time, let alone all Jews, in every time and place. Sympathetic Jews abound--at the Sanhedrin trial, and all throughout Jerusalem and the Via Dolorosa. You have to be trying not to notice them. More importantly, in making Caiaphas the central focus of villainy, the film takes the steam out of a collective guilt interpretation. One is left with the inclination to dislike "this guy" as opposed to "all these guys." That said, I would have like to see a more humanized Caiaphas, along the lines of Pilate, an exploration of motivations. This could have been done with a couple of lines he said in John.

When I get my $25 million, I can shoot my own film.

But perhaps the best rebuttal of the anti-Semitic charge comes in the form of one character--Simon of Cyrene, press-ganged into helping Christ carry His cross. A very reluctant figure (a father with a young daughter), he initially makes very clear for all the bystanders that he's not the condemned criminal here. Nevertheless, he quickly becomes a heroic figure, stopping the relentless abuse from the hellish Roman guards, at no small risk to himself. For all intents and purposes, he willingly bears the load up to Golgotha.

All very well and good, critics might say--how does that help?

How is Simon garbed? Throughout, he prominently wears the most common religious garb seen today on Jewish believers--a yarmulke.

Hint, hint.

2. The Violence.

It's grim, and I know I and the rest of the audience were horrified.

[Insert favorite qualifier here]

I've seen far, far worse. "Pornographic?" Puh-leez. The violence in the critics-darling Scream flicks was far worse--Drew Barrymore's character being disembowled and hung from a tree, for starters (literally). Hello? Nightmare on Elm Street 1 (another critical fave-rave), with its Johnny Depp blood geyser, anyone?

Then there's the non-slasher flicks--like those of Tarantino (who I generally like)--that are more violent. Reservoir Dogs' cop-torturing scene, along with Tim Roth virtually swimming in a spreading pool of his own blood, come to mind. Saving Private Ryan was more gruesome. And, speaking as someone who's seen Woo's Hardboiled, where the body count literally requires a digital counter, TPOTC is something of a piker in the violence department. I think S.T. Karnick at National Review Online has it nailed--the difference is, we care about this victim.

None of this is to deny that TPOTC is disturbingly violent--it most certainly is. The scourging scene is nothing short of horrific. But it would be interesting to cross-reference the negative Passion reviews with the same critics' takes on the other films mentioned above. I have a suspicion it would be very revealing.

3. Historical Accuracy.

Which brings me to one Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, 26-36 A.D. I thought he was a little too sympathetic. For my money, Rod Steiger's version in Jesus of Nazareth seemed to get it better. Still, let us lay to rest the notion that the Jewish leadership had no pressure points over Pilate. In 26 AD, he had the legions enter Jerusalem bearing shields with the image of the Emperor Tiberius. According to Josephus, outraged Jewish leaders protested to his superior in Syria, who ordered Pilate to remove them. According to Philo, in 32 AD following the execution of his patron, Sejanus, by Tiberius, Pilate attempted to suck up by having shields bearing Tiberius' name inside Jerusalem. This time, the leadership went straight to Tiberius, who immediately rebuked and overruled Pilate. In 33 AD, certain members of the leadership had a problem with a Galilean preacher...

Let's just say "you are no friend of Caesar" would have a special resonance under these circumstances.

A better point would be to question why the bloody Pilate would have hesitated in getting rid of another Jewish troublemaker. I look at it this way--it is consistent with human nature to take the opportunity to grind your heel into the insteps of people who irritate you. It is also fully consistent with the Roman principle of "divide and rule." Finally, it takes into account the effect our Lord had on people in his earthly ministry. Anyone else remember Jesus' effect on a particularly corrupt tax farmer named Zaccheus?

In other words, the psychology of the situation is more complex than those screaming "unhistorical" are willing to grant.

More to come.

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