‘Passion’ is a great film, but not the whole story

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, February 26, 2004 9:00pm
  • Local News

Sitting there in the dark, wracked by images of relentless torture and suffering, I kept hearing voices.

I listened, not only to the Aramaic and Latin speakers in "The Passion of the Christ," but to voices only I could hear. They helped me keep my eyes on the screen when I wanted to look away.

Back in the office after Wednesday’s matinee, a few people asked for my short — very short — review. Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Thumbs up.

All of you tired of hearing or reading even one more word about this movie, stop right here.

Having seen it, I’m left sorting out intense feelings, mental pictures and those voices.

First, there was my son, who knew I hadn’t wanted to see Mel Gibson’s film. The brutality, the hype — I frankly tried to avoid it. An editor thought otherwise. Knowing my trepidation, my son said as he left the house Wednesday, "Mom, it’s a film. He made a film."

A fledgling moviemaker, this kid has his own recipe for fake blood (Karo syrup, Jell-O powder and red food coloring). He’s also in his 11th year of Catholic school and preparing for confirmation. He knows the difference between faith and fake blood, and he sent me off to "The Passion" with a reminder that I do, too.

A voice from the past came to me during the movie, from a class I took in the 1970s at the state’s largest public school. The late Donald Treadgold, then chairman of the University of Washington history department, taught "History of Christianity." I’ve never forgotten this great professor’s powerful description of the central figure of the Christian faith as "fully God and fully man."

Somewhere between "Mom, it’s a film" and "fully God and fully man" is Gibson’s extreme and uncompromising work of religious art.

I have on my desk, opened to Page 481, a 3-inch thick "History of Art" by H.W. Janson and Anthony Janson. The artist Titian’s 1570 painting "Christ Crowned With Thorns" is proof that Gibson isn’t the first to portray Jesus’ physical suffering. It’s also a way to replace in my mind the horribly bloodied Christ portrayed by Jim Caviezel.

But critics decrying the violence and asking why Gibson didn’t show more of Jesus’ teachings have missed the point. The movie is not meant to be the life of Christ. The word "passion" comes from the Greek "pathos." It means suffering. Uppercased, "Passion" means the suffering of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the garden of Gethsemane and continuing to his death on the cross.

In his excruciating portrait of pain and sacrifice, Gibson’s mission is accomplished. The blame game? Which were the more heinous Christ killers, Jews or Romans? It’s an absurd question. Christianity is not about who, but why Christ died.

It is a hard movie to watch, so hard.

I wanted to stay in the brief flashbacks, in which a luminous Jesus delivers the message of loving one’s enemies and breaks bread with his disciples. I keep seeing a scene where the toddler Jesus falls and his mother Mary runs to him saying, "I am here." She holds him in an iconic Madonna and Christ child pose. Too quickly, we are back to the Crucifixion and a mother’s agony.

It’s a film. And it’s a faith — my faith.

For me, there was a moment when film and faith came together, and a feeling that I belong to a church with an unbroken history going back to the apostles in the days before Jesus was nailed to the cross.

After the scourging and the pounding of nails, the cross is raised. All my life, I have seen representations of Jesus on the cross. Wednesday, I saw it anew.

As a confirmation sponsor of a young parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church in Everett, I’ve been going to classes. So I’ve been hearing another voice, that of our pastor, the Rev. Dennis Robb. At the first class, Robb asked, "What is the greatest commandment?"

He then read from Chapter 22 of Matthew: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

I recommend "The Passion of the Christ." But don’t you dare take a child to see it. And don’t think it’s the whole story.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or


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