Bible Review 20:3, June 2004

Bible Books Movies

A Passion Play on film

By now, most BR readers will have seen the Bible-movie event of the year, The Passion of the Christ. It’s June, and the movie is already a falling star. After all the hype and anticipation, Mel Gibson’s film turned out to be surprisingly conventional. It’s a Passion Play on film.

Anyone who has ever seen a Passion Play will know the formula for the movie. Bits and pieces from the Gospels’ portrayal of the last hours of Jesus’ life are mixed with popular lore and then presented in a series of moving tableaus for the benefit of Christian believers. The hope is that viewers will feel as though they are really there, witnessing what really happened. Some presentations of the Passion Play even encourage audience participation. You can join the throng in shouting “Crucify him!” and “His blood be upon us and our children!” At the viewing I attended, many people applauded at the end.

In some sense, the Passion Play has finally found its medium. The camera provides close-ups of the anguish on Mary’s face as Jesus is tortured. Special effects show the flailing of Jesus’ flesh as it rips from his body. Demons, dreams and other new elements can easily be inserted into the script. The dialogue can be spoken in ancient tongues, with subtitles, to give viewers the impression that they are eavesdropping on actual events as they unfolded 2,000 years ago. The effect can be truly mesmerizing.

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