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The Passion and the Story

July 28, 2006

My girflriend was watching Passion of the Christ last night, and I caught the tail end of it. I’d seen it before–actually three days before it came out, right at the white-hot center of the controversy over the movie–and I have thought about it a lot, especially since I’m Jewish and was writing for a Jewish magazine at the time. At some point in the future, I’d like to write a more comprehensive review, but for the time being, I wanted to address the question of why people cared about this movie.

I don’t say that to be flippant, or disrespectful of Jesus or Christianity, but it’s just very interesting: The Passion of the Christ is missing many of the components of what we usually expect from our movies. The protagonist, Jesus, is nearly devoid of personality. The villains are simplistic (with the exception of Pontius Pilate, which is a whole ‘nother discussion). And the most fundamental requirement of drama–that the protagonist change–is not met. Jesus’ conviction that he is the son of God does not waver from the beginning to the end of the movie; if anything, it gets stronger the further along he gets. And yet, millions of people–including many who were not religious–watched and appreciated this movie. Despite lacking some apparent necessities of a compelling drama, The Passion of the Christ became one of the most successful movies ever.

The first question I think we need to ask is: what makes a great story? Most people would agree that a great story is driven by the characters; if you care about the characters, you’re willing to follow the story whereever it goes. If you don’t care about the characters, you don’t care about the story. If you can think of a story you cared about where you didn’t care about the characters, let me know, because I’ve racked my brain for years on this and haven’t come up with a single one.

This leads to a second, much trickier, question: why do we care about certain characters and not others? No one’s answered this definitively–and if they have, they’re not sharing their lucrative secret with anyone else–but my college screenwriting teacher’s theory was that we care about characters who suffer. It’s a fascinating but simple theory. If you start thinking about it, it’s next to impossible to think of a character you cared about who didn’t suffer, in some way.

If suffering, then, is the key to empathy, it makes perfect sense why The Passion of the Christ was so popular. In the Passion, Jesus does nothing but suffer. In fact, the more Jesus suffers, the more we care about him. If the greater the suffering, the more empathetic the character, and the more empathetic the character, the greater the story, then it’s clear why Jesus’ story is often called the Greatest Story Ever Told.

When I first saw The Passion, I remember being disturbed by the fact that the only Jesus we see is Jesus in pain. What about the great teacher that Christians always speak about? What about the beautiful values, and brilliant lessons, he taught? It seemed a shame not to include this aspect of Jesus, especially at the time, because the movie’s high profile would have afforded Gibson a great opportunity to share what makes Jesus great with Jews and other uninformed viewers.

But as much as I may have wanted that from an educational perspective, it probably would have made a boring movie. Really, who wants to sit through a movie listening to Jesus lecture us why we’re such shits?

Watching Jesus be tortured and die, I started to understand why the idea of the Trinity holds such appeal for Christians. If Jesus is the son of God–which in effect makes him a god–then why does it matter if he’s tortured? Do gods feel pain? Can gods die? But if he is also human, then you identify with him because you can only imagine what the pain of his crucifixion must be like. So, for his story to matter, he must be God, but for you to care, he must be human. Hence the mystery of the Trinity.

I’d love to hear what some of you non-Jewish readers think about this…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Father Tannenbaum, SJ permalink
    August 2, 2006 5:02 pm

    Micah – Very good comments about TPOC. Not bad for a little Jewish boy.

    Burning bush!

  2. bro permalink
    September 4, 2006 8:44 pm

    I finally saw it over the weekend, and you’re pretty accurate. It is hard to care about Jesus since he’s basically a cipher except for the occassional flashback where he’s washing some feet or saving some whore. I can only imagine that observant christians are so familiar with the jesus story that back story and characterization aren’t even necessary for them. it’s simply enough to present a fairly realistic representation of jesus and the viewer fills in the blanks.
    it’s also interesting that while the movie is certainly bloody, it’s really not that violent. Sure, there’s lots of whipping and the occasional spike through body parts, but i’m sure there are dozens of horror movies that are far more gruesome in their depiction of torture. I bring this up because I happened to watch the French film Irreversible the night before, and there is a scene near the beginning of it which is quite possibly the most brutal assault I’ve ever seen on film.
    And since you didn’t touch on the anti-semitic issue, I will. I really wasn’t offended by the depiction of the Hebrews in it. While Gibson does go out of his way to basically absolve Pilate of any responsibility, he also shows that it was mainly the high priests who were pushing for crucifixion, not necessarily the common people, as the commoners actually had to be paid to show up for the “trial”. in fact, jesus’ death is not so much the result of religious differences, but base politics. jesus is a threat to the power of the high priests, and the possibility of a Jewish uprising is a threat to Pilate’s governance.

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