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One sinner's thoughts on 'The Passion'

March 28, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Is it proper to munch popcorn while you're watching a graphic movie about the final agony of Jesus Christ?

I didn't think so, but when my wife and I recently went to see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," several others who attended carried it in by the tub, giving a whole new meaning to the term "comfort food."

I don't go to sad movies if I have a choice. If you want sad, I figure, watch the TV news and contemplate the latest smoking ruin and the tearful faces of those whose parents, children or friends have been blown up in the most recent outburst of senseless violence.

But I went anyway, not only because the movie and everything surrounding it has become a cultural phenomenon, but also because so many people I know have described it as being almost a life-changing experience.

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It is one thing, they said, to read that Jesus was scourged, but quite another to see that act rendered in gruesome color, on a screen 50 feet high.

If you haven't seen it, this is a movie for people who already know the story. Like many modern movies, it begins at the end and works its way backward, in part through a series of flashbacks. But for someone not raised in the Christian tradition, it would be a puzzle.

That person would wonder why the authorities saw this person as such a threat. A madman could proclaim himself a king, but even 2,000 years ago there were probably people babbling nonsense in the street. Saying "I'm the king" would hardly seem to justify the high priests' desire to kill him.

On that point, I didn't find the movie anti-Semitic, although the No. 2 high priest probably answered a casting call seeking someone resembling Ming the Merciless from the old Flash Gordon serials. The high priests also have the fanciest robes, which plays into the old Hollywood convention of the noble poor and the evil rich.

A non-believer might also wonder why the crowd which had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday turned against him so quickly. Gibson missed a big opportunity here to look at mob violence and how hatred can be whipped up by unscrupulous leaders of any faith. In this movie, the mob goes along, but we're really not sure about their reasons. Have they been threatened by their spiritual leaders? We never see any exposition on that point.

It's an important issue, because people have been killing other people in the name of religion for a long time and I've never been able to understand why. Every St. Patrick's Day, I don't think about green beer and leprechauns, but about why in a country like Ireland, famed for its culture and traditions, some people want to do each other harm based on which church they attend.

The movie also contains incidents that are not in the Bible. In the opening scene, the devil, portrayed as woman, unleashes a snake that slithers across the hand of Jesus. Later, the same woman carries what appears to be a demon child who smiles as Jesus is whipped.

This seems odd, since in his TV interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson said that if you don't like the movie, argue with the people who wrote the gospels. Wasn't the story compelling enough without adding things to it?

It was when I grew up in Our Lady of Sorrows' parish in Takoma Park. During Holy Week just before Easter, we went to church and did the "Stations of the Cross."

The stations, actually a series of events in the passion, were represented on 14 plaques mounted on the walls of the church. At each station, you knelt on the bare floor and contemplated the events depicted.

Did your knees hurt by the time you were done? Yes, but as the good sisters told us, it was nothing compared to the pain that Jesus endured. Do Catholic children still do such things today?

The most interesting question now is: Now that his $20 million gamble has paid off, what will Gibson do with the money?

It would be a great disappointment to many if he used the cash to build mansions or fund another "Mad Max" or "Lethal Weapon" movie.

That's especially true, because as a friend pointed out to me, many of the people who saw this movie would never attend a violent bash-'em, smash'-em action movie.

Those people now expect Gibson to use that money to do something like changing the world for the better. He will find, if he chooses to try, that such a task is much more difficult than making a movie.

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