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Women in The Passion of the Christ

February 28th, 2004 · 1 Comment

I didn’t want to go. My head ached. My stomach ached. I told Ted that I would rather go into labor than go to the movie.

I’d read many reviews. Previews. All kinds of commentary. Weeks ago. Months ago. Blog posts. Newspaper pieces. Emails forwarded from friends.

The thought of spending two hours watching blood, gore and violence made me ill. That’s what I had heard about the movie in recent reviews. It was R-rated for a reason.

I’ve never done well watching others suffer. I used to cry when Ernie pulled off Bert’s nose. Even my mother reminded me of that tonight, as I headed out the door, asking if I had some Kleenex with me: “you used to get upset at Sesame Street”. Until the past year or two, I would close my eyes or zone out during fights and battles in films. I don’t like to see it.

I hate violence.
But I love Jesus.
And I wanted to see what was done to him in this film.

So we went, Going out on a Friday night. A dreaded date. I didn’t even dress up. After all we were going to sit in the dark and watch a man die.

I expected to see lots of blood and gore. I expected to see lots of artistic license. I expected to see controversial characterizations, depictions of people, that might seem offensive to some. I saw all of those. I didn’t agree with the film as a whole. There were parts I didn’t like. Parts that seemed excessive. Parts that needed more clarity.

What I want to mention in this post however is what I did like, what surprised me after reading the reviews. I dreaded seeing The Passion, and my anxiety had made me physically ill. Watching the movie I started to feel better. And I found myself saying, to my own surprise, during certain scenes: I like this.

I expected to cry. I had heard a lot about sobbing. I sat through the film holding a wad of tissues with one hand. I didn’t cry a lot. Perhaps it was all the anxiety and expectations.

My tears did start when Claudia, Pilate’s wife appeared. I have always loved this character, although she only appears briefly in one of the gospels: one sentence. When Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat hi wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” Mt 27:19 She had dreamed about Jesus and told Pilate not to have anything to do with “that innocent man”. I didn’t expect to see her in the movie, or for much more than one or two lines.

In the movie her role is expanded and enhanced. There are at least a couple scenes between her and Pilate. She and Pilate discuss truth: veritas . One of my favorite scenes in the crucifixion story is when Pilate asks Jesus “What is truth?” This dialogue is continued between Claudia and Pilate.

What I love about this woman is that she knew what was right. She had a dream. She was a prophet. She was bold. She told her husband what he should do. All that is in the gospel account. What isn’t in the Bible is how Pilate listens to her. How the movie portrayed their marriage, how the dynamics of their relationship played through Jesus’ condemnation, amazed me.

In the movie, Claudia, with compassion, goes to Mary and Mary Magdalene. She does something noble and caring. I loved this woman even more. The fact that Mel Gibson chose to highlight her role, and the way in which he did it, making her a woman of power, respect and beauty, was a wonderful surprise.

Mary Magdalene also had some powerful scenes, but Mary Jesus’ mother made the movie for me. I have to say I wasn’t sure I would like a Catholic movie: I wasn’t sure I would agree with the portrayal of Mary. However, her role made the story easier for me as a mother.

I’ve read the Bible a few times. I’ve heard the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death over and over again since childhood. And the text gets dry. The imagination dies in the mind. It has become something I was sure I knew: first this happens, then that…old hat. Nothing new.

A movie leaves a lot less to the imagination than a book. And Mel Gibson did take some liberties with the characters. I have to say that when I read the story, the black words on white paper, I don’t imagine as much as I should. I didn’t see Mary there at the cross the whole time as he was dying, how she was reacting and watching. Gibson also added her presence at his other sufferings.

The flashbacks from her relationship with Jesus, the times she loved him as a mother, as a child she could cradle in her arms and hold against her chest, opened her perspective to me. They tease and play, having fun with each other. I had not thought a lot about how it all was for her, as Jesus’ mother, watching him die, seeing the fulfillment of what she had heard would happen to him. As a mom, I too could walk a little in her shoes on that road. I could understand her pain and her passion.

In general I felt the film was more feminine than I imagined. Women gave Jesus water. Women cared for him, taking risks to show their love. Women wept. Women encouraged Simon to carry the cross for him. The women often were the ones who didn’t want Jesus to die. I don’t know if this feminine pacifist perspective comes from Catholicism, or from Mel Gibson himself, who has admitted his gratitude for his wife. Given the way society was at that time and the roles women played, I appreciated how many women there were in the movie’s story, and how they loved Jesus. A film without these expanded female roles would have been less powerful for me. Through the women around Jesus I could see myself more. I could step better into the story. In general there are not many women in the gospel story, or mentioned in Jesus’ life, so I didn’t expect to see what I saw. I liked what I saw with the women.

I could write more about the movie but what I wanted to emphasize was the women of The Passion: what I liked most and what I had not read in other reviews. The film depicts vivid suffering. Jesus’ suffering in his body and blood. Crucifixion is an awful way to die. Pure torture. That’s an understatement. I had heard about crucifixion and seen other movies, but this one, as far as I can remember, gives the strongest, most dramatic visuals. The movie wasn’t entirely filled with his sufferings, it wasn’t as intense or gorey as I had expected, but it was a large portion of the picture. I was grateful when the movie got to the crucifixion because I knew it would end soon. Although I didn’t sob, I had a hard time watching at times, wincing and wanting to turn away from it.

But I felt that the female characters, especially Mary, spoke about their own suffering. Their own Passion. Even Claudia hurts. While Jesus’ suffering is much greater than Mary’s, I appreciated the insight into her emotions. The pain of a mother. How she must have felt such agony while watching her son die.

In one of the flashbacks, Jesus said “No greater love has any man than he lay down his life for his friends.” It’s amazing to think that Jesus lay down his life for his friends. He chose it. To see what he suffered for me, for all people. That brought tears too. Lots of them.

At our wedding, one of our friends sang a song she had written from the verse “no greater love”. We had given her other ideas for inspiration but she had written a song for us from this verse instead. Since then, I’ve often thought about that song, the significance of what was sung at our wedding. Am I living that kind of love for Ted? Seeing the movie of Jesus, how he died, how he loved, challenges me. Do I love God like that? Do I love my husband? My children? My mother? How much do I love those in my life? Enough to suffer? Enough to die for them? How am I laying down my life for them? What choices am I making?

During the movie, Ted holds one of my hands inside his two. I like the feel of his fingers. His hold comforts me as I respond to what I see on the screen.

We come home. I hug my girls. I hug my mom. We all sit in the hallway. We are happy to be home together. The girls are wearing their pajamas and hopping around the hall. I hold Elisabeth in my lap. My child clings to me. She lays her head against my chest.
I think about love. I think about Passion.

Tags: faith

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Katherine // Feb 29, 2004 at 7:16 pm

    About the preponderance of helpful women, I noticed this morning Matthew 27:54, which says, “Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.”

    I saw the film on Saturday at 1pm, amongst the huge crowds. I was glad I had bought my ticket ahead and arrived 45 minutes early (I was only midway through the line, not at the front…). I thought it was well worth watching, though I don’t know how well I would stomach it another time soon.