Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Panel discussion of The Passion of the Christ

I took part last night in a Panel Discussion of The Passion of the Christ at the Light-House in Wolverhampton. It was an interesting experience. To be honest, I felt a little over-prepared. The other panelists had seen the film once each and were less familiar with the background than I. My natural enthusiasm, not only for the film but also for the opportunity to engage critically about it, meant that I had to be careful not to talk too much, a tough challenge.

Dr Deirdre Burke from the University of Wolverhampton spoke first. Her view was that the film was deeply disturbing and that there was anti-Semitism here of the kind that was likely to lead to people vandalising synagogues. The Rt. Rev’d Michael Bourke, Anglican Bishop of Wolverhampton, was more positive about the film and said that he had preached on it over the Easter period, but that he was a little concerned about the violence in the film -- graphic depictions of violence in the cinema could lead people to become desensitized to violence in the real world. Dr George Chryssides, also of the University of Wolverhampton, was pretty negative about the film. He felt that it did not stand up well as a piece of history and was misleading on several fronts. I tended to make the kind of points I've made here and in my article. I had just watched the film again and explained that because it engaged me strongly on an emotional and spiritual level, it was harder for me to exercise the kind of critical detachment that I would normally aim for in this kind of context.

Deirdre Burke expressed her concerns about the film in the context of talking about holocaust survivors, so I did point out that Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays Mary the mother of Jesus, was the daughter of a holocaust survivor and the grandaughter of someone who died at Auschwitz. I still feel that this cannot be lightly brushed aside.

George Chryssides commented that the film was not recognisably set in Jerusalem -- he felt that it looked nothing like it and did nothing to evoke a Jerusalem setting in the viewer's mind. I found this interesting and it did make me realise that there are no long shots of the temple, for example, little that will make the viewer think of the Temple and its architecture.

The audience had widely varying views and seemed pretty representative of the reaction in the general public. Some love it, some hate it. One member of the audience introduced himself as a media studies lecturer and said that he thought the film awful and completely cliché ridden, slow motion, use of flashback etc. Predictably, perhaps, I tried to point out the differences between this film and other Jesus films, and specifically focused on the fascinating phenomenon of seeing events through Jesus' eyes, including seeing the view of the stone rolling back from inside the tomb. In fact I noticed this all the more in the viewing of the film beforehand -- there are many scenes on the road to Calvary where one is clearly seeing events as Jesus himself sees them, shaky camera and all. And during the scourging, it is Jesus who sees the devil and the demonic baby.

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