Film Critics Celebrate Violence (Unless It’s a Movie About Christ?)

Contemporary approaches to violence in film range from little more than exercises in exploitation to unflinching accounts of tragedy. But how do we decide which is which?

This question is all the more interesting in light of a recent piece by the always-perceptive Mollie Hemingway. In “The Passion of 12 Years a Slave,” Hemingway takes a long look at the differing critical reaction to two movies containing graphic violence: current awards contender 12 Years a Slave and 2004’s controversial The Passion of the Christ.

General viewers rated both films highly, but critics have almost universally embraced 12 Years while remaining ambivalent at best over The Passion. The film review site Rotten Tomatoes lists a 98% favorable rating among top critics for the former, as opposed to 37% in the same category for The Passion (though the number rises to 49% among all critics). What’s more, Hemingway documents several cases of the same media outlet—and even the same critic—celebrating 12 Years as bold and necessary filmmaking on the one hand while criticizing The Passion as extreme (and regularly comparing it to pornography) on the other.

For her part, Hemingway rates both films as very good and both hard to watch, causing her to look for an explanation beyond differing skill in film making. In full disclosure, I haven’t yet seen 12 Years, so I can’t evaluate its quality. But having seen The Passion, I certainly wouldn’t consider it to be poorly made. What then might be the reason for the differing critical evaluations of the two films?

It could be that both Mollie Hemingway and I have widely differing artistic tastes from the majority of critics. But frankly, I doubt it.

To denounce slavery isn’t controversial. It is an institution with no contemporary defenders. Instead, it’s quite rightly seen as the mechanism that robbed so many of dignity, well-being, and even life itself. We therefore applaud when someone shines light on slavery’s harsh historical reality, and hope that by understanding the mistakes of the past, we’ll be better equipped as a culture to avoid others in the future. This is all as it should be.

But consider what one finds in The Passion, which obviously draws heavily on the actual biblical accounts. To embrace the film’s central narrative is to understand that human sin is so grievous that it requires the remedy of Jesus himself suffering, and suffering horribly. But that means that you and I—and not just people from the distant past—are deeply reprehensible for our moral failures. This isn’t exactly an idea that most of us are boldly shouting from the rooftops. Hemingway concurs:

Our society is in general agreement that, apart from homophobia and racism, the only real sin is believing in sin. This creates a climate where a brutal depiction of what Christ suffered is frowned upon.

I suspect that the misunderstanding of many critics regarding historic Christianity also plays a roll in all of this. To illustrate, here are a few of the excerpts from critics that Hemmingway includes in her article:

The basic message of Christianity—love your brother—is obscured under torrents of blood to the point of benumbing the audience.

If I were a Christian, I’d be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me.

The Passion of the Christ is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it.

This despite the fact that:

1. The “basic message of the Christianity” is not the need to love one’s brother—as important as that command certainly is. Rather, Christianity’s foundation is actually the gospel: the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection and its significance for people who, among other things, consistently fail to love their brothers.

2. For two thousand years Christians have been happy to point to the violent, bloody death of Christ as central to our faith. We call it Good Friday for a reason.

3. Biblically speaking, God’s love for sinners is only rightly understood in light of his just wrath toward their sin. (See, e.g., Romans 3 and Ephesians 2.)

I’m not suggesting that The Passion as a whole or its depiction of violence should be immune from any criticism. But I would hope that those who suggest it went too far would at least try to familiarize themselves with the basic elements of Christianity, not to mention the historic brutality of Roman judicial punishments, particularly flogging and crucifixion.

As usual, much more could be said about all of this. But at a minimum, Hemingway’s piece suggests that critical evaluations of cinematic violence, and even films as a whole, are not always as straightforward as they seem.

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