The Passion of the Christ and The Polar
Aside from their obvious exploitation of sentimentality, on the surface, it
is hard to imagine two more different films. One follows the hideous degrading
and killing of a crucial religious figure; the other follows a lad to see Santa
at the north pole. I would argue, however, that the films, in tearing a veil of obscurity
away from central myths of western
culture, are effectively flip sides of the same coin: both films embrace the concept of belief,
and they strive to inculcate a moral message connected with belief by presenting a time-honored
story in graphic, literal detail invented by the filmmakers.
The Passion of the Christ
tenet of Christianity is the death and subsequent resurrection of the (divine)
person Jesus, with all that these imply. For their own reasons, many people shy away from interpreting
the gospel accounts literally; for the great Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann,
for example, the gospels were mythological envelopes surrounding one core principle
from God: the announcement (kerygma) of salvation.
But Mel Gibson, a highly conservative Catholic, shows
us how offended he is by learned and skeptical downplaying of the central Christian
myth by using all of his considerable financial power and Hollywood know-how
to create a movie which literally depicts the events surrounding the end of
Jesus' life (and the resurrection, too). The gospels never dared lift the veil
over the details of the resurrection, but Gibson gives it to us with a special
effect. Most of the gritty details of the crucifixion, which the gospels (decently)
left unmentioned, have been imagined up for us by Gibson, with the aid of Anne
Catherine Emmerich, a nun of the 19th century who wrote down a series of technicolor
visions she had of the events of the passion.
Gibson takes no chances that you might downgrade Jesus' suffering just because the
gospels don't expressly describe it; nor will he allow an abstract understanding of Jesus'
redemptive mission, as the playing-card-sized patch of skin yanked off by the cat-o'-nine-tails
in the flogging scene shows.
The Polar Express
It is a cliché that the Santa Claus mythos (encrusted with some pretty
rank materialism) displaces about as much cultural space as the Christian
message of salvation. In our secularized society, most Christians
suffer their children to believe in Santa, at least
for a while, and even the most secularized version of the Santa myth espouses
a core belief in a grave and important "spirit of Christmas," i.e.,
a humanistic spirit of giving and selflessness.
But the Santa myth is as problematic as the Jesus myth, as The Polar Express
readily points out. The protagonist is on the verge of not believing in Santa
because of all of the logical flaws in the received story (how does
Santa carry all those presents?). The makers of The Polar Express will
have us renew our faith in the core humanist values of the secular myth, and
retell the myth with the same snatching away of the veil of the obscure that
Gibson used for The Passion. Taking some material from previously invented
versions of the myth (The Night before Christmas, A Christmas Carol),
they have used their own imaginations to show us all of the lurid details of
the Santa myth, insisting on a documentary grade of realism (supported by novel
sfx). Note, for example, that nothing in the illustrations of Van Allsburg's "gospel" version of the story
requires any CGI special effects--all of the astonishing wonders have been deliberately added.
You can see Zemeckis et al. at work in the sequence of the loading of Santa's Bag onto the sleigh;
and in the vast complex devoted to checking who's naughty and who's nice. By the application of graphic, literal images,
they seek to help the viewer cross the gaps in credibility in the Santa story, just as Gibson seeks
to show us that a story just like the one in the Gospels is perfectly possible.
Am I equating belief in Jesus with belief in Santa? Not on the surface. I dare say no adult connected in the making of
The Polar Express believes in Santa, nor do they want you to, whereas I dare say
that a large portion of the creative talent which made The Passion believes in
the central message of that movie with deadly earnest. No, what I am grasping at
in this writeup is to express how two films at the very ends of the spectrum fall back on the same
technique of overtelling--and overselling--the story.
Each movie seeks to support its myth by showing us literally what
really happened, countering the unease we feel about the sources or logic of
the stories by using all the power of the screen to make the stories so real
they dispel disbelief. Each serves a higher purpose than simply telling their
story ultra-realistically--they are both about belief (The Polar Express
explicitly, The Passion not explicitly, but obviously so).
Bultmann, Rudolf. "New Testament and Mythology," translated and reprinted in Kerygma and Myth, 1961.
Mack, Burton L. 1988. A Myth of Innocence. Mark and Christian Origins.
Van Allsburg, Chris. 1985. The Polar Express.