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The Passion of the Christ and The Polar Express.

The problem:

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

The central 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.

Conclusion

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).


Bibliography

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.

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