The Passion of the Christ : A Review
I approached this film with deep reservations and filled with the biases of conflicting positive and negative reviews. I expected to see a pious, yet gruesome, meditation on the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and prepared to bite my lip and indulgently overlook gross Scriptural and historical inaccuracies, as well as one-dimensional characterization and over-the-top Hollywood violence. Instead, I witnessed an amazingly subtle, sophisticated, tasteful, and, for the most part, historically plausible depiction of the Passion and Crucifixion. What is more, the Passion narrative was so thoroughly immersed in the context of the greater Christian message, via flashbacks and cuts to other characters, that I find it astonishing that anyone could find this a mere spectacle of suffering, divorced from context. No filmmaker has done more than Gibson to illuminate the Passion’s significance in the context of the entire Gospel, and at the same time establish it as the central event of Christianity, indeed, of human history.
From the beginning, we are immersed in historical realism by Jesus’ use of Aramaic, as if we were really taking a peek into the Garden of Gethsemane. Jim Caviezel’s Jesus is truly human and conflicted in his will, even though he knows his mission perfectly. In this moving scene, Gibson has done as good a job as anyone in portraying the mystery of the divinity and humanity of Christ. He has succeeded where Scorsese stumbled in The Last Temptation of Christ, which saw no way to make Christ human without also making him sinful.
Much has been made of additions to the Gospels based on the visions of Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich. These elaborations are not nearly as intrusive as I had imagined, and in at least one instance they serve a narrative purpose, enabling Judas to come face to face with the bound Jesus. Judas actually becomes a quite pitiful character, driven by his guilt to madness and visions of demons. At least one reviewer has absurdly claimed that the image of Judas harangued by demonic Jewish children is anti-Semitic. Anyone paying attention knows there were no real children, but only the demons of Judas’ tormented mind, which is why they are able to miraculously disappear. Naturally, as a Jew, he imagines the children as Jewish.
Jesus’ nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin is handled marvelously. Some of the Pharisees complain that the proceedings are illegal, and mention that many of the council members are absent. These additions by Gibson address historical concerns as well as issues of collective culpability. Those who oppose the proceedings are rudely escorted away, while the high priest Caiaphas and his allies are convinced Jesus is a false messiah, and confirmed in their belief by Jesus’ own words. These are not one-dimensional villains; instead they have strong religious motivations for their actions. Towards the end, they show signs of remorse, and even Caiaphas himself is moved to tears when he realizes his unwitting crime. Cruel behavior such as jeering and spitting at the accused is characteristic of the harshness of the time. To insist, after recognizing these nuances, that this scene is anti-Semitic is to demand that there be no depiction of any Jews behaving unjustly, a demand which is itself racist. Gibson deplores racism in this film through his unsympathetic depiction of the bigoted attitudes of the Romans, who view the Jews as vermin, as exampled by their treatment of Simon the Cyrenian.
Satan, who is never named, is convincingly portrayed as a cold being of pure intellect, with a seemingly detached curiosity about the identity of Jesus. He discovers the truth only when it is too late, but until then, he is present throughout Christ’s trials, weaving in and out among the crowds. His role seems to be more to taunt and tempt men than to control them. Thus I did not see his appearance behind Jesus’ accusers as evidence that they were in his grasp, but rather he wished to tempt Jesus further and at the same time was compelled to follow these events by his practical curiosity displayed at Gethsemane.
Pontius Pilate receives the complex treatment he deserves on the basis of the four Gospels. Historians have been puzzled by Pilate’s reluctance to execute Jesus, since he was generally known for his ruthlessness in suppressing rebellions. The Gospel of John offers the explanation that Pilate’s wife had a dream telling her of a holy man. As any married man knows, the pleas of a wife are not to be taken lightly, so this alone might suffice to explain his uncharacteristic behavior. Gibson goes further, and shows a Pilate who, confronted with Christ face to face, perceives there is something more to this man, yet he cannot will himself to believe in it. Pilate typifies the pagan who is morally sympathetic, yet lacks faith. His first hint of Christ’s transcendence comes when Jesus responds to him in Latin, a language he should not know. Critics who claim this knowledge was unhistorical have completely missed the point. Seeing that the man is innocent, Pilate will indulge his wife’s wishes only to the extent that he can also maintain the peace with the locals. After giving the Jews the opportunity to release Jesus or merely have him scourged, he assents to their demand for crucifixion. In all of this, Caiaphas speaks first and the incited crowd dutifully repeats him. He is so determined to have Jesus killed that he will even allow Barabbas, who repulses him, to be freed. Pilate’s hand-washing does not convince Claudia, who turns her back in disgust.
Although the temple guards had already beaten Jesus, most of his suffering comes at the hands of the Romans, some of which take a sadistic glee in inflicting pain. The priests cannot bear to watch the scourging, as the Roman thirst for gore offends Jewish sensibilities. Gibson makes the scourging much more brutal than any previous depiction, giving the narrative justification that Pilate hoped this would be an alternative to crucifixion, rather than a preliminary. There are historical difficulties with this position, but artistically it does not come across as directorial sadism. For most of the scourging, the camera cuts away to other characters, or to the victim’s facial reactions. If Gibson wanted to be a sadist, he could have shown every blow in gory detail. Instead we are only shown the end result, and a few disturbing tears of flesh. This was the most violent part of the film, worthy of an R rating, but by no means the most violent scene ever shown. Hyperbole about the violence in this film displays either breathtaking naiveté or short memories on the part of reviewers. While this depiction is brutal, it is consistent with historical accounts of Roman scourging, and Gibson has even shown conscious restraint by not allowing the soldiers to use clubs with nails. The blood and wounds shown at the end of the scourging is, if anything, less than what I would expect after a few dozen blows with an iron claw. If they had done away with the iron claw, and used a more standard instrument, I would have little difficulty with the level of violence in this film, from either a historical or moral perspective.
Interspersed throughout the film, there are flashbacks to the past which take on pointed significance with the unfolding events of the Passion. Many of these relate to Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, with Mary Magdalene, and his mother. Maia Morgenstern’s Virgin Mary is one of the most compelling characters in the film. Gibson avoids the easy emotional manipulation of a standard mother-son relationship, and lets Morgenstern depict a Mary who somehow understands her son’s divine mission, even if all the details have not been revealed to her. Mary’s immaculate transcendence of sin is hinted at by Peter’s declaration that he is unworthy to be touched by her, having denied Jesus. As the road to Calvary winds down, we are shown the connection between Christ’s suffering and our duty to love one another. These meditations go far beyond simply reflecting on how terribly Christ suffered for us; his redemption and emancipation of humanity are the realization of all that he preached. Many of these reflections are so subtle that they require multiple viewing. Critics who contend that the Passion is an unsubtle film about watching Christ suffer physically only expose their own lack of sophistication. Many viewers have been so shocked by the film, which is extremely violent for a Biblical movie, though not so much for films in general, that they cannot get their mind past the blood, and see the wealth of meanings that are being expounded before us. Simon the Cyrenian, after helping Jesus carry his cross, feels compelled to stay with him and look into the eye of this man who embraces his cross. The Passion is as much about man’s encounter with the Christ as anything; this is much more than the Stations of the Cross put on film.
The film’s climax establishes the Crucifixion as the central event of Christianity, a culmination of Christ’s earthly mission, and the beginning of a new dispensation. The flashbacks along the Way of the Cross make clear that the sacrifice on Calvary is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission on earth. These final scenes do not articulate a simple doctrine of blood atonement, but an act of love which is the realization of the principles Christ preached. Even while on the Cross, forgiveness and mercy are in abundance, puzzling Caiaphas, who does not realize that mercy abounds on the Cross more than anywhere. I found the baptism of the centurion by the water and blood from Christ’s side to be touching, not disgusting as some have claimed, even though I am easily disgusted. Jesus Christ evokes deep passions that probe the foundations of the human soul, so that visceral responses to depictions of his life are invariably colored by where one stands with respect to him. I did think the crow pecking out the thief’s eye was unnecessary, though not nearly as gory or explicit as some reviews make it sound. The darkness over the earth, the earthquake, and Satan’s cry of agony all point to the centrality, universality, and eternal consequences of Christ’s death, which freed men from sin. The brief glimpse of the resurrected Christ rising and looking forward, showing his determination to usher in a new creation, suffices to show anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Christian message how the Crucifixion is the starting point of the age of salvation.
The direction of the film was solid and realistic; I often had little sense I was watching a film. Some reviewers criticized the use of slow motion, but I found it was used well, slowing down the action just enough so you can reflect on what is happening, but not so much that it insults your intelligence. Tossing the money to Judas at full speed would be too quick to see, much less ponder. The use of staccato motion for Judas’ kiss was a questionable but defensible choice. The lighting was bright enough to enable us to appreciate the splendid historical recreation. Too many films opt for constant darkness in order to achieve dramatic effect, but the drama of this film needs no such auxiliary device. I did not think the film was emotionally manipulative, either in the depiction of Christ’s suffering or in the mother-son relationship. Rather than invite us to merely pity Jesus, Gibson asks us to admire what he is doing, stirring us with the zeal to live out his message more faithfully. Characterization was full of nuance and complexity; the only one-dimensional characters seemed to be the Roman torturers. Being of the less-is-more philosophy, I could have done with a lot less beating and a toned-down scourging, without compromising the reality of the severity of Christ’s suffering. Nonetheless, I did not feel overwhelmed by violence, thanks to numerous cuts and flashbacks. Even at the Crucifixion, we only see one of the nails clearly driven. Gibson’s aim is not to disgust us or to repeatedly show the same afflictions, but to reveal Christ’s sufferings just enough to let us appreciate its magnitude, and then cut away. Thus I found his directorial decisions to be both tasteful and faithful to the material.
I must admit I am puzzled by the amount of controversy surrounding this film, and have to wonder if any orthodox representation of the life of Christ released today could avoid similar scrutiny. The main thrust of the polemic comes from the film’s alleged anti-Semitism. I have already addressed these charges in the relevant places, but here note additionally that the very offenses with which Gibson is charged, such as depicting Jews rather than Romans as principally responsible for the sentencing, or showing the religious authorities as evil, or repeating the quote, “His blood be on ourselves and on our children,” have all been common stock in previous representations, such as Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” Why pick on Mel? It seems that Gibson is hated more for what he is than what he has done. His traditionalist Catholic views are well-known, as are his father’s Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Thus charges of anti-Semitism in the film appear to be veiled attacks ad hominem.
More disturbingly, many critics seem to think that the Gospels are anti-Semitic (even though some of them were written by Jews and for Jewish audiences!) and that Vatican II has repudiated the historicity of the Gospels in favor of a complete denial of Jewish culpability. The idea that the Gospels are anti-Semitic is palpably absurd, since throughout the first century, Christianity was regarded as a Jewish sect that also included gentiles. Christians revered Jewish scriptures and Jewish apostles, yet extended salvation to all men, regardless of nationality. Racism of any sort is anathema to the universalism of primitive Christianity. The Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, so blaming Christ’s death on the Jews means pointing the finger at oneself. In John’s Gospel, “the Jews” is used in a specialized sense, to refer to religious authorities, or to people in the land of Judah, as opposed to those who live in Galilee. At any event, material culpability was not imputed to all Jews at all times, and even those who were responsible, according to St. Paul, would not have killed him had they known him.[i] The relative importance of the Jews and the Romans in the Crucifixion of Jesus may be debated as an historical question, but it is another matter to insist that assigning greater responsibility to the Jews is an act of anti-Semitism. If we are clear that not all Jews were responsible, and that their motives were complex, wherein lies the difficulty? Jews, like all other human beings, are certainly capable of committing crimes and injustices, so there is nothing intrinsically immoral about portraying some Jewish characters as villains. Still, many will argue that traditional dramatizations of the Passion excite anti-Semitic violence. This has been true in places and times where anti-Semitism already exists for social, economic, and ethnic reasons, yet in the Americas these same “passion plays” have had no such ill effect for centuries. Human beings act out of much more complicated motives than these concerned critics recognize; they will not kill or maim simply because they have seen a violent film or passion play. As for Vatican II, it simply emphasized the traditional doctrine that not all Jews are materially culpable for the Crucifixion. In 1566, the Roman Catechism had already articulated that Christians who profess to know Christ, yet persist in grave sin, are more culpable than the ancient Jews who did not know him.[ii]
The other line of criticism against this film has been its profuse violence. This is a more substantial argument, but again I am surprised at how disproportionate this criticism has been against Gibson. This is middle-of the-road R-rated violence, not “pornographic” or “sadomasochistic” as many have hysterically claimed. Making this outrage all the more bizarre is the fact that many of these same critics have applauded the artistic use of nihilistic violence far more grotesque than anything displayed here.[iii] While this film is indeed violent, I have cited several instances of directorial restraint, and found overall that the film was not nearly as gory as it has been made out to be. Claims that Jesus’ body is turned to “hamburger” are baseless, as is the claim that the movie is just a long series of beatings. In fact, there were so many cuts and flashbacks that one could sometimes momentarily forget about the ordeal that was occurring. Most importantly, the suffering was suffused with meaning and context, and I really must wonder what film these critics were watching when they say the Passion ought to be represented in the broader context of the Gospels. Perhaps I have the advantage of knowing the Gospels rather well, so that even one small flashback makes me recall the entire passage, and better appreciate what Gibson is saying. Overall, though, I must say that the criticism of violence in this film is as bizarre and misplaced as the charge of anti-Semitism, and I suspect that these critiques have more to do with hatred of what Mel Gibson represents than with any crime he has committed on film.
[i] 1 Cor. 2:8
[ii] Catechism of the Council of Trent (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books, 1982), I, iv, p. 57.
[iii] At this time, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which reveled in extreme gore for purely stylistic purposes rather than to relate a meaningful message, was receiving near-universal critical acclaim from the same sources who found the violence in the Passion to be tasteless and pointless. This intellectual incoherence results from bias against traditional Christianity as well as fawning admiration of Tarantino’s technique without requiring him to create movies that have any meaning.
© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org