REVIEW: The Passion of the Christ
Produced by: Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, Stephen McEveety, Enzo Sisti
Screenplay by: Mel Gibson, Benedict Fitzgerald, William Fulco (translation)
Edited by: John Wright
Cinematography by: Caleb Deschanel
Music by: John Debney
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Zhivkov, Francesco De Vito, Luca Lionello, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano, Claudia Gerini, Fabio Sartor, Luca De Dominicis, Mattia Sbragia, Chokri Ben Zagden, Toni Bertorelli, Jarreth Merz, Sergio Rubini, Sabrina Impacciatore
It’s been 12 years since Mel Gibson’s adaptation of the gospels’ account of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, which would go on to divide audiences over its theology, brutal violence, and even accusations of racism (which were later vindicated when the director’s own demons made their very public appearance soon after the film’s release). Each Easter since I’ve started this blog, I have thought about doing a review of this film, and each time I held back because I simply was not in the mood, nor did I think I had the stamina, to endure this film again. This year, I don’t really know what’s changed – perhaps it’s the political climate and the fact that so many people are willing to marry their faith to their political stances, and I’m feeling particularly opinionated, perhaps it’s the Tyler Perry modern day musical retelling on TV, or perhaps it’s simply to get this annual inner debate in my head over with already – but, yeah, I decided that now was time to review one of the most famous and infamous Christian-targeting films of all time.
I was a junior in high school when this film was released, not yet 18, and was going to a Christian school, too, so this movie was making waves: “Wow! Mel Gibson, Hollywood movie star and lauded director of the ‘GREATEST FILM EVER,’ BRAVEHEART, is directing a movie about Jesus! What a miracle! This movie will change lives because he’s famous!” I was skeptical and a little put off by the hero worship, but as a still budding film enthusiast and someone only just coming into his own when it comes to Christianity, I, too, was still certainly very interested and invested in this film’s success. I saw it twice in theatres – first with a good friend’s dad whose family had already seen it before him while he was on a business trip, and so I agreed to come with him (his family wasn’t willing to see it twice), and the second time with another friend himself, as he had also not managed to go see it and didn’t want to go alone. Both times, I was incredibly moved, but I was also tremendously unsettled by the film. Until just now, for this review, I hadn’t seen it since then, as the images of gore and suffering were burned into my teenage mind and never really left.
The Passion of the Christ is an incredibly straightforward film, as far as narratives go. It follows in the tradition of artistic depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus throughout the centuries since, particularly passion plays. (If you’re curious about the wording of the film’s title, by the way, it’s so named because the word “passion” is actually derived from the Latin passionem, meaning “suffering, enduring,” and the word “Christ” is neither a name nor a swear, but rather a derivative of the Greek word christos, meaning “anointed.”) As a result, much of the material in the film is focused on the suffering Jesus endured, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane with His anguished, blood-sweating prayers to be spared while being taunted by Satan, to the betrayal by His disciples, His being turned over to Pilate for sentencing, his scourging by the Romans, and then Pilate washing his hands of the situation and allowing for Jesus to be forced to carry the cross to a hilltop, where He was hung from the cross until death. And then, of course, His subsequent resurrection three days later, which the film kind of glosses over at the very last minute.
Director Mel Gibson, who makes no appearance in the film beyond a self-condemning hand cameo that nails Jesus to the cross, intended for the film to emphasize the truly horrific nature of what He went through, a true sign of God’s love made incarnate in flesh and bone, knowing He would be suffering and dying for our sins all His life. The scene early on in the Garden of Gethsemane is really incredible, with Caviezel’s performance conveying the sheer terror even He felt. It humanizes Jesus, which to some might sound blasphemous, but is basically the cornerstone of what makes the choice so profound. It’s not like Jesus skipped merrily to His death. Further emphasizing this, we also see flashbacks to His life prior, interacting with the disciples and His mother, Mary, even as a clumsy child who liked to run around. The parallel depiction of Jesus falling from the burden of the cross and Him falling down as a child and, in both scenes, His mother running to comfort Him are heart-breakingly powerful. It’s only helped by some really great production values – the commitment to speaking in the original languages, the set design, the special effects, the cinematography, the music… All of it is fantastic.
It’s worth noting that a lot of the iconography, such as the emphasis on the Virgin Mary and the Veil of Veronica, as well as some of the characters depicted come from non-Protestant traditions, which has caused some controversy among some groups. I’m not about to knock it for that. Even as someone who didn’t grow up in Catholicism, I think a lot of this can at the very least be ignored for the dramatic effect it has on the story. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, picking and choosing from various accounts of the flood, this film is not. I can’t imagine being so distracted by what’s there to be so bothered by it. I was much more distracted by the fact that Jesus is again your traditional light-skinned, long-haired, clean-cut guy you see in almost every portrayal. I hear Risen got Cliff Curtis to play Jesus, which is much more interesting in its grounding in realism.
Of course, this is merely a work made by an obviously flawed man, and as such, the film will not be without its faults. (And, no, while I do think Gibson has some issues to work out, I do not believe that the film itself is anti-Semitic, as the film actually has positive depictions of Jewish commoners and even religious leaders who were cast out for daring to support Jesus’ innocence.) While we are given these short glimpses into His past throughout, I do worry that a lot of people who are not Christian will get the full message of what is happening, at least not without some external explanation to provide context for what is going on. This film truly moved people of the Christian faith and even some former adherents who were suddenly reminded of what it was that they studied and what it meant to them at the time, as was the case with Roger Ebert, a lapsed Catholic who also admired the film. I’ve encountered some Christians who have attempted to use this film as a means of evangelizing to non-believers, and, while that’s no fault of the film, and I can honestly say that I feel strongly that this film is not the best means of doing that, I’d have perhaps liked more emphasis on the grace aspect of this sacrifice and the reasons for Jesus’ sentencing beyond what we are given – a perfectly fine and moving depiction of the crucifixion, but what at times feels like the dramatic, emotional, and brutal climax of a much more extensive film.
And, yes, The Passion is incredibly brutal in its original cut, and, even for me, it may be to the point of possibly drowning out the meaning behind the sacrifice for some in gallons of blood and gore. Villains in the film are also broad caricatures, with the depiction of the one-dimensional Jewish leader Caiaphas leading to many of the accusations of antisemitism. The depiction of the Roman centurions, however, is also comically abhorrent and far more prominent throughout the course of the film. No doubt they were sick bastards who took pleasure in doing their hideous work, but the actors cackle so much it was detracting from the horror of what was happening. They’re like villains in a kids show, making sure you know they’re the evil ones ‘cause they’re laughing and drinking and making fun of the main character. Then again, I guess I should expect so much from the director who once ended his film with his altruistic and virile manly man main character being publicly castrated as punishment for taking on the prissier villains. Gibson doesn’t do sissy subtly!
The Passion of the Christ is by no means a perfect film. God knows I’m also not one to forgive a film for its sins against cinema, regardless of whether or not its message is aiming to support some version of a religious faith that I also happen to adhere to, as well. But, for all that it’s attempting to do, it is ultimately a successful, powerful, and admirable work of art – something that a lot of Christian films barely even try for these days. Gibson didn’t make this film to cater to the masses of people who will bring their whole families, young and old, to the premier of the film (and you can’t blame him for the insane people who did bring their kids to see it at the time, either – that’s on them). This was as much about his own drive to emphasize the truly ugly cost of what Jesus endured in order to save anyone from sin, and if they do go in to watch this with that in mind, then The Passion of the Christ can potentially inspire transformation in people, even if they are already believers, and even in spite of the film and its filmmaker’s own faults. This isn’t a film you watch all the time or even really purchase to put into your library (Netflix streaming was my source after not having watched it for 12 years), but at the very least, it’s a very well made, if hard to watch, film for even non-believers who can stomach it and an incredibly powerful reminder for Christians who may need a reminder about the cost of what we truly celebrate each time Easter comes around.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5