After seeing director Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, my first thought was this: the Jesus depicted in this movie is without question the most authentic one in the history of film. The character speaks Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin (English subtitles are used throughout), clearly indicating the reality of living in Roman Palestine at that time. There are brief flashbacks to scenes from his life: showing him as loving son and carpenter, preacher, and leader; however, the focus of this film is the passion itself. Christ is mangled, bludgeoned, and lacerated by the time he is placed on the cross, his side ripped away to reveal his ribs. In previous film incarnations, the crucified Christ is seen as if frozen in a High Renaissance painting: he is most often left to gaze at the heavens with clear blue eyes and undamaged features. Gibson should be commended just for getting this right. After experiencing the worst of Roman justice, Jesus looks like a science lab mannequin, virtually stripped of his skin with one eye swollen shut. This battered Christ is raised on the cross, hanging like a slab of meat in the afternoon sun, which is most probably the way the real Jesus looked on that solemn Friday almost two thousand years ago.
Everyone who sees this film brings his or her personal history into the theater. I was raised Catholic and educated in a Catholic school during the late sixties and early seventies. This was a tumultuous time in the church after Vatican II, and I grew away from my faith for a time, came back to it, and now have basically found a place where I see myself as a Catholic Christian, with a strong emphasis on Christ. I did not go to see this film as a Catholic, but rather as a lover of cinema. Just as someone does not have to be Jewish to appreciate and enjoy films like Schindler’s List or Fiddler on the Roof, as well as sympathize with the protagonists and root for them in their struggle against oppressively evil Christian antagonists (while still understanding the films are not inherently anti-Christian), one does not have to be Christian to watch The Passion of the Christ and realize Gibson’s groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment.
Of course, there has been great criticism lodged against Gibson, with many calling his work anti-Semitic. Having sat through the film with a very open mind, I must say that it is anti-evil. For me, that is the only bias that can be perceived in watching it. A similar claim can be made about Saving Private Ryan , which was directed by Hollywood insider Steven Spielberg. I do not recall anyone going to see that movie (which certainly was more violent than Gibson’s) and worrying that people would blame all Germans for what happens to the American soldiers. The lines are not blurred in any sense of the word. There is good and there is evil and most people in the audience understand this. Gibson cleverly introduces Satan in the first scene (Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano) in the guise of an oddly ambiguous female ghoul, and she is seen throughout the film, her presence anchoring the direction of the plot. The use of this evanescent figure is an effective motif, for it is a very clear indication of Gibson’s understanding of the true message of the New Testament: there is good and there is evil and this figure is a powerful visual manifestation of that truth.
As Christ is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for deliverance from the path that lies ahead of him, Satan appears as a seductress, hoping to persuade Jesus to abandon his destiny. Some negative reviewers have suggested incorrectly that this is a departure from the scriptures; however, it is actually the culmination of the earlier confrontations in the Gospels between Christ and Satan. At this crucial moment, one that threatens to crush Satan and Death’s stranglehold on the human race, there is no question that the evil one would make an attempt to exploit Christ’s human frailty. That is expected and understood by Jesus himself, who has spent his life as a flesh and blood person tempted by all those things that attract any of us. This is the amazing strength of the story. For if Jesus were just a god, there would be no drama, no angst, no bloodletting of any kind. It is his sacrificed humanity that is the very fabric of the story in the Gospels, providing the opportunity for the salvation of all people.
Other critics have called the film gratuitously violent. As an avid moviegoer for the last thirty years, I can say that I have seen a good deal more of what one can call gratuitous violence in many other films. Critics heap praises on works such as The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction and countless other films that feature shootouts, explosions, beheadings, and the like; but, because the subject matter of this film is religious, it seems that somehow magnifies the violence quotient. It is clear to me that there is not a second of gratuitous violence in The Passion of the Christ. Each wound inflicted, every punch, kick, slash, and gash, are essential to understand and illuminate the quantity of Christ’s suffering. In one scene, Satan tells Jesus that no one man can bear the burden of sin for the whole of humanity: it’s just too much. Yes! That is exactly the point. Because of the multitudinous volume of human sinning, Jesus endures a thrashing beyond comprehension. No human being could have withstood this tortuous punishment, the enormity of physical pain and emotional duress, but therein lies the great beauty of the story: Christ’s duality, his divine half, enables him to muster the physical and spiritual strength to accomplish his task.
I have heard some critics arguing about Gibson’s depiction of Pontius Pilate. They say that he is given too much credit for compassion concerning Jesus’s fate; however, the character, played with subtle intensity by Bulgarian actor Hristo Nauma Shopov, is true to the scripture. I do not recall any critics complaining of a similarly sympathetic Pilate played by Rod Steiger in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth twenty five years ago. Gibson does not alter the Gospel here because Pilate washes his hands of Christ’s death, just as the Catholic priest washes his hands in a similar symbolic gesture during every Mass before the blessing of the bread and wine. Gibson’s Pilate is not a hero, for then he would have surely stopped the crucifixion and he allows it to occur. Pilate is complicit with Caiaphas, Herod, the Pharisees, and the rest of the religious and political leaders who sought Christ’s death for they feared his growing popularity and power.
It is important to note that when Jesus is brought before Caiaphas, portrayed by actor Mattia Sbragia, it is not a confrontation between Christian and Jew, but between Jew and Jew. What is so extraordinary about this story is that the high priest is willing to sacrifice one of his brothers to the Romans, not so much for any transgression against Judaism, but rather for Christ’s potential for disrupting Caiaphas’s power amongst his people. Pilate even makes a comment about how only days before Jesus was ushered into Jerusalem and greeted by the crowds (on Palm Sunday) as a hero. Clearly, the Jewish leaders are guilty here, not the general Jewish population. Caiaphas and company saw an imminent erosion of their power, causing them to take such drastic action to muster popular sentiment against Jesus. This is not anti-Semitism: it is clearly portraying a confrontation that occurs in the scripture. Caiaphas and Jesus interact in all four Gospels, though Caiaphas is described as tearing his garments in only one (John). During their brief conversation, the learned Caiaphas unfortunately does not perceive what Jesus means when he says that he can destroy the temple and raise it in three days. Caiaphas is thinking like a man, a frail human being, while Jesus is speaking symbolically of his own body: the temple that will be broken and raised again on Easter Sunday.
If one looks objectively at this film as a work of art, it is impossible not to appreciate Gibson’s direction as simply stunning: starkly and richly layered and hued, this portrait of Christ’s last hours of suffering is a moving tapestry, an unforgettable homage to Christ’s passion. Much credit should be given to Francesco Frigeri (Production Designer) and Caleb Deschanel (Director of Photography) for establishing the setting in such a vivid manner, with an authenticity that many epic productions seem to lack. Everything from the columns in the temple, the dusty streets of Jerusalem, the Roman palace, and especially Golgotha where Christ is crucified, appears realistically conceived in rather convincing and arresting form. John Debney’s musical score is so hauntingly solemn and mesmerizing that it seems to fit every nuance of the action, every movement of the characters.
To say the actors are simply brilliant is not enough praise. James Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus goes beyond riveting. The role obviously required extraordinary physical and emotional perseverance, and his Jesus is so convincingly human, so quietly spiritual, and so gracefully ethereal, that it necessitates and demands recognition. His Jesus is so compellingly believable that he simply transcends most acting found in films today. Maia Morgenstern makes for a naturally beautiful Mary; her tears are genuinely cried and burn her cheeks as she struggles with her maternal instinct while helplessly watching her son’s execution. Monica Bellucci’s Mary Magdalene is a strong, mostly silent supporting character, but her scenes with the Mother Mary are beautifully accomplished and allow us to see the human connections Jesus has made in life, and how they who love him suffer as he suffers.
When evaluating what Gibson has done, I think it’s helpful to look at the most salient points. For thirty million dollars, he has made a lavish, epic motion picture that probably would have cost other directors five times that. He has taken a cast of largely unknown actors, imbued them with a sense of story and purpose, and filmed performances that are as good as anything done by anyone in recent memory. Gibson has been faithful to the Gospels (especially the synoptic ones), despite what critics say to the contrary, and filmed the story of a simple man who is wrongly accused of a crime, brutally tortured, and executed, and that inequity alters the course of history. In his faithful adaptation of the story of Jesus, that should not be surprising. For in illuminating the sadly unjust manner in which Jesus is condemned and killed, there is a glorious message of hope for all people. Salvation isn’t something that we were born into as if it were a right: it came to us through great sacrifice and suffering of one man, who just happened to be the son of God.
Near the end of the film after Christ has commended his spirit to his father, Mary holds the limp battered body of Jesus as the earth shakes and quakes. The streets of the city are seen splitting, the Romans in the palace and the Jews in the temple are falling down, the sky breaks opens, and lightning streaks across the sky. As the earth is rent, Gibson shifts to a scene where Satan’s disguise is coming undone. As it unravels, the hideous creature shrieks in horror for the truth is now apparent. Jesus is successful in his task: he has undone sin and death and redeemed the human race.
In the very last scene, a boulder is shown being removed from a cave entrance to allow sunlight into darkness. The risen Christ stands naked in the tomb next to a slab with his now empty shroud. There are holes from the nails in his hands, but he is otherwise completely reborn and healed. This triumph of spirit is Gibson’s real story: Jesus’s conquest of death is the essence of the Gospels, the most compelling case for humanity’s hope for redemption and eternal salvation. Because Jesus loved us so much, he made an excruciatingly painful sacrifice that changed the world forever.
I do not advise everyone to see this film. For people who feel that they will have problems with the content or have reservations about the graphic nature of the violence, the easiest thing to do is to avoid it. Unfortunately, those who do not see it will be missing a major contribution to the cinematic canon, but that is their loss.