Before the first frame of the movie ever came up, a couple on the theater’s back row was making sure tissues would be handy.
Sure enough, before Jesus made it out of the Garden of Gethsemane—the opening sequence of “The Passion of the Christ”—those tissues were being used.
But the violence between guards and disciples in the garden pales in comparison to what comes later in Mel Gibson’s much anticipated film, finally in theaters. Indeed, when Roman soldiers flog Jesus at Pilate’s command, the whipping is so brutal and graphic about the only response is to stiffen one’s limbs and wait for it to end. In this way, the actual crucifixion is blessed relief.
“The Passion of the Christ,” depicting Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution, amounts to more than two hours of near cinematic mastery depicting brutality, savagery and inhumanity. Americans seem to love it, as the movie’s five-day take has far surpassed $100 million.
The film’s opener, with Jesus being fingered as the Nazarene by Judas Iscariot, gives a hint of the artistry to come. Gibson, no doubt, can be as effective behind the camera as in front. With cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Gibson fashions a garden environment at once beautiful, sinister and claustrophobic.
And the decision to shoot the film in Aramaic and Latin (and use subtitles) proves immediately to be not just a clever device, but an effective one as well. The ancient languages infuse the film with a gravitas it would otherwise lack.
The opening sequence introduces more than just Jesus (played admirably by Jim Caviezel), a few disciples and temple guards. It also introduces Satan, imagined here as essentially a feminine Grim Reaper.
“Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?” Satan says, tormenting Jesus with doubt.
This appearance is just the first of several for Satan—a creepy creature who hangs with maggots, snakes and frightening children. Gibson’s portrayal of evil may be effective, but it is a portrayal. In fact, “The Passion” does a fair amount of filling in the gospel blanks.
“The Passion” is a mix of gospel accounts, church traditions and Gibson’s imagination. This combination doesn’t preclude the possibility that the film can shed light on the truth, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for that truth.
As a work of art, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
As for the latter, the portrayal of King Herod is perhaps a bit too much of a caricature. The man is portrayed as a partying buffoon. In itself, that’s not so bad, but the mood of that scene just didn’t mesh with the rest.
Also, the overall impression Jesus gives may be regrettable. The Messiah is passive and acted upon. In some ways, this criticism is unfair; it is, after all, the story of the Christ’s suffering.
Nevertheless, it still seems awkward that the ruler of the universe incarnate is a bundle of inertness. The story of Jesus’ suffering is important, but a bit incomplete.
The movie does have its strengths too.
It invites viewers to identify with the disciples in the garden, for example. When Jesus is accosted, Peter’s violent reaction seems natural and called for. That incident throws our human inclination for violence into sharp relief with Jesus’ non-violent response.
Gibson also opted, at various points in the film, to break away from the bloodshed with flashbacks to Jesus’ life: doing carpentry, speaking to the crowds, teaching his disciples, entering Jerusalem triumphantly. These moments are welcomed, and one wishes they had been more plentiful.
The film’s controversy, of course, has been its depiction of Jews and their role in Jesus’ execution, in addition to Roman culpability. Different audiences have seen different messages in this regard. I saw:
- Jewish priests calling for Jesus’ execution;
- Many other Jews joining that call;
- Some other Jews distressing at the situation;
- Roman soldiers who were nothing but savages;
- A Pontius Pilate who was reluctant to kill Jesus but ordered it anyway.
The bottom line is that hardly any individual or group looks good, least of all the Roman soldiers whose bloodlust is almost inconceivable.
Because the movie offers no context for nonbelievers, its message for them may be less about the Christian theology of blood atonement and more about the value of human life.
As Jesus hangs on the cross and asks God to forgive his executioners, “for they know not what they do,” I got the sense that Jesus may have been referring not so much to what people were doing to him, but what people were doing—are doing—to each other.
In a nutshell, it’s devaluing human life in the myriad ways we do. And the very one who tried to teach us to value human life was himself despicably devalued.
As Jesus’ mother watches her son trod the path to Golgotha, she flashes back to when Jesus was just a toddler and learning to walk and run. She remembers running to him after a fall, picking him up and comforting him.
Alas, her memory is pushed back as her boy, now grown, stumbles along under the weight of a cross—beaten, bloodied, despised, devalued.
The contrast Gibson provides is beautiful, for it demonstrates simply and powerfully how precious a life is.
Jesus taught that very thing, as much in his life as in his death. So here’s hoping Gibson gets a passion for a prequel …
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence. Reviewer’s note: Children would be disturbed not only by the violence, but also by the portrayal of demonic young children.
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson
Cast: Jesus: Jim Caviezel; Magdalen: Monica Belluci; Claudia Procles: Claudia Gerini; Mary: Maia Morgenstern; Dismas: Sergio Rubini; Anna: Toni Bertorelli; Malchus: Roberto Bestazzoni; Gesman: Franceso Cabras; Satan: Rosalinda Celentano; Peter: Francesco De Vito; Judas: Luco Lionello; Pontius Pilate: Hristo Shopov.
The movie’s official Web site is here.