Most motion pictures dealing with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ are rather tame, family-oriented Sunday school movies that deal only thematically with the torture and death of the Lord. There isn’t a lot of blood and often the characters speak like pastors reading directly from the New International Version. The tale has been told many ways: from the point of Ben-Hur, as a Biblical epic, as a rock opera. I even recall an animated short concerning the Passion. Many of these stories were told faithfully and hopefully if not realistically. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ changed all of this. Not only is it told faithfully according to the Scriptures and Tradition, but the film is also horrifically realistic. Jesus’ torture and murder by the sadistic Roman Empire is shown in all its graphic goriness and the effect is an awe-inspiring, yet heart-rending motion picture for the ages. This is the ultimate Jesus movie—a revival of the forgotten Biblical epic made so popular by Cecil B. DeMille and William Wyler.
Put in the simplest terms, The Passion of the Christ is an account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (James Caviezel) according to the Gospels and according to Roman Catholic Tradition (Mel Gibson being a Roman Catholic). But I think more importantly it is a violent drama about the love of God as expressed through Jesus’ relationship with his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern). For every scene of Jesus suffering there is a few minutes of the simultaneous suffering of his mother. Even for someone non-religious, the film is a triumph of great story telling. People seem to like stories of redemption on the whole, and what more redemption could one want? The Passion of the Christ deals with the audience’s redemption however, not the main characters’ as in most motion pictures. Mel Gibson set out to make a truly moving picture and succeeded tremendously.
The film basically draws on two sources besides scripture for its material, the first being the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the second being the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. It begins in the garden of Gethsemane with what has become known in Catholic mythology as The Agony, in which Jesus, crying to the Lord to save him from his impending crucifixion becomes so stressed and emotionally exhausted that he begins to sweat blood. It’s funny to recall Ted Neeley belting out his rock-and-roll soprano screams of “Why, O why, should I die?” when the mood in this picture is so very different. In the Passion of the Christ, Jesus speaks softly to the Lord in beautiful Aramaic, and in this picture he really does sweat blood. While praying he receives a pale-faced visitor dressed in black, whose robes hide all manner of snakes and maggots. It can be assumed that this androgyne is Satan, and it proceeds to plant the seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind. Then of course Jesus is arrested and taken to Caiaphas the Pharisee.
The next twenty or so minutes is devoted to the condemnation of Jesus and to Peter’s denial. The pitiful character of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, is dealt with. Never before have I seen the torment that Judas went through so beautifully portrayed. After his betrayal of Jesus he of course goes out and hangs himself, an event that the Scriptures hardly bother with. Gibson has expanded the scene into a frightening picture of the torment of a soul. He is tormented by demons in the guise of children and always Satan is there, silently gazing upon him with piercing, blank eyes. I think Gibson wanted to show how human Judas, a character which I feel has always been misunderstood, really was. Certainly his betrayal of his master and friends was horrible, but I think it is arrogant for us to think that under the same circumstances we wouldn’t have done the same thing. Judas acted humanly, and I think many of us in his shoes would have acted as he did.
The character of Pontius Pilate is also seen somewhat sympathetically. Poor Pilate, whose conscience and his Emperor were constantly in conflict. At the urging of his wife Claudia he is reluctant to condemn Jesus to death and instead give him up first to be flogged. The scourging of Jesus at the pillar is the Second Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary and it is perhaps the most graphic, painful, and horrific scene in the movie. The Romans flog him brutally over and over again with whips laced with glass and nails. All the while, Mary Jesus’ mother watches pitifully, unable to do anything to help her son. Near the end of this dreadful scene Pilate’s wife humbles herself to Mary and gives her a white towel with which to soak up her son’s blood. Gibson deals with this carefully, and Mary’s tears seem real as she sops up Jesus’ blood.
The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery takes up probably an hour of screen time, and this is Christ’s walk to Golgotha to be crucified. He is forced to carry his cross on his back. In these scenes Gibson sticks true to the fourteen Stations of the Cross. He even makes notice of the often-overlooked sixth station in which a young Jewish girl (later known as St. Veronica) wipes Jesus’ mangled brow with her veil; all the while the centurions sadistically whip Jesus. But THE most powerful moment of the Gibson’s Stations is the Fourth in which Jesus meets his mother on the road. Mary, who has been watching from a distance for some time suddenly sees him trip and fall onto his knees. She flashes back to Jesus’ childhood when he fell and skinned his knee and suddenly she comes running to him, breaking through the centurions, whispering, “Jesus, I am here. I am here.” It is a beautiful scene that absolutely pushes this film from good to fundamental. I can imagine if a non-Catholic had made the picture and omitted any and all references to Mary. Would it be as powerful? Unlikely. The character of Mary is absolutely essential to the telling of this story. Without her, it’s just a man suffering. But with her it is a story of redemption, and the sorrow we should feel watching Jesus’ torture is reflected in Mary.
Of course, as a Christian I come to this movie with a certain bias that others would not have. But simply speaking in technical terms the film is very good. The cinematography is beautiful and the screenplay well written. Gibson perhaps uses a little too much slow motion, but that’s just nitpicking. I would like to applaud the actors, all of whom are fantastic in their roles. Caviezel is really the only well-known actor in America, yet all of the cast gives it their all, especially Maia Morgenstern as Mary. This is quite a good movie aside from its message, but a film like this is hard to examine without any kind of bias.
Once Christ reaches Golgotha the pain and suffering continue. The scene where nails are being driven through Jesus’ hands is excruciating and Gibson spends much time focusing on the blood pooling on the ground. As his death draws closer the clouds draw in turning the sky dark. Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John the Apostle stand under the cross trying to speak to Jesus in his last moments. It all comes down to what Mary utters just before her son dies, “Flesh of my flesh . . . heart of my heart . . . my Son let me die with you.” It sums up how Jesus commanded us to feel in the Gospel according to Matthew, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” The Catholic Church teaches that as followers of Christ we are to suffer with him on the cross. Gibson does a fine job of telling an accurate, inspiring religious story without being preachy. One of the final shots of the film is Mary cradling her son’s broken body a la Pieta, gazing directly into the camera lens as it backs away into a fade out. As the film ends, we are left in a blizzard of emotions. We feel disgusted, exhausted, religious, but most of all I think we feel redeemed. The Passion of the Christ relates the story of redemption in a way no other film ever has. By making it as graphic as possible and as painful as possible and as epic as possible, Gibson has forged an amazing tale of sacrifice and love. Since its release it has become one of the most controversial films of all time, yet it still rises above the bickering of differing opinions as a triumph of cinema—a film that had to be made and couldn’t have been made better. No matter how you yourself see the story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth—whether you believe him to be a good teacher, a lunatic, a heretic, or God incarnate—The Passion of the Christ will affect your emotions and tear at your heart. This is a film like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur, a Biblical epic and a cinematic masterpiece.
Post Script: Just because the film is about Jesus doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for the whole family. It is perhaps the most violent film I’ve ever seen and is absolutely not appropriate for anyone under twelve.
Icon Production Presents
Cast: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Christo Jivkov, Francesco De Vito, Mattia Sbragia, Toni Bertolucci, Luca Lionello, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Chokri Ben Zagden, Roberto Bestazzoni, Luca De Dominicis, Pedro Sarubbi, Rosalinda Celentano. Directed by Mel Gibson
Release Date: 25 February 2004. Rated R for sequences of graphic violence