The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Icon Productions, 2004.
Roger Ebert called the film the “most violent I have ever seen. It will probably be the most violent you have ever seen.” Yet past the bloodshed and gore and excruciating scenes of torment and torture, there is a subtle beauty in Mel Gibson’s vision of the Passion of Jesus Christ. In The Passion of the Christ, Mel—of Lethal Weapon, Mad Max and Braveheart fame—presents the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life on earth. From Christ’s heartfelt prayer in Gethsemane to the violent earth-shattering quake that destroyed the temple of Jerusalem, this is a film that is relentless in its verisimilitude and inspired in its candor, and as it continues to take over both the American and the international box office, it seems to be on the road to making its mark on both motion picture and religious history.
Gibson took quite a risk in making the film. Without any major motion picture company willing to back such a potentially controversial project, Mel financed the movie out of his own pocket. His desire to accurately depict the crucifixion led him to not back down from the potentially troublesome R-rating, which many feared would turn off his core audience. Instead of relying on mass marketing, Gibson began a grassroots campaign that reached the film’s target audience of devout Christians. Accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism in the film—concerns that Christian moviegoers would accuse the Jewish people as being overzealous and barbaric in their persecution against Christ—The Passion looked to be a formula for failure.
But in the weeks leading up to opening day it became the buzz of the nation. A report that the Pope had viewed and praised the film (later shown to be unverified) and frequent media attention (both TIME and Newsweek ran cover stories on The Passion) propelled advance ticket sales: the week preceding the film’s release on Ash Wednesday, Fandango.com attributed 43% of its sales to The Passion’s opening weekend. Reuters reported that churches all across the nation were buying out theaters and distributing tickets to their congregants and friends. Here at Harvard, Christian Impact (an evangelical Christian fellowship) launched a campaign to invite students to the film, and during the Veritas Forum (a high-profile event sponsored by most campus Christian groups) many of the talks included subtle references in support of the upcoming film. Christian leaders from all around the world, having seen the film in advance screenings, praised the movie as the coming of another spiritual revolution in America. Accusations of anti-Semitism seemed only to spark an even greater curiosity in the film, as did widely publicized reports of on-set miracles (star Jim Caviezel, for example, was said to have survived two direct lightning strikes, completely unharmed). All in all, the events leading to The Passion’s release promised that the movie, even before opening day, would be unlike anything Hollywood had ever seen.
When opening day finally came, the reviews were mixed. Many saw the film as manipulatory propaganda that, according to New York Magazine, “belongs as much to the realm of sadomasochism as to Christian piety.” The New York Times complained that the film, in its violent depiction of the torture endured by Christ, “seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it.” Entertainment Weekly said that “it lifts us downward.” A report that a Kansas City woman had suffered a heart attack in the theatre while watching the film only added to concerns of the film’s graphic violence—all this coming ironically from a generation of movie watchers that had just applauded Tarantino’s Kill Bill in all its blood-splattering splendor.
Other critics, however, disagreed both with concerns about the film’s violence and with accusations of anti-Semitism. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert testified that after watching the film, although “no longer religious in the sense that a long-ago altar boy thought he should be, I can respond to the power of belief whether I agree or not, and when I find it in a film, I must respect it.”
Today, weeks after its release, The Passion of the Christ is still sending a wave of spirituality throughout Hollywood and the nation at large. After reclaiming the top spot in the domestic box office over Easter weekend, it has passed the $350 million mark, putting it on the list of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time. Domestic estimates predict the film will pull in around $380 million dollars, making it both the highest-grossing R-rated film and the highest-grossing religious film ever made.
Obviously, The Passion has struck a chord—but what chord has it struck? Is The Passion no more than an unredeeming gorefest that has played on the heartstrings of millions of churchgoing Americans? Or is the tremendous response the film has received indicative of something more? I would contend, contrary to many reviewers, that the brutal violence of the film is actually at the core of its success, and is an essential part of its ultimately redeeming message—that one can only understand the love and compassion of Christ if one first understands the intense pain and suffering he endured for His children. The glorious victory of the Resurrection can only be fully understood in terms of the awful depths of the Passion—that is the underlying message of the movie, and it is Gibson’s ultimate success.
As a Christian, I think that it is important (and difficult) to attempt to appreciate this film on two different levels—the first being that of a movie watcher, and the second as that of a believer in the sanctity of the Passion and the truth of the Resurrection. I personally was very cynical while watching the film—I knew that it was going to be a powerful experience, but I continued to analyze it as a film critic. Through it all, however, I think that my critical analysis enhanced my overall experience. Very few times have I left a film silent, speechless, and awestruck—few great films have the ability to silence their audiences and strike a chord in people’s hearts. My English teacher once told me that when he first saw Apocalypse Now, he left the theatre in total silence, having been immensely disturbed by Coppola’s vision of internal anguish and despair. I felt the same thing in reaction to Gibson’s film—I resisted as long as I could, but was finally blown away by its sheer emotional intensity.
The power of film is its ability to recreate; its ability to portray and depict. Gibson, on the technical level, has grown a lot since Braveheart—The Passion is a very delicately balanced movie, and it seems that the whole story is resting on a taut string waiting to break. The sensitive subject matter and the expectations of the audience give Gibson very little room for error. The pace of the story is probably more important than anything else—Gibson had to allow his audience to love Jesus through both His life and His pain; had to accurately depict Christ’s suffering without allowing the violence to become redundant; and had to develop the film’s characters, especially Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and John, three of Christ’s most ardent followers. The acting, for the most part, was carried off masterfully—it still breaks my heart to recall the excruciating torment on Peter’s face as he denies his Teacher; Mary Magdalene reaching for Christ’s feet after being saved from a brutal stoning; Mary being reminded by her Son that He is making all things new; and John standing loyally by His master’s side until the bitter end. It is, no doubt, a film that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Much can be said about the film’s historical accuracy—the set pieces, the costumes and make-up, and the use of Aramaic and street Latin. Gibson’s goal was to recreate the Jerusalem of 30 A.D., and he succeeds in his effort. Nevertheless, many have criticized Gibson for treating the Gospels as faithful historical accounts—those critics, however, must recognize that literally billions of Christians regard the New Testament as holy. Holding that the Gospels are historically accurate is by no means an unusual opinion, and is not even, in terms of historical scholarship, the leap of faith many uninformed critics think it to be (just ask N.T. Wright). Others have criticized actor Jim Caviezel for looking altogether too much like the traditional Sunday-school Jesus—and, admittedly, Jesus may have looked nothing like the way he is popularly depicted. But for better or for worse, Caviezel is instantly recognizable as Christ, and it is probably too much to ask to hope for an accurate depiction of a man who left behind no physical description. Most damaging of all were the accusations of anti-Semitism: for a time, it was nearly impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading some form of the criticism. Vigorous attacks were met with equally vigorous defenses, and the resulting furor may sadly have set back what had previously been warm Jewish-Christian relations. I, personally, did not see evidence of anti-Semitism in the film. Granted, the high priests did not come off well, but then neither did the Romans. The Passion story, after all, is that of an innocent man condemned to death by the authorities, and any way one tells it, the authorities (both Jewish and Roman) will simply not come off looking good. Notably, however, Gibson did not portray the Jews as a monolith—throughout the movie, it is made clear that many Jews did not consent to the torture and crucifixion of Christ. Unlike many medieval Passion plays (which were often anti-Semitic), Gibson does not blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. Ultimately, it is Gibson’s hands that nail Christ to the cross: a powerful statement that we all share in the responsibility for the death of the Son of God.
In the end, the movie’s message is not hard to understand. What you see is largely what you get—Christ crucified. This message, however, presupposes that the audience will have had some kind of previous exposure to the Gospel. A Christian watching this movie will likely leave with a fuller understanding of the suffering, death, and love of Christ, but a non-Christian may come away bewildered or even disgusted. This sequence has in fact been repeated all across America, and probably accounts for many of the wildly divergent reviews of the film. Realizing this does not mean that the film failed to achieve its purpose— it has undoubtedly awakened millions to the depths of Christ’s agony and love—but it does remind us that it is merely one man’s artistic interpretation. It is not the Gospel story, and by itself it cannot capture the whole of Christ’s life and message. The responsibility for sharing and living the Gospel is left to the body of Christ on earth—we Christians. That part is still up to us.
As a Christian, in the back of my mind, I continued to struggle with the appropriateness of such a depiction on film. No matter how real a film can get, it can never capture fully the agony of Christ. Perhaps as humans, though, we are incapable of ever fully grasping this kind of suffering—not just the physical destruction of the body, but also the idea of the omnipotent Godhead revealed in a real human person. We are physical and visceral creatures, and we can, having been infused with the image of God, get a glimpse into the heart of Christ, but understanding it is a life-long process.
On the point of the film’s appropriateness, and the concerns some have had about the potential idolatry of such a depiction of Christ, I believe that the movie should be seen as a legitimate form of worship—an audio-visual medium through which we can be pulled closer to the reality of God. The film is as much an experience of hearing as it is an experience of seeing—aside from the images of crimson blood, the dust-baked streets of the road of Calvary, and the stark pale face of Satan glaring into our eyes, we also hear the sound of the clanking cross skidding along the brick road of Jerusalem, the skin torn from Christ’s back by the sharp metal edges of the whip, and the sickening crunch of nail on bone. Just as music appeals to our ears and theatre appeals to our eyes, so does this film affect us as sensory creatures. It is the closest we can come, without actually enduring suffering ourselves, to understanding the pain of Christ’s Passion.
It will be important in the coming months not to idolize this film’s makers or its actors, but instead to use it to present Christ’s Passion in today’s world both humbly and truthfully. The last scene of the movie is just another step in this great adventure called faith: the darkness of Christ’s tomb is chased away by warm sunlight as the stone is rolled away. The camera slowly follows the circumference of the tomb’s opening, and we see the sun pouring onto the funeral wrappings of Christ’s body, finally resting on His eyes. He blinks away what might be a tear and stands up in full glorious form, the scars from the nails still emblazoned in His hands, and walks outside into the full sunshine of Easter morning. It is, finally, not the Passion of the Christ that makes us Christians, but the Resurrection.
Ted K. Lim ‘06 is a History and Literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House.