(Originally posted on 3/12/04)
Sick. That’s the simplest way to describe Mel Gibson’s medieval mutilation film The Passion of the Christ. Other ways would be: execrable, disquieting, and shameful. Gibson’s film, based on a mixture of the Gospels and the prophesies of 18th century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerick, dramatizes Christ’s last twelve hours on earth as a sadistic nightmare of beatings, humiliations, beatings, agony, and more beatings. The overwhelmingly graphic violence inflicted upon Jesus -- in the film’s signature Scourging middle section, he’s flayed until his body becomes a bloody patchwork quilt of grisly wounds -- is depicted with fetishistic fervor. The implication, it seems, is that Christ’s teachings of generosity, altruism, and kindness aren’t nearly as important to Gibson’s reactionary brand of Catholic faith as are the gruesome details of his suffering. It’s as if we were back in the 1300s.
Gibson, who has always been on the hit-you-over-the-head side of the directorial spectrum, has legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel shoot most of this unpleasantness in gorgeously composed, voyeuristic slow motion so we can revel in every piece of torn flesh and sprayed drop of blood. This interminable lingering on physical agony -- although expertly shot in lush browns and grays by first-rate cinematographer Caleb Deschanel -- is nothing short of depraved. Why, one can’t help but wonder, is the crucifixion not enough? Why does Gibson seem to feel that Jesus’ sacrifice only really matters if it was accompanied by not just pain, but unholy viciousness? And why has Gibson decided to supplement this mayhem with horror movie rejects like a bald, androgynous Satan (played by Rosalinda Celentano) and some ghoulish demon children?
Sporadic soft-focus flashbacks provide pre-game highlights -- the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, Jesus palling around with Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and saving Madame Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) from a rocky death. Yet these fleeting interruptions from the film’s crucifixion fixation fail to convey why Jesus was so captivating to his followers and so intimidating to the powers-that-be. As written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Gibson (and portrayed by Jim Caviezel with his eyes perpetually rolled up into his forehead), Jesus is a cipher of no dramatic interest. Gibson, uninterested in taking a detour away from his crimson-stained spectacle to provide some context, lazily takes for granted that audiences will come to the film already knowledgeable about Jesus’ life. Unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the film doesn’t present Jesus as a fallible (or even three-dimensional) individual. He’s just a punching bag for Roman whips and swords.
Then, of course, there’s the film’s rabid anti-Semitism, which turns what might have been merely a nauseating sermon into a preeminent example of 21st century hate-mongering. Despite the film’s supposed dedication to factual accuracy -- such as all that authentic Aramaic and Latin dialogue, and the script’s supposed adherence to the Gospels -- we’re given a troubled Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shapov) who’s uneasy about condemning Jesus. This is not just an artistic liberty; it’s fiction. The way history remembers it, Pilate so loved crucifixions that he was reviled by his fellow Romans and eventually had to be removed from his Palestinian post by the Empire.
Whereas Gibson transforms Pilate into a sensitive, sympathetic soul, he makes sure that the Jewish priests (led by Mattia Sbragia’s Caiphas) are stereotypical hook-nosed, money-grubbing demons driven by a single-minded desire to kill Christ. In the process, he simply ignores the Gospels’ varying (and therefore inconclusive) accounts of Jewish culpability in Christ’s death, the Vatican II absolution of the Jews as Christ-killers, or that Jesus was actually ordained to die on the cross not by a specific group of humans, but by God himself. The Jews are clearly meant to be the film’s nominal villains, cravenly calling for crucifixion, pressuring Pilate to acquiesce to their bloodthirsty demands, and then gleefully watching his torture and demise.
In response to the wave of controversy surrounding the film, Gibson took out the English translation for the film’s most controversial line (from Matthew 27:25: “His blood be on us and our children,") at the last minute. Nonetheless, given how well this sentiment complements the director’s odious agenda, he may as well have left the subtitle in. In Gibson’s Passion, Roman cruelty (personified by the brutish thugs who whip Jesus raw) is counterbalanced by Pilate’s uneasiness over punishing Christ. With the exception of a few peripheral, nameless characters, however, Jews are portrayed with no such subtlety or nuance. They’re simply ferocious monsters who want Jesus dead.
After Jesus has been hoisted up on the cross and Gibson’s opportunity to depict more physical punishment against his martyr messiah has passed, a crow swoops down from the sky and pecks out the eye of another crucified criminal. In its gratuitousness, this final violent moment perfectly encapsulates the director’s appalling fascination with bloodshed. Worse, by using The Passion of the Christ to resurrect the notion that Jews killed Christ, Mel Gibson has (wittingly or unwittingly) added more fuel to the newly emboldened anti-Semitism currently raging throughout Europe and the Middle East. In the process, he’s made his reprehensible film a truly lethal weapon
I haven't seen the film since it was in the theaters, but most people (including you) seem to have missed the portion at the end of the film which contradicts the idea that film says that the Jews killed Jesus. Jesus is carrying the cross between a crowd of people and various flashbacks are shown matching current and past actions. He walks past a group of Jewish men happy about the event and then shows the same people cheering as Jesus entered the town a few days earlier. If anything they are shown to be fickle. Also, when they are shown as excited about Jesus' impending death, the film flashes back to Jesus stating that some may want to take credit for his death, but that it was preordained by God. This shows that while some may want to blame others and even pretend like they were responsible, they are wrong. I'm not exactly sure why people who were so upset with the film seemed to miss that important portion of the film. Well, maybe I know...
Posted by: Mark | December 07, 2005 at 01:19 PM
Congratulations, you've discovered an element of the Christ story.
It was sick and bloody. What do you think, they tortured the man and hung him on the cross and it was all a big happy bloodless day?
Jesus Christ (pun intended), I'm glad that critics like you don't make historically based movies, or we'd all be in a world of hurts. Try some research next time.
Posted by: Maj | April 30, 2008 at 05:19 PM
I'm a Jew and maybe I'm crazy but I thought it was a good movie! I personally, having read the Gosepels (as well as Qu'ran, Book of Mormon) realized that this is actually the only New Testament marerial that was, well, Epic movie material.
I think the Old Testament has far more epic tales (not just Exodus). I would not mind a Jacob vs Laban/Esua movie (in some dead language of course [authenticity]). B-B-But what about the anti-Semitic elemets of the Passion??? I trust God will protect me. If He won't so I'll die, but at least I'll go to Heaven!
Posted by: Jacob Cohen | May 06, 2008 at 12:20 PM
the reason the movie did not show Jesus as fallible, is because He WASN'T fallible.
if He had not been perfect, the sacrifice of His very life would not have been sufficient to forgive the world of sin.
how could a sinful sacrifice give atonement for sin?
many movies, television mini-series and plays have been made that focused on the life of Jesus. this movie focused on the torture and murder of Jesus, specifically because it had not been accurately portrayed before.
did you criticize those others for OMITTING the brutality, the REALITY of His murder?
Posted by: calvin mcnabb | January 16, 2009 at 09:22 AM
Listen, the film was sick. end of story. I thoroughly agree with you. Going to some theater and having to sit through seeing a rather nice man being practically skinned, beaten, flogged, stoned, humiliated, and nailed to a cross for two hours isnt exactly my idea of a good film going experience. and yes, the film wanted to portray the brutality of his murder and how he made the ultimate sacrifice, but at the end of the day, people leave the theater thinking: "Goddamn, that was some pretty gruesome shit." rather than "My god, we should all aspire to be like him." the only thing the film manages to send out, is an insatiable urge to throw up or to cry. watching this film is hardship in its own right, and if thats truly was Gibson wanted than sure. he did what he wanted, he moved audiences. but at the end of the day, this film just seems like propoganda and endless preaching, and people only have to ask: "WhY?"
Posted by: Amir Taufique Anthony Rashid | May 17, 2010 at 12:45 PM
"but at the end of the day, this film just seems like propoganda and endless preaching, and people only have to ask: "WhY?"
Your an idiot.
Posted by: jason | May 04, 2011 at 11:03 AM
If you're going to call someone names, it's a good idea to first make sure YOU'RE not making any idiotic spelling mistakes.
Posted by: Nick | May 05, 2011 at 12:05 PM