The Passion of the Christ is better than its harshest critics (like David Denby and David Edelstein) have made it out to be, and far worse than its warm reception by many religious groups suggests. Edelstein calls the movie “a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie . . . that thinks it’s an act of faith.” This is an overstatement, but one that gets to the heart of the matter, which is the film’s astonishing violence. As the title indicates, it is concerned solely with the last hours of Jesus’ life, and as most everyone is aware by now, it emphasizes the laceration and physical destruction of Jesus’ body. The patience and detail with which those moments are presented to us are excruciating.
Gibson’s impulse to focus on the bodily nature of Jesus’ suffering is, in itself, sensible and even welcome. Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man, but in the long sweep of interpretation across film, music, drama, art, catechism lessons, and sermons from the pulpit, it’s the implications of the “fully man” side of the equation that usually get short shrift. The Passion of the Christ had the potential to serve as a corrective in this respect, but it fails for two reasons:
First, the excessiveness of the violence. Gibson starkly confronts us with the pain that Jesus experienced, presses on to the point where it literally becomes difficult to keep watching, and then keeps right on going until the depiction is merely ugly and obsessive. With the exception of the raven poking out the eye of Gesmas, there’s no individual moment that’s so awful that it’s inherently inappropriate. But the sheer length of the flagellation scene—which would have been masterful at a quarter of the length—and the sheer proportion of the film that’s taken up by torture and pain, fly far beyond what’s needed to make us feel either empathy or discomfort. Where I differ from Edelstein is that I still think the movie is an act of faith—I just know I’m not going to visit Gibson’s church any time soon.
Second, and more importantly, the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity doesn’t extend beyond the bodily suffering. The biggest exception is a wonderful flashback scene between young Jesus as a carpenter and Mary his mother. In the other flashbacks, when we see him at the Last Supper and at the Sermon on the Mount, we see a airbrushed Jesus with a chiseled face and a salon-trimmed beard, delivering his lines with a Buddha-like detachment from reality. Even in Gethsemane, we see him wracked not by doubt so much as pain. Most disappointing of all is the resurrection scene: we see the stone roll away, and the camera pans over to the burial clothes floating down over emptiness, Obi Wan Kenobi-style. Airbrushed Jesus is revealed standing next to the slab (apparently he teleported there). But what we needed to see in that moment, after all emphasis on the destruction of Jesus’ body, is that body lurching up again from the slab, achieving victory over death.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ physical suffering comes in a distant second to his existential suffering. He doubts. His prayer in Gethsemane is a one-way conversation, and, like us, he has to take on faith that there’s someone up there listening. On the cross, in one moment he’s promising the good thief that he’ll see him in heaven, but in the next he’s crying out “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” That Jesus himself has a crisis of faith seems to me to be central to the Passion, and certainly the part that enables Christians to identify with him, since faith is an ongoing process, sometimes struggle, for all of us. This side of Jesus’ suffering, the one that really counts, is absent from the film.
Gibson’s concern, ultimately, is not with the human side of Jesus overall, but with the suffering of his body at a particular point in time. This is too bad, because his attention to historical detail (visually speaking) and the use of Aramaic and Latin create a powerfully immersive experience. If you’re someone who’s grown up with the story of Jesus, you’ve had plenty of opportunities to get a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the texts, but how often has your visual vocabulary of the events been updated since Sunday School? How often have you heard Aramaic or Latin spoken?
Bringing us those things is the film’s greatest accomplishment. Alongside that are some moments, most involving Mary, that achieve a piercing emotional intensity. I’ve never been in a movie before where I was cursing the director for crassly manipulating me in one moment, and fighting back tears that were honestly won in the next. That said, the camera work was heavy-handed as often as it was restrained and elegant—God’s tear falling from the sky is a good example of the former. The score, too, was good but not in the same league as Peter Gabriel’s masterful work for The Last Temptation of Christ.
The film itself is not antisemitic—and I say that as someone who went in expecting it to be, based on reading reviews like Denby’s, and on the fact that Gibson himself hadn’t distanced himself from his father, who has made blatantly antisemitic statements. The most common thing that reviewers like Denby cite is the portrayal of Pilate as a guy Just Trying To Do the Right Thing, as opposed to a (more historical) depiction of him as a ruthless and pitiless local governor. By this logic, making Pilate look better = making the Romans look better = making the Jews look worse = antisemitism. I don’t buy it. Depicting Pilate as sympathetic is certainly within the interpretive boundaries of what the Gospels say about him, and his own soul-searching doesn’t make the Romans look better—Pilate and the Pharisees are all interested in maintaining the status quo, and his ultimate inaction ends up being as much a factor in Jesus’ execution as their bribery and crass manipulation of the populace. Even with the inclusion of Pilate the Thoughtful, the Romans come off as a far worse group than the Jews. After the bloody pulp of Jesus’ body, the only thing in the movie that’s emphasized more, moment by moment, is the casual, pitiless cruelty of the Roman soldiers. From the time when Jesus shoulders the cross to when he dies, they chat, chuckle, and chide. For them, it’s just another day at work.
The story of Jesus is nothing if not resilient, and it shines through frequently despite the weak spots and excesses of this particular film. Approaching The Passion of the Christ with no knowledge of Christianity, you would see a story about power, the hideous lengths that people both monstrous and civil will go to maintain it, and the terrible consequences of their actions. In the face of that, Jesus’ endurance, fueled not by rage but by forgiveness and even love, is a force that those who care about power cannot understand, and can never extinguish. “Love your enemy.” “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” You can tell in his eyes that the Pharisee’s worldview is being rent asunder when hears those words. Everything’s topsy-turvy. It’s enough to change the world.
The Passion of the Christ is an unusual narrative construct—it doesn’t set out to be an independent tale. Much of it would be nonsensical to someone not already familiar with the story of Jesus’ last day. Its purpose is to immerse us in the setting of a story we already know, and to generate an outpouring of emotion as a response to it. As an independent aesthetic entity, it doesn’t even make sense. There’s no problem at all with making such a movie, especially since it’s based on the most widely-known story in the world. But it does mean that whatever you take away from the film will depend, much more than usual, on what assumptions and preconceptions you bring to it.
And even as a completion of a narrative experience, the film requires a great deal of additional interpretation and creative license to flesh it out. A couple chapters out of any of the Gospels don’t provide enough material for two hours of film. In Gibson’s case he draws heavily from the Catholic tradition, especially the Stations of the Cross. He also throws in his haunting, androgynous Satan, as well as Satan’s freakish baby and the demon-children that hound Judas to suicide. Again, there’s no problem with any of this, as long as everyone keeps their heads about them and no one goes around claiming that the movie Tells the Story Just As Scripture Tells It.
And therein lies a big problem, not with the film itself, but with how it has been marketed, and how it has been received by a large segment of the evangelical Christian population. By now we’re all familiar with the stories of people who don’t usually got the movies going to this one, even bringing their kids. The assumption, often unspoken, is that the hand of God was guiding Mel to make this movie, that this time it’s the Jesus Story Done Right. This perspective has been enthusiastically embraced by a wide variety of religious groups, leading in large part to its tremendous box office success. I can see how someone who sees himself as a soldier in a culture war, surrounded and beset on all sides by the forces of secularism, would like to think of this movie as a brave and spirited counterstrike into enemy territory. There’s no question that it’s a work done in a spirit of piety. But The Passion of the Christ is just a movie, with its own laundry list of virtues and flaws. It isn’t the Gospels made manifest on film; it’s a particular, idiosyncratic, passionate but at times sadistic interpretation. It sure as heck ain’t holy; as a whole, it isn’t even all that good.
So what does Gibson say about his own film? A transcript of his widely-viewed interview with Diane Sawyer isn’t available online, but there’s plenty in this Christianity Today interview to look at. On the one hand, he is perfectly up front about his interpretive role in the process:
. . . I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn’t contradict the Scriptures. Now, so long as it didn’t do that, I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings.
On the other hand, he’s equally up front about his belief that Satan tried to obstruct the making of his movie:
[Interviewer]: So you think there are spiritual forces resisting this project?
Gibson: Oh, of course. But that’s the big picture, isn’t it? The big realms are slugging it out. We’re just the meat in the sandwich.
But for me the most telling part of the interview is here:
The most interesting reaction was from the guy who lives over the fence. He’s known my boys since he was a little kid. He wanders in, goes through the refrigerator, helps himself to food, comes in, plops in front of the TV. We’re watching it, so he catches it only from about halfway through, from the flagellation. He forgot to eat. He had his food, but he forgot to eat it. When it’s over, he just has this stunned silence and doesn’t really know quite how to react. He sits there for a couple of minutes, and I’m was watching him. And he finally turned to me and he said, “Dude, that was graphic.”
Now that’s an understatement, but it indicated to me that he was really thinking. He was searching. And I think people don’t usually say much after the film. They can’t really talk, which is a good reaction, I think, because they are introspective—which is what I hoped to achieve: introspection.
How on earth Gibson could take his neighbor’s “dude” line as an indication that he was “really thinking,” an example of “introspection,” is beyond me. Silence is not introspection. Shock is not awe. If Gibson thinks it is, I can understand why he might give himself more credit than he deserves for this film—and why audiences who are stunned by mere brutality might convince themselves they’re being stunned by something more.
As I walked out of the theater yesterday afternoon, I held the door open for a middle-aged woman with a dazed expression on her face. Our eyes met and she asked, rather hesitantly, “What did you think?”
“I had a bit of trouble with all the violence,” I said.
Her face relaxed into an expression of relief. “Oh, yes. Me too. I wasn’t at all comfortable with it. But I didn’t know if I was missing something.”
We talked a little longer, and it became clear that her expectation of the movie didn’t match what she saw, but that what she had heard about it beforehand figured so strongly that she doubted her own response at first. I doubt she’s the only one.