This Is My Body, Torture It

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Review by Glen DiCrocco (March 2004)

Having read so much about The Passion of the Christ before its opening on February 25, I hadn’t expected any surprises, as much as I anticipated what kind of impact the film would deliver. Indeed, it was a weighty experience, two hours marked with intense drama and persistent bloodshed.

Director Mel Gibson has made a technically brilliant film. The casting, set design, make-up, wardrobe, cinematography, and editing are second to none. A few scenes truly mesmerize and resound, most notably the opening in the Garden of Gethsemane where we first glimpse a conflicted Jesus voicing desperate utterances of prayer. The sound of Aramaic effectively adds mystery and depth to the moment as Gibson eerily sets the tone in a haze of blue twilight and shadow while the camera creeps in slowly around a tormented Jesus.

And the sky cried: Aerial view, post-crucifixion, muted sound. Perhaps the most memorable scene of the film bridges the end of Jesus’s human suffering to nature’s own outburst of violence. A single drop falls from the clouds and announces its arrival in a surreal splash to earth. A tear? Countless drops follow in a torrential rain as the heavens explode. On balance these imaginatively well-crafted scenes are terribly needed to counter a never-ending exercise of punishment inflicted on a suffering Savior. Played by Jim Caviezel, Jesus is sliced, diced, filleted, and served up extra-rare nailed to a cross by movie’s end. But Gibson still finds a way to see his Jesus spat upon, punched, dragged, dropped, and humiliated, without sparing any slow-motion emphasis heretofore only eclipsed by network coverage of an important sporting event.

The most human displays in the film pose Mary (Maia Morgenstern), the mother of Jesus tending to her beaten son or recoiling in sorrowful disbelief. Gibson thoughtfully establishes a special bond between the two from the onset when Mary suspects impending danger as if she too is a part of the suffering Christ. Jesus curiously assures his mother as she wipes his face full of blood while he carries his cross: “Behold, I make all things new.” This saying is actually taken from a verse in the Book Of Revelation, and is a good example of Gibson effectively time-shifting details or compressing motifs as he does in the temptation scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. As well, there are moments extrapolated from Catholic doctrine and iconography—the most significant—Mary holding the crucified Jesus, as an homage to Michelangelo’s Pietà. This also reveals evidence contrary to Gibson’s pronouncement of Biblical accuracy or his publicist’s most famous claim of support from the Pope himself, commenting that the film “…is as it was.” The use of flashbacks recalling Jesus’ ministry are also a welcome respite from the carnage, but in these all-too-brief scenes, Caviezel, who is convincing as a suffering messiah, falls flat when he needs to be more powerful and dynamic with his words.

In his portrayal of the Sanhedrin-Jewish faction, Gibson plausibly positions the high priests as the righteous religious authorities of Jerusalem. He characterizes the Roman soldiers as sadistic muscle-bound brutes. Both factions have their share of less than desirable facial attributes. (Another review claims that only the Jews were cast with large, hooked noses and missing teeth, but this isn’t so). To add, both factions are represented with a handful of characters who contemplate the measure of their actions: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross; a Jewish woman comforts Jesus and wipes his face; a Roman guard whose ear is restored kneels in awe of Jesus as if penitent, as does another guard who thrusts a spear in his side at the end of the crucifixion.

Can these minor characters equal the weight of a conflicted Pontius Pilate? The ruthless Pilate (played well by Hristo Shopov) is historically known for crucifying Jews by the hundreds on certain days, yet in this scenario he is a worried, if not sympathetic man. Gibson is treading delicate ground here since every nuance, every character trait will be critical to swaying public opinion about who was most responsible for killing Jesus. Caiaphus and his mob emerge as the guiltier party who scheme to pose difficulty for the Roman governor regardless of what he decides. The Jews are colored as the political movers, the religious bigots, protecting what power they have in a Gentile-ruled Judea. The viewer may be able to excuse the executioner but not the jury.

Is it fair to call this film anti-Semitic? I believe it’s an improper question. The film’s embodiment is not a directed attempt at slander. Like any filmmaker who has the freedom to interpret events as he pleases, Gibson, without question, is not aiming for political correctness. But is he using these ancient texts—fertile with descriptive events less favorable to the Jews—with indifference to the potential instigation of anti-Semitic thought already burning in a faction of the public mindset? I believe so. There is a complexity to why the Jews take a big part of the blame in the Gospels which is easily overlooked and misinterpreted. And so, it’s unfortunate that this film might often be reduced to playing the “who’s to blame” game.

However, the real weakness of The Passion of the Christ is what it lacks—what prevents it from being a great film, and not only a masterpiece of technical acclaim. Instead of using a narrative thread, Gibson has created a film that insists on a rite of passage, a journey through suffering—a measure of humiliation to weigh against one’s testament of faith. The experience is linear and primal. Twelve hours alone (the duration of the passion) does not offer a compelling story which otherwise could explore the spiritual and social impact of one of history’s most controversial men—accomplished with better success in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. While for some fervent Christians, the outpouring of bloodshed that Gibson depicts may offer a reaffirmation of faith, for others, it fall short of a resolution. One might argue that violence is resolved in the resurrection, but in this film, Gibson’s resurrection, while visually arresting, only serves as a brief epilogue. Instead, Gibson is mainly concerned with the hero’s penultimate destination—his sacrifice—the suffering Jesus conquering the suffering of mankind. Taken alone and extracted from the other essential elements of the hero’s journey renders this film decidedly one-dimensional.