Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Passion of the Christ (2004): A Review

A film by Mel Gibson

"The Passion of the Christ" focuses on the last hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel). The film begins in the Garden of Getheseme where Jesus is betrayed by Judas for thirty pieces of silver. It ends with the crucifixion at Calvary. The bulk of the film is what happens in between Getheseme and Calvary and it focuses on Jesus' suffering. This is what sets "The Passion of the Christ" apart from every other film made about the life of Jesus. Many deal with the life of Christ, and others with his teaching. "The Passion of the Christ" deals with one very short, and particular, period in his life: those last hours, the Passion. The American Heritage Dictionary includes as one of the definitions of "passion" as "The sufferings of Jesus in the period following the Last Supper and including the Crucifixion, as related in the New Testament", and that is exactly what this film is about. This is Mel Gibson showing us what Jesus went through and at times I could almost hear Gibson saying "This. He went through this for us."

While "The Passion of the Christ" is a very brutal movie, and perhaps half of the film features in some way the beating that Jesus took on the way to Calvary, it isn't the violence that has stuck with me after the movie ended. What I found particularly memorable were some of the smaller moments: the flashbacks that showed Jesus with his mother (Maia Morgenstern), Jesus teaching, Jesus with the apostles. Just as memorable, though, were the moments of betrayal: the look between Peter (Francesco De Vito) and Jesus after Peter denied Jesus for the third time, Mary (the mother) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) together weeping at the torture Jesus is suffering, and any time we saw Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) moving through the crowd, or tempting Jesus. Lastly, Mel Gibson's handling of the Resurrection was particularly moving. It is a mix between beautiful and simply powerful moments that allow this movie to rise far above what could otherwise be called (and has been) nothing more than two hours of Jesus being beaten.

What makes reviewing this movie a challenge is that it is very difficult to separate the story from the filmmaking. As a Christian, the story is one that is very familiar to me and is also one that I personally believe in. As a reviewer, I have questions about Mel Gibson's storytelling. If I knew nothing about Jesus of Nazareth and was not familiar with the story of Easter Week, would I understand what is happening in "The Passion of the Christ"? The film lets us know that this is a man named Jesus who is being persecuted, that it is the Jewish Pharisees of Jerusalem which have brought charges against Jesus to the Romans, and they feel that he is blaspheming God. For this they wish Jesus to be put to death. What the film does not go into is why. Are these Jewish leaders just blood thirsty? Are they threatened by Jesus' teaching? Is there a serious law that he has, in fact, broken? Why are they pushing so hard for his death? "The Passion of the Christ" does not answer these questions. Someone who does not know the story of Jesus may not know why he is being brutalized to this extent and what promises Jesus' life and death, and resurrection bring.

Viewing the film from my perspective, the lack of that detail being in the film did not affect what I think of it. "The Passion of the Christ" is a bold, moving, powerful film and the fact that the subject of the film is so central to what I believe only makes it more so. I cannot speak to what a non-Christian would feel about "The Passion of the Christ" because an emotional response is so personal and subjective, and that emotional response is exactly what "The Passion of the Christ" taps in to. The combination of how skillfully Mel Gibson has crafted his film (excepting that little issue with exposition) and the emotional response that it encourages, this is arguably one of the best films of the year so far and may very well be a contender for Best Picture come Oscar Season.

The one criticism that I would like to address here is the charge, of some, of anti-Semitism. It is one that I do not understand. At the beginning of the film, when Satan is tempting Jesus, Satan mentions that carrying the full burden of sin is too much for one man. The suggestion is that Jesus (and therefore God) is choosing to do this, and that Jesus knows what is coming. In fact, Jesus says as much in the flashbacks throughout the movie. Moreover, while it is true that it is the Jews who turn Jesus over to the Romans, there were some Jews who spoke up against their leadership saying this was wrong. It was also only in the power of the Romans to condemn Jesus to be crucified and the film shows Pilate symbolically "wash his hands" of the whole affair, which was a cop-out. Pilate made the decision. It is also the Romans who are brutally whipping Jesus as punishment before he is to take up his cross. The implication here is not that the Jews nor the Romans who are specifically guilty, but rather: All are guilty. All. With Gibson's hand being the one that drives the nail into Jesus, he includes himself in the "all."

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