Directed by Mel Gibson. USA. 2004.

Reviewed by Howard Schumann and Alan Pavelin

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In times of great change, people's religious beliefs often become polarized, veering toward either extreme fundamentalism or very personal experience. Over the past few decades, a spiritual movement has arisen that encourages people to look inward for truth rather than relying on external authorities. Now Mel Gibson has countered with the Passion of the Christ, a powerful but bombastic film that restates, in excessively graphic terms, fundamentalist Christian beliefs about how the death of Jesus atoned for the sins of mankind.  The film chronicles Jesus’ accusation of blasphemy from the Jewish High Priests to the trial overseen by Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and his eventual crucifixion at the hands of the Romans at Golgotha but restricts the message of his teachings to a few unconvincing sound bites. The cinematography of Caleb Deschanel shows in explicit detail how Jesus was whipped, scourged, mocked, spat on, had spikes driven through his hands and feet, and was left to die on the cross. Use of the original tongues of Aramaic and Latin add realism while special effects such as female demons, satanic children, and a sinister figure screaming at the heavens lend a dark and surreal touch but seem strangely out of place. 

The film opens in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus (James Caviezel) is praying alone, fearful of what he knows is his fate. A black-coated Satan hovers around tempting him to surrender while his disciples have fallen asleep and Judas (Luca Lionello) collects his thirty pieces of silver from the temple guards. The film heats up when Jesus is arrested and hauled before the Sanhedrin High Priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) to stand trial for blasphemy. In the crowd are Jesus' supporters including John (Hristo Jivkov), Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) and Mary, beautifully performed by Maia Morgenstern. In touching sequences, the relationship between mother and son is shown in flashbacks from the time Jesus was a child to the present when she runs to help Jesus as he slumps to the ground.

Unfortunately, however, every character except Jesus and his followers is portrayed as bloodthirsty, hysterical, and corrupt with the exception of Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) who is depicted, contrary to biblical accounts, as a suffering saint, perplexed and shocked by the crowd's brutality. Whether or not the film is overtly anti-Semitic is questionable, but Passion Plays for centuries have reinforced the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and have created a climate for anti-Semitic acts. At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1988, bishops issued recommendations urging producers not to show "a teeming mob" calling for Jesus' death. These recommendations are violated in Passion of the Christ which shows a vacillating Pilate give in to a bloodthirsty Jewish mob demanding Jesus' crucifixion. 

This is followed by ten minutes of exaggerated blood-soaked violence as Jesus is tied to a post, whipped with a stick, then sadistically flayed again with a whip that has metal barbs at each end, his flesh torn out by the hooks. When he is finally nailed to the cross in slow motion hammer strokes, we breathe a sigh of relief because emotional numbness has taken over and we know the end is close. Gibson self-servingly describes his film as "the most authentic and biblically accurate film about Jesus' death" and says that he used excessive violence to help us to better understand the sacrifice Jesus made for humanity. This completely ignores the fact that the biblical accounts of the trial are contradictory and do not contain details of the punishment except to say that Jesus was "scourged". 

Whether it "is at it was", or it is as it never was and never will be, I found Passion to be heavy handed, emotionally draining, and lacking in spiritual feeling and Caviezel's performance lacking in presence and conviction. Jesus spoke with clarity, wit, and eloquence about man's unbreakable connection to his creator and saw the potential for humanity to live the truth without guilt. In the Beatitudes, Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst after justice. His intended result was not to incite anger but to enhance our capacity for love and forgiveness. If the purpose of Gibson's film is to stun audiences and encode images deep in our psyche, he has succeeded, yet his legacy may be to destroy decades of interfaith relationships and our view of religion as a tool for bringing people together.

Howard Schumann


As one who has long been interested in religious films, I might have been expected to be first in the queue for Mel Gibson’s controversial epic.  Not so, and I hope to explain why.  A number of issues are involved.

The simple reason (as opposed to the complex one) is that, having read dozens of reviews of it and articles about it, the general consensus seems to be that it is not a very good film.  The common conclusion among critics is that it is an extremely well-made horror movie, but with little real point as it fails to put the Passion into a wider context.  One of the most scathing reviews is by a critic whose judgment I nearly always find reliable, Jonathan Rosenbaum, who dismisses it as a “primitive and pornographic bloodbath”.  So, if I find myself with two hours to spare in London, there are invariably several films available which I would much rather see.  I am not one who instinctively rushes off to every film which makes big news or breaks box-office records; for example I saw none of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not because they are not good films but because they hold no interest for me.

But back to Mel Gibson, and here readers who are not well-versed in Catholicism will require patience.  Contrary to popular belief, Mel is not a Roman Catholic.  He belongs to a schismatic church which broke from Rome because it did not accept the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which, among many other things, declared that the Jews are not responsible for the death of Christ.  In addition, he is an admirer of an obscure mystic who, around 200 years ago, claimed to have visions of the Passion which were later written down by one of her followers.  These visions, at least in their written-down version, had an anti-Semitic tone to them.  Mel also has a hankering after that aspect of mediaeval Catholicism which placed great emphasis on the physical torments of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, believing that, by dwelling intensely on these sufferings, we can come to a better awareness of our sins and of the sacrifice he made to save us (as Christians believe).  That is why Mel made this film.  He is absolutely sincere, and is not motivated by money; after all, he sank millions of his own fortune into the project and could hardly have anticipated such a box-office success (at least in the USA).

This leads to the two chief accusations which have been made against the film, that it is both anti-Semitic and gratuitously violent.  I do not believe that Mel intended either of these.  On the former claim, most Jews who have seen the film do find it anti-Semitic, and the aforesaid 200-year-old visions must be relevant here.  It is also said that the Gospels themselves are anti-Jewish, but this is partly a problem with English translations, where “Jews” would be better expressed as “Jewish leaders” or “Judeans” (depending on context).  The fact that Mel’s film is spoken in Latin and Aramaic is merely a further complication!  In passing, I note that a very different film, The Gospel of John, has been running in North America, and that this is a literal telling of John’s Gospel, without embellishments, but using a modern translation which uses the term “Jewish leaders”.

On the question of gratuitous violence, my own position is that explicit violence is usually best left unseen, for example just off-screen.  This can actually be more effective cinematically (see for example the brandings in Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu (1954), the beheading in his Life of Oharu (1952), or the axe-murder in Bresson’s L’Argent (1982); all masterpieces).  Occasionally the showing of explicit graphic violence is justified (for example, the two long-drawn-out killings in Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988), without which the film would lose its point).  I cannot see that the prolonged extreme violence in The Passion of the Christ is justified artistically, other than to support Mel’s view that we should all be made to experience Christ’s Passion to the utmost in order to make us aware of our sins.  One could be forgiven for wondering whether Mel actually enjoys this sort of thing, in view of some of his roles in earlier films, notably in that historical travesty Braveheart (1995).  It is also worth mentioning that, contrary to those who claim that the film is absolutely true to the gospel accounts, the gospels most certainly do not go into long-drawn-out descriptions of the scourging and other tortures.

So I conclude that the charges of anti-Semitism and gratuitous violence probably stand up.  But that in itself is not why I’m avoiding Mel’s film; after all I’ve seen Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and enjoyed it, at least as a historical curiosity, and I can happily wallow in Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990).  But a further aspect of the furore surrounding this film is that a number of fundamentalists, Evangelical as well as Catholic, mostly in the USA but also in the UK, seem to be using the film in an almost triumphalist manner, urging that all Christians (and others for that matter) have an obligation to see it, and even suggesting that not to see it is a sign of heresy on matters of sin and redemption.  Well, an independent-minded person like myself is actually put off by such campaigns, even though I regard myself as “sound” on sin and redemption (non-Christian readers will have to excuse the theological references).  This reaction on my part has actually reinforced my decision not to see the film.

To sum up.  I certainly would not want The Passion of the Christ banned, nor would I seek to discourage others from seeing it, nor do I criticise Mel Gibson’s motives.  I am even very pleased that it has caused such a furore, because the issues it raises ought to be widely discussed.  Nor am I even suggesting that it is worse than other Jesus-films; the only one remotely artistically successful was Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).  I simply wish to exercise self-censorship on this occasion.

Alan Pavelin
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