The Passion of the Christ
Produced by Icon Productions
Directed by Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson
Distributed by Newmarket Film Group
I recently posted a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in my In the Dark section of our website (Chronicles-Magazine.org). I expressed my admiration for the film with reservations concerning its portrayal of Our Lord’s suffering at the hands of the Romans. Some have wondered about my ambivalence, so I will address it here.
In an otherwise fresh and moving portrayal of Jesus’ Passion, Gibson has spent an inordinate amount of time on its physical violence. The most glaring instance must be the excruciatingly slow 15 minutes spent on showing us Roman soldiers beating every inch of Jesus’ body with canes and metal-studded whips. When they are through, He looks like a slab of beef in an abattoir. By way of explanation, Gibson has said he wanted to push his audience “over the edge,” by which I take him to mean he wanted to shock them into identifying with the pain of Christ’s sacrifice. This did not work for me. Rather than aesthetically moving, I found the spectacle, after a few minutes, anaesthetically numbing. As it went on and on, I found myself asking if a man could survive such a beating, let alone carry a cross up a hill afterward.
Some have wondered how I could raise such a question. Didn’t I know that Jesus is God and can do what He pleases? Well, it is a bit more complicated. Mysteries generally are. The doctrine of the Incarnation teaches us that Jesus’ Person participates in two Natures: the divine and the human. On earth, He was as fully human as you or I, vulnerable and limited in both body and mind (hence, His ability to die on the Cross). He was not God masquerading as man. It is unlikely that He could be sure of what the future held and must have been subject to uncertainty. The Gospels themselves indicate that Jesus had doubts about His mission and came close to despair on the Cross. His mental anguish may well have been worse than His physical suffering, and it was surely just as essential, maybe more so, to our salvation. To complete His mission, He had to enter into the void of uncertainty, the horrible soul-suffocating prospect of utter annihilation. Although He had faith that His Father would raise Him up after His ordeal, faith is not knowledge. It inevitably leaves a crevice of uncertainty in which doubts can multiply cavernously, until the words hope and trust ring chillingly hollow. This explains Christ’s plaintive question from the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This is despair’s degree zero, that sense of futility that is liable to infect us—believer and nonbeliever alike—when all seems lost. Christ’s mission involved more than taking a beating for us. He wished to demonstrate in His own human being that, while we cannot evade the terrors of mortality, we can face them down if we have faith in Providence. To his credit, Gibson includes several scenes that dramatize this strikingly. Take his uncanonical portrayal of Satan. It is a subtle essay on the ultimate temptation: despair, the sin that would lead us to dismiss all but our private selves from our mortal concerns.
Satan first appears in the film’s opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is a slithering, sibilant being emerging from the shadows of a huge tree that echoes the one in the original Garden. His head is bald, his face moon-white under his black cowl. Played by Rosalinda Celentano, this androgynous, feline Prince of Darkness calmly, reasonably, tempts Jesus to lay down His impossible mission. It’s too hard, he says. No one can carry such a burden. Implied in his seductive reasoning is the temptation to live an ordinary life. It is the theme Nikos Kazantzakis elaborated in The Last Temptation of Christ, which has always seemed to me within the bounds of legitimate theological speculation. Why wouldn’t Jesus feel the tug of this temptation? Consider what lay ahead for Him, and consider what He had already learned of our unworthy species. But Gibson’s Jesus cannot be swayed. He answers the Tempter by stamping on the head of a serpent that slips from under his robe. Satan is no quitter, however. He stalks Jesus through the events that follow, making sure He can see him smiling in mockery of His ordeal as though it were nothing more than a vainglorious charade. At one point during the brutal scourging, he appears to float behind the crowd, carrying an unusually large swaddled infant. When Christ looks at him, he unfolds the swaddling and, instead of a baby, reveals a demented adult face on top of a hunched body, embracing the Author of Lies with large, hairy arms. Both Satan and “child” grin with hideous enjoyment at Jesus’ torment. Eyes keener than mine have read the point of this image. My friend’s daughter reports that her theology teacher at Boston College interprets the sequence to be a grotesque parody of the conventional portraits of the Madonna and Child. (I mention this to establish that this film is drawing people together; it is creating a network of cinematic Gospel communities sharing their thoughts, feelings, insights, and, yes, objections.) Once pointed out, this parody makes perfect sense. Satan’s baby is a ghastly visual variation of his earlier argument in the Garden. This creature is human nature, he seems to say to Jesus. It is Your chosen nature. Look at it. It is ugly, animal, and quite beyond redemption. Only a fool would sacrifice himself for this thing. Unlike the protracted beating, this sequence has an unnerving force that lingers well after the film ends.
The film’s players are no less effective. I have already written on the website about James Caviezel’s performance as Christ and will only repeat here that it is without parallel. I cannot imagine an actor capturing more effectively the humanity of Christ without scanting His divine purpose. Most of all, I will remember him in a scene in which Jesus teases His mother (Maia Morgenstern). He playfully splashes water on her when she questions the design of a table He is making. For a moment, He is just like any other overgrown kid, having some mischievous fun with His mom. Here and elsewhere, Gibson has avoided the smarmy piety that infects almost every other film portrayal of Christ. Morgenstern’s Mary is equally compelling. Later, as she watches her Son’s ordeal, she is all restrained pathos. She bears her unimaginable agony with stoic dignity because she believes in her Son’s mission.
The other players are also fine, especially Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, Mattia Sbragia as Caiphas, and Hristo Naumov Shopov as Pilate. Gibson gave them a special challenge by insisting that their dialogue be spoken in the languages of the time and place—Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin—and they all do so with a fluency that seems utterly natural. Gibson had been mocked for his decision to use these languages, but he has had the last laugh. The ancient tongues distance these people from us without making them seem at all alien. Paradoxically, they seem all the more immediate and real. We do not have to make that extra effort of suspending our disbelief so necessary to tolerate the standard Hollywood Jesus speaking the King James Version by way of L.A.
The Passion may not be a triumph of art, but it achieves Gibson’s goals, especially his determination to reach and move the mass audience. By the time this review appears, his film will have grossed well over $300 million, an amount that puts most blockbusters to shame. Some industry experts predict it will become the biggest moneymaking film in the short history of this highly profitable medium. Who would have thought a dramatization of Christ’s last hours would attract so many viewers in our secular age? More surprising, who would have thought it would have such a spiritual impact? I have repeatedly heard of people who, after seeing the movie, went back to church. At St. John’s University, almost half of my students have seen The Passion, and they are nearly unanimous in their praise for it. (A couple of fellows announced that they felt the need to rush to Confession afterward. I think they were only half joking.) I should also point out that, while most of these young people are Christian, they do not seem to be especially devout. Of the others, 15 percent are Jewish; perhaps 5 percent, Muslim and Hindu. Most of them, Christian and non-Christian alike, have only the fuzziest idea of what is meant by the Incarnation, and, in my experience, the few who do know its meaning are as likely as not to be Jewish.
Gibson’s film has connected with the younger public in a way that I have rarely witnessed. This is not so surprising as it might seem. Young Americans live in a secular culture that offers much in the way of material satisfactions but little spiritual nourishment. Many young people, without realizing it, have been longing for something to believe in, some unselfish model to follow. They are worn out by cynicism and license in the official precincts of our culture—government, finance, the Church, education. And though few would admit it, they have had quite enough of the wretched popular culture that is pushed on them daily. In short, they are looking for the Way, and they are finding it in Caviezel’s extraordinary performance as Christ. Not a bad place to start—or start over, as the case may be.
There is another reason that the film is doing so well. Its many detractors in the media and academia have created an irresistible controversy around it. This started over a year ago, when news of Gibson’s project began to surface. It spurred the self-appointed guardians of our culture to demand Gibson toe the line of their biblical interpretation. A coalition of critics and religious leaders went so far as to disseminate a purloined shooting script to their cohorts so they could “make recommendations”—that is, charge it publicly as inaccurate and antisemitic. When a furious Gibson told them to buzz off, they did their best to prevent the film from being produced and distributed. Frank Rich of the New York Times threw his considerable weight into the assault, writing four often vicious articles. Last August, he sneered that the film would be performed in crowd-pleasing Aramaic and Latin and smugly predicted it would flop. As it has turned out, he became one of the film’s most effective publicists. Appalled by this turn of events, Rich and others have improbably accused Gibson of deliberately provoking them. You see, he wanted them to attack him and thus call attention to his film. In Rich’s lapidary phrase, he was “Jew-baiting.” Pretty clever of Gibson, no? To take on the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, not to mention the Anti-Defamation League, before he had finished the film and before he had secured the backing of a studio and a distributor? Why wouldn’t he gamble the $25 million he personally invested in the project on the hope that their combined attacks would help his film? Rich seems the right name for Gibson’s major detractor. It is rich indeed to see someone so disingenuous get hoisted on his own petard. I only hope Gibson does not succumb to the temptation to gloat over his enemies’ discomfiture. Indulging in schadenfreude is, after all, a sin. Then again, that is why Jesus invented Confession.
As for the alleged antisemitism, it is a WMD missing in action, as more and more Jewish commentators are pointing out. This film emphatically breaks from the Hollywood tradition of Christ films, many made by Jewish-led studios, in which Our Lord and His disciples look as though Viking genes had somehow spilled into the Palestinian pool. There has never been a more Jewish Yeshua than Gibson’s. This may or may not be politically correct, but it is certainly historically and spiritually so.