Review: The Passion of the Christ

I concur almost completely with this review of the movie, although I have a few points of my own to make.

First, let's deal with the anti-Semitism of the film. It's there. Mr. Gibson pointedly acknowledges it. When Simon of Cyrene, the man who helps Jesus carry the cross, steps forward to stop the crowd from attacking the fallen Jesus, a Roman soldier hurls a name at him with utter contempt: "Jew."

Anti-Semitism flayed Jesus and nailed him to the cross. The film couldn't be clearer about this.

Yes, Caiaphas is the chief mover in the crucifixion of Christ. It's his machinations which corner Gibson's gentle, reluctant Pilate into commanding both the scourging and the execution. This is the story, however regrettable, that Gibson has chosen to tell. He is remarkably responsible in the telling, however. By portraying many Roman soldiers as the vicious anti-Semites they were, Gibson balances out his need to show the Jewish leaders to be unjustified enemies of Jesus.

I suspect that Gibson's own antipathy for the current Catholic hierarchy provided too great a temptation to allow the Jewish leaders any grace that history might offer them. The spectacle of fully robed religious leaders protecting their own authority at Jesus' expense would speak volumes to the particular Catholic schism that Mr. Gibson espouses, and not because the schism rejects the Vatican II reforms which openly exonerated the Jews from blood libel. This is a open assault to capture the hearts and souls of the Catholic faithful, and the rest of us are along for the ride.

And what a gory ride it proves to be. The violence is far and away over the top. No person could have survived the scourging received by Gibson's Christ. His flesh is ripped from his body, so that a section of exposed rib cage remains prominent in later shots. It even ventures into the absurd - when the soldiers flip the crucified Christ over to crimp down the nail points, I must confess that a image of the soldiers cartwheeling Christ down the hill flitted through my mind.

Yet if not viewed as history, Gibson's story almost succeeds in justifying these excesses. Filmmaking is a visual medium - if it's not in the shot, it's not a part of the finished product. The physically exaggerated sufferings of Jesus become a visual metaphor for the immense burden that the Christ shouldered. The crucified companions of Jesus bear only the patibulum of their crosses, as history demands, for they bear only their own sins. According to Mr. Gibson's dogma, Jesus bears the sins of the world, and so his visual struggle must be more intense - a violent and excruciating hyper-scourging, the largest cross possible, and blood beyond measure.

It is a film that rewards prior experience with the teachings of Christ. The movie would have improved with less attention to the naked detail of pain and more to the teaching of Christ. But Gibson doesn't utterly divorce the passion from the teaching - he plays his flashbacks like aces up his sleeve. As the cross is hoisted aloft, he takes up back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us to love our enemies; to bless them, not curse. The poetry of these words in Aramaic is inescapable, and these brief respites from the concentrated fatality of the passion are welcome.

I didn't mind most of the embellishments of the biblical record, to tell the truth. Most were grounded in rock-solid storytelling. There were notable exceptions, like the demon howling at Judas, or the Satanic madonna with child. But when Pilate's wife offered towels to Mary to mop up the blood which fell during the scourging, it sets up the remarkable moment when Pilate washes his hands, drying them on an identical towel. Context is everything.

Thoughout the film, I was moved to tears at only one point: when Mary approached her son along the Via Dolorosa. She has tried to get ahead of the procession in order to see him, but she finally sinks down, discouraged and full of despair. She looks up as everyone passes by, but Jesus falls again, and suddenly Mary is on her feet, running towards him. A flashback reveals a younger Mary running toward the child Jesus who has stumbled - and there it is. This is simply a mother running once more toward her fallen son. And it's here that I both wept and understood the real flaw in this movie.

I wish it had been about a human being. Gods are not ideal protagonists. Mary's plight moved me to tears. Peter's shame is striking, as is the penance of Pilate's wife. But the Jesus of the Passion bears too much suffering to be a man, and he escapes full sympathy as a result. American audiences have been conditioned by years of moviegoing to respond to an arc of character change; but this Jesus does not change. He recognizes no flaw within himself, nothing from which he can turn to begin a better path. He only endures to the end, and this is no surprise to anyone. He's the incarnate God, after all.

I realize that a film with a fully human Jesus is not one that Mel Gibson could have made. His faith demands much more, and those who share his faith will maintain their connection to this Christ who takes up the punishment for their sins. The stakes are extremely high for this Jesus, but what does he risk to gain his victory? There is never a question that Jesus will not see his task through to the end, and so there is never the engagement that arises from an actual battle of good and evil onscreen. There is only the passion and the blood. If this is all you wish to see, then The Passion of the Christ will satisfy your desire fourfold.