The Passion of the Christ centers on the final hours of Jesus Christ’s (Jim Caviezel) life. Once betrayed by a former follower Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello), Jesus is taken before the Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia), who condemn him to death, but are unable to execute him. Therefore, they take him to Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), who believes Jesus has committed no crime, yet – after a few warnings from Caesar to stop any further uprisings – is trying to find a reasonable solution to appease both Jesus’s detractors and followers – most notably his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and disciple John (Hristo Jivkov), who witness the entire proceedings.
Not able to find a solution, Pilate reluctantly has Jesus sentenced to death by crucifixion, one of the worst forms of Roman torture.
Just a little over ten years ago, The Passion of the Christ was marketed and released with much controversy attached to it. Whether it was the graphic violence, some calling this the most violent movie ever made, or the supposed antisemitism, someone had something to cry foul about. Calling this the most violent film ever is a bit overstated. To be fair, this film earns its R-rating and then some. It’s most certainly violent and at times very jarring in nature and sure, there’s a difference in the context of violence such as comparing this film to the way Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez utilize violence in a more stylishly comical way. Would I say it’s the most violent I’ve ever seen, though? No. I will agree that this was one of the most controversial films of its time as it split the minds of critics, viewers and even Christians.
One thing’s for certain. Love it or hate it, it’s a hard film to forget.
My personal Christian beliefs aside, this is dark, grim and beautifully constructed film. Like what Spielberg did with Schindler’s List, Mel Gibson does with The Passion of the Christ. This is not a whitewashed, sanitized version of events with a clean-cut Jesus and everyone singing “Everything’s Alright”. I wouldn’t have it any other way either. The sets, costumes, scenery, using two dead languages (Aramaic and Latin) – Gibson places us front and center at the crucifixion. Say what you want about Gibson’s personal life. I consider myself just as imperfect as he is. That said, the man is a consummate filmmaker.
The point of this movie wasn’t to focus on Jesus’s ministry or his upbringing (a complaint many Christians made). The term the Passion means “to suffer”. Gibson’s intention was to paint an unrelenting portrait of the sufferings of Christ, which is the basis for all Christianity. Jesus had to suffer as a man for the sins of mankind. Also, take into consideration that the Romans weren’t exactly lenient when it came to their methods of torture.
Hey, they had to pride themselves on something and it couldn’t have been Nero’s incestuous relationship with his mother or Caligula electing a horse to his senate.
That’s not to say this film doesn’t take a break and show parts of Jesus’s past that defined who he was. We don’t get an origin story, thankfully. There’s enough to make an entirely separate film on just his birth. What writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson do is sprinkle moments of Jesus reminiscing, each meaning something. For instance, while awaiting his trial, Jesus notices a carpenter in the distance, which has him recalling back to his own carpentry days (a small yet wonderful moment of much needed levity, allowing for more insight into the relationship between Jesus and his mother). When Pilate “washes his hands clean”, Jesus thinks back to the washing of his disciples’s feet, and as he approaches Golgotha, we get a quick glimpse of his sermon on the mount.
Although everyone turns in fine performance work, this isn’t a “performance” film. It’s not like I left the theater thinking, “Man, so-and-so stole the show!” I will say that Jim Caviezel, in a role that required much of him physically, portrays the humanity of Jesus better than any other depiction we’ve seen of the Galilean. Maia Morgenstern’s wonderful as Christ’s mother, and – hey, if you can get Monica Bellucci in your film as even just an extra, you automatically win.
One performance I would like to single out, ’cause he gets overshadowed by the other more obvious characters, is Hristo Shopov as Pilate. Now, there’s an argument that can be made that maybe Gibson doesn’t portray Pilate as intimidating as history may indicate. Not that it won’t be apparent to the viewer that there’s no love lost between him and the Jewish Sanhedrin. Shopov’s depiction of the Roman governor is not saintly by any means, but a much more conflicted take than what we may have seen before. His viewpoint on Jesus being released isn’t personal, but practical. Why waste his time having to sentence a man who hasn’t committed any crime? But, in one scene between him and his wife Claudia, we understand the rock and a hard place this man was in. He releases Jesus the Sanhedrin stirs an uprising. He executes Jesus, his supporters do. It was a lose-lose situation for him, which could’ve meant his own head at the hands of his emperor.
Of course, there’s the elephant in the room: the charges of antisemitism, with one critic deeming this film to be as antisemitic as the ’40s Nazi propaganda.
Oh, yeah, I definitely see the parallels.
Yes, the Jewish Sanhedrin were the ones that condemned Jesus to death, but they were the established hierarchy of the land, much like Catholic hierarchy of the Middle Ages. They didn’t just have their religious reasons for Jesus shaking things up amongst them. There were political motives as well. There’s no shying away from the brutish nature of the Roman guards, and there’s many Jews depicted who sympathize with Jesus. To name a few, his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica (the woman who brings Jesus water), many seen in the crowd crying during the procession of the cross, and even some members of the Sanhedrin who questioned the breaking of certain laws (placing the trial by night, not all members present) in order to rush the trial. Jesus himself was a Jew descended from the tribe of Judah. Also, let’s not forget that the core crux of Christianity is not that Jews were responsible, but that Jesus died for everyone’s sins.
In spite of the epic measures Gibson has taken here, the most powerful moment is the quietest. Gorgeously shot by Caleb Deschanel (whose cinematography perfectly emulates many artistic representations of the crucifixion), with the musical score quietly echoing in the background, the scene is simply Mary cradling her lifeless son’s body and kissing his cheek, just after they lower him from the cross. Of course, Christians look to Jesus as their God, but it’s that brief moment – the one that hit me the hardest – where it’s not Jesus floating on a cloud, surrounded by angels and sunlight. It’s simply a mother mourning the loss of her son. That’s what makes Gibson’s film such a masterpiece. It’s not a sermon. We’re not getting preached to. It’s the events told as is, and the scenes that show Jesus as a man, one capable of love, anxiety, sadness, anger, pain, humor and emotional attachment (such as his scenes with Mary) that ring the loudest.
I do have to mention John Debney’s score, and it’s ironic that as a musician, I don’t comment that much on film scores as you might think I should. It’s rare for me to rush out and buy a soundtrack after seeing the film. John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are obvious exceptions. Debney’s score though is so brilliant, at times hauntingly beautiful and moving, without ever overtaking the film. The mark of any great score is one that allows you to visualize the events happening without needing to see them and Debney makes that mark.
The Passion of the Christ is not an easy film to sit through, and it’s understandable that some Christians don’t wanna sit through the movie’s brutality ’cause it may be too much for them to actually visualize. I’m just saying if you’re expecting Godspell, you’ll be in for a surprise. It’s hard to watch this film without throwing the religious component into the mix, but that aside, this is first and foremost a superb and excellently crafted film, shot, scored, designed, edited, acted and directed with much precision. Mel Gibson’s role is not one of a theologian, but a filmmaker. As a filmmaker, he provides us with an experience that captures the realism and humanity of Jesus’s last hours as close to what may have taken place that we’ll ever see on film.