Movie Review: “The Passion of the Christ” (Mar-Apr 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jeff M. Sellers
March – April, 2004

Jesus is streaked with wounds from extensive brutalization at the hands of Roman soldiers. Pontius Pilate presents the pathetic image that he hopes will appease the riotous mob: “Behold, the man!”

Even secular critics have criticized Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ for presenting no more of Jesus than Pilate did – too much human suffering, not enough divine victory. Does a film that narrows its focus to Jesus’ last night and day do justice to either him or his accusers? One thing is certain: like Pilate, Gibson has not appeased the angry mob.

And like the angry mob, those who accuse the film of redemptionless morbidity must blind themselves to certain aspects of this Messiah to maintain their zeal. Mainstream critics have tended to overlook Gibson’s task: To meditate on Jesus’ nature by moving us as close as possible to his final suffering. Gibson’s goal is not to convert (or “proselytize,” as detractors sometimes term it) audiences by telling the whole complex story. His goal is to show the oft-hidden or overlooked aspects of Jesus through the filter of the anguish, dust, speech, and other myriad details of that final night and day.

Along the way the big picture is at times reflected in this narrow focus, but, like most great narrative art, it succeeds by raising the right questions. Gibson said at a pre-release screening at Willow Creek Community Church that primarily he hopes to raise questions rather than answer them.

He fully expected critics to savage the film. “Hopefully, though,” he added, “it will spark something in people and they’ll look inward.”

The film’s relentless portrayal of physical suffering thus relentlessly raises the question: Why? Why did Jesus endure this suffering in the manner he did? Viewers will have to ask who Jesus was – and ultimately, who they are – to begin to answer that question.

Ironically, Christian critics have leveled the charge that the film’s gore is not balanced by more “spiritual” content, as well. What? Only a token resurrection scene? Christian critics complain of too little redemptive payoff for all that suffering. They too turn a blind eye to the artistic framework: the last night and day of one man’s life. For those interested in more than those last bloody hours, there are several cozy, soft-lit cinematic efforts from which to choose.

In spite of the charge that the film is not spiritual enough, The Passion fills in many blanks regarding the meaning of Christ’s suffering with the skillful – that is, uncontrived – use of flashbacks. Jesus on the cross remembering the Last Supper is perhaps the supreme example. As Jesus (played with quiet, determined strength by Jim Caviezel) breaks the bread and shares the wine, biblically illiterate viewers paying even moderate attention should be able to grasp the connection.

The film spends relatively little time with Jesus on the cross. This does seem a missed opportunity. Jesus was six hours lifted up with spikes driven through wrists and feet, but the film devotes so much time to the scourging, then the cross-bearing en route to Golgotha (Gibson’s homage to the 12 Stations of the Cross), that the final torture is relatively glossed over.

As the six most important hours in world history, the crucifixion presented Gibson with a vast landscape for both physical and theological survey. For the most part, he sidesteps it.

Much has been made of the historical accuracy (or not) of details in the film, but Gibson unabashedly admits to relying as much on Catholic traditions as on biblical sources. The absence of Greek, the lingua franca of first century Judea, is especially troubling. This may reflect Gibson’s pre-Vatican II preference for Latin, but in any event he is more interested in artistic effect than historicity. Characters speak Aramaic or Latin not so much for realism (although those languages certainly were spoken, in certain situations) as to keep the familiarity of English from softening the terror of the moment. Using the example of a film about rapacious Vikings, Gibson explained at the pre-release screening:

“As soon as the Vikings start talking in English, you’re not afraid of them. If they jump off the boat and are speaking in a low, guttural, ancient German, it scares the dickens out of you.”

With such gritty story-telling, The Passion may be the first film about Jesus devoid of hokiness. Yes, Herod is a bit of a caricature. And yes, the pleasure the Roman soldiers take in bloodlust is somewhat overwrought. But when Peter denies Christ for the third time, what a relief to not hear a rooster crow. What a relief that the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern) is not a weepy Lady of Sorrows but a square-jawed woman who keeps a stiff upper lip throughout nearly the entire ordeal.

Moreover, the obligatory portrayal of Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) as a spineless coward is averted. He is a strong Roman ruler with a powerful personal presence. The film portrays him as no less cruel than the historical record denotes, and no less conflicted than the biblical record indicates. Scripture states that Pilate wanted to release Jesus, but that the Jewish authorities played on his legitimate fears of riot and insurrection (John 19:12).

Gibson brings that dynamic to life. The film breathes life into the relationships among the conflicted Jewish mob, the infuriated Jewish authorities, the callous Roman governors, and the Jesus whose kingdom was not of this world. While one might complain that the film draws the viewer so close to the chaotic jumble of events that theological meaning and historical nuance go by the wayside, Gibson makes the essentials vivid. When the Jewish authorities go berserk over Jesus’ claim of equality with God, even the average viewer knows enough about Hebrew monotheism to understand the condemnation of his apparent heresy.

No, the average non-Christian viewer may not know how the Sanhedrin’s charges against Jesus twisted his previous teachings; no, these viewers may not know how obscenely offensive Sabbath-breaking and Temple-bashing (a few of the twisted charges against Jesus) were to the first century Hebrew. But many may see for the first time how rabidly offended both the Sanhedrin and the mob became, and how crucially offensive was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.

The historical essentials are in place, and Gibson’s imaginative flourishes do not detract from them. From Gethsemane on, Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) hectors Jesus in the guise of an androgynous hooded figure, adding a disturbing, surreal touch to the brutal realism. Likewise Satan’s demons haunt Judas in the guise of grotesquely aged children. The stunning cinematography of Caleb Deschanel helps to blend these otherwise disparate styles of realism and surrealism.

Indeed, the film is painted as today’s equivalent to medieval Passion art. Each scene’s composition and color scheme make this Passion story the most powerful blend of grisly realism and imaginative license of our day’s popular art form: cinema. In medieval art, some works were more realistic — i.e., bloody — than others. The Passion follows in that more harsh tradition, with its visual canvas alone evoking historical drama, tortured humanity, and divinity embodied.

A film about the last hours of Jesus’ life should not be expected to produce historically thorough and nuanced apologies for those who brought him to death. In the flashbacks, Jesus’ teachings clearly indicate that the only Jew responsible for his death, ultimately, was himself. The film does not hide or flinch at his willing acceptance of his mission.

The Christ of this Passion, then, is the breathtakingly unique, otherworldly figure of Scripture who deigned first to human form, then to a wretched death. The film thus goes far beyond Pilate’s announcing, “Behold, the man!” For those who are paying attention, this is far from an extended study in a man getting beat to a bloody mass. Rather, Gibson stands with John the Baptist – not telling the whole story, but loudly seizing our attention to shout: “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”New Wineskins

Jeff M. Sellers is editor of the CT Review at Christianity Today magazine. His bilingual book of Mexican proverbs, Folk Wisdom of Mexico (Chronicle Books), is in its fourth printing. He has completed a literary novel and published short stories. Previously he worked as a freelance writer in Madrid, Spain, for the Globe and Mail (Toronto) and USA Today, among others, and has worked as a journalist in Mexico City and Los Angeles. He holds a Master’s of Christian Studies from Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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