Is there any “truth” at all in the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s last 12 hours as told by five men: Matthew Mark Luke John and now Mel? Passion in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles follows the basic narrative of the gospels starting from the night before Jesus’ crucifixion: Jesus prays Judas betrays him to the priests of the temple Peter denies him Mary and Mary Magdalene weep for him as he carries his cross to the mount where the Romans led by Pontius Pilate will crucify him. He will die and he will rise again. Interspersed with this action are flashbacks to Jesus’ preaching the last supper and Mary Magdalene’s stoning. For centuries these gospels have been described sermonized and pantomimed but rarely are the intellectual and often esoteric debates underlying the storytelling placed so squarely at the center of popular culture. (The last time was with the release of Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. Then thousands of Christian fundamentalists picketed Universal Studios which hired a born-again Christian as a liaison to help calm the furor and placed security guards in theater lobbies. Scorsese himself hired bodyguards.) These days around the office water cooler people are talking about religion and the politics thereof instead of the latest episode of The Apprentice. There doesn’t seem to be much debate that The Passion of the Christ is an important film. But controversy has swirled around it with arguments over everything from who got advance screenings (Christian leaders) and who didn’t (Jewish leaders) to how the film was marketed (bulk sales to Christian groups have already bolstered opening day ticket sales) to Gibson‘s father calling the Holocaust mostly “fiction.” But the single biggest fuss has been over allegations that the film places blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish high priest Caiphus and his cohorts–that it implies if not outright says that the Jewish people and their priests killed Jesus. Gibson‘s argument that his film is taken directly from the gospels simply doesn’t wash with detractors. Yes there are biblical passages that implicate the priests of a certain sect of Judaism in turning Jesus over to the Romans and yes the story says the Jewish people of the time chose to release from prison the thief Barabbas rather than Jesus. But the Vatican II reforms of 1962-65 absolved Jews from any such responsibility and placing these dated ideas back into mainstream culture detractors say could incite those already inclined to anti-Semitism to new levels of hatred.
Gibson is reported to have embraced his father’s religion twelve years ago a fundamental Catholicism called Traditionalism which rejects many of the Vatican reforms. Gibson himself has not said whether he agrees with all the faith’s tenets or not. Indeed he has for the most part refused to discuss the controversy publicly. The content of the film itself would indicate that the director is interested not necessarily in implicating the Jewish people in Christ’s death but rather in absolving the Roman authorities and by association the Roman Catholic Church. Pilate for example a historically violent ruler and usually the villain of the story comes off sympathetically in Passion. In fairness though the Roman soldiers take a greedy sadistic pleasure in inflicting many many tortures upon Jesus (Jim Caviezel). The camera lingers over their every cruel torment and jubilant reactions–so much so that the evil deeds of the movie’s creepy androgynous version of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) pale in comparison to the damage human beings can do to one another. There are however compassionate characters and their small kindnesses stand out amid the bloody violence that pervades the film. The man the Romans assign to carry Jesus’ cross takes a stand on his behalf; a woman risks her life to wipe his blood and give him water; and his female companions his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern who gives an outstanding performance) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) offer comfort. Indeed the film’s most powerful scenes capture the incredible bond between mother and son; Mary bears witness to her son’s torture her reactions become the audience’s reactions and they feel the mother’s pain. Jesus himself is highly objectified (some would even say fetishized) a character who is examined brutalized and pitied but who does not participate in his own story. Caviezel makes the best of the part for which he underwent grueling makeup sessions and learned Aramaic Latin and Hebrew turning in a powerful if necessarily one-note performance.
Despite the movie’s few hopeful moments the cruel characters far outweigh the kind so it’s not surprising that the blood and gore they produce provide the bulk of the film’s aesthetic. Relying heavily on Italian Renaissance iconography Passion is artistically speaking a well above average film in spite of the copious amounts of blood spilled–at moments it’s even a great film. It finds its visual punch–a painful gut-wrenching punch that takes one’s breath away–in a powerful grotesque visual palette of deep red blood and the seemingly unending flagellation of Jesus’ body. It’s terrifying awe-inspiring horrifying and gruesome. It is one of the most violent films ever made. But as hard as it is to watch it is even harder to come to terms with intellectually. In the end we do not see man’s inhumanity redeemed by the crucifixion; the movie ends too abruptly to leave a lasting impression of hope after all that violence and it simply assumes its audience will understand and believe that Jesus’ death saved humankind from its own cruelty. Frankly it doesn’t work. The brutal visual power of Passion is such that it leaves one with the memory of a human race so violent that if it were “truth ” would seem to justify all the fears critics have expressed about potential modern-day reactions to the film from anti-Semitism to radical Christian zealotry. The film presents human nature in Christ’s day as largely violent sadistic and cruel; we have not the critics seem to say come very far since then.