NOW PLAYING: The Passion of the Christ

Posted: Monday, March 01, 2004

Growing up in a moderate Baptist family, we were always taught that Jesus died for our sins. While the concept was difficult to understand (why?) the implications were not. Someone, God, had actually died for us. That seemed like a pretty big sacrifice to me and, though I've since expanded my beliefs beyond some of the more fundamentalist Christian doctrines, those early lessons served to instill in me a respect and affection for the man who may well be the most influential in all of Western culture. Now, Mel Gibson has come along with a new lesson for a new generation; one weaned on the Terminator, Braveheart, and a whole slew of horror flicks, each more graphic than the last. The sacrifice of Jesus' life is no longer enough for those who have become sensitized to death. To capture the immensity of Jesus' final act, Gibson cruelly washes the screen in blood.

To remain unbiased and uninformed about this movie before viewing it would have been impossible given the amount of controversy surrounding it, so, in my role as a critic, I tried to counter that by talking to as many different people and reading from as many different sources as I could. The pictures that began to emerge regarding this film were as disparate as the faiths of those who watched it. It has been labeled everything from an anti-semitic torture-fest to a prayer of love straight from heaven. And everyone has an opinion. Should children go? Are the gospels an accurate source of information? Should Mel have made it at all? The public is in a frenzy over the film and as a result its first weekend take is through the roof. A cynical observer might suspect Gibson of fanning the flames of controversy into box office dollars, though he we would surely deny it. Anyway, I had a lot to think about as I joined a line that ran nearly the length of the theater for the Saturday matinee.

As many people consider the subject matter of Gibson's film their entire reason for living, separating the film from the cultural baggage it carries is difficult. However, in the end, it is a movie and to judge it as so is certainly valid. And as a movie, The Passion falls far short of its intended effect. Beginning approximately twelve hours before the crucifixion, the film opens on Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene, praying and awaiting the arrest he knows is coming. James Cavaziel, looking ever the part of the traditional western ideal of Christ, weeps, frets, and prays for the strength to withstand his fate. The fact that the characters are speaking Aramaic, the likely ancient language of the first century Jews, is startling at first, but quickly becomes comfortable. This, along with the cinematography, are the most impressive things about the film. The actors speak the language seemingly effortlessly, and the effect is to transport the audience back 2,000 years in an instant. Painstaking historical accuracy such as this is interesting considering the fact that Palestine in the year 33 AD seems to be populated by white Europeans. Gibson seems to have warred with his sense of history and his need to make God in his own image.

As the temple guards advance, the apostle Peter attacks one of them only to have Jesus stop him and heal the wounded man, saying, "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword." It's a beautifully done scene and a nice message, leaving you completely unprepared for what is to come. Though this early scene promises the love and compassion Christ is known for, the movie that follows is little more than a long series of brutal tortures, each more gut wrenching than the last. Gibson has said he wanted the violence of the film to be graphic in order to convey the magnitude of Jesus' suffering, but in doing so he seriously short changes the true message of Christ's life. As the torture intensifies, the acting level of the supporting cast seems to take an odd turn. While Cavaziel, who does an excellent job with the character he is given, remains top-notch, those who would demand the torture and those who would carry it out become almost vaudevillian in their hatred and viciousness. This, it seemed, was Gibson's way of evening out the blame; showing that the Romans could be just as horrible as the Jews, who are portrayed as a braying, mindless mob. The Roman soldiers who administer the torture are drunken galoots, laughing maniacally as blood sprays in their faces. This would have had the effect of rendering the torture scenes almost comical had they not been so lengthy and graphic. Finally, after we, the audience, have waded though rivers of blood, we wait expectantly for the joy, the hope embodied in the resurrection, but it is not to be. Gibson, in focusing on the pain, refuses to dilute the message and we are given but a few mere seconds of Christ's return before the credits roll. You are left feeling abused and sad.

This feeling may be an appropriate one for an audience of devout Christians who feel they are unworthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, but I tried to imagine how this would play to someone not already in the club, so to speak. The impression I get is that anyone not already versed in Christian doctrine will look at this film and be at a loss to explain why the people in it are so rabidly against it's protagonist, and will be equally unable to explain why the audience should be inflicted with his torturous demise. Gibson does the bare minimum to set up the character of Jesus, and does even less to set up the other characters therein. This is, to my mind, a major defect, and a lost opportunity to get to know the man inside the God. Though one could argue all day long about the historical inaccuracies or diversions from scripture, in the end what is important is that Mel Gibson, in an effort to address his own feelings of guilt and responsibility, (his hand makes a cameo as the one nailing Christ to the cross), has created a film that forces the audience to wallow in that self-same guilt and horror without offering any of the redemption that Jesus himself is said to have brought to the world.

The Passion of the Christ is rated R for intense violence and non-stop cruelty.

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