If you can deal with a dozen white guys speaking in subtitled Afro-Asiatic languages, including Jesus Christ’s native Aramaic, and a serious dose of violence, this film is tenable. Widely publicized criticism that the rage depicted in the film reflects anti-Semitism is, however, without merit. None of the brutality is directly or indirectly issued in a racial context.
In Mel Gibson’s dramatization of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, he is beaten, spat upon, mocked, beaten, and mocked some more. Woven in to the seemingly endless brutality are occasional flashbacks of Christ teaching New Testament doctrine, and there’s even a pleasant glimpse of Jesus playfully splashing water on his mother Mary. Churchgoers might forget that their savior is the same cool dude who turned water into wine, and The Passion briefly reminds us that Christ had a lighter side. Unfortunately, the reminder quickly reverts to mocking, beating, spitting, more mocking and more beating. It seems impossible to pummel the literal hell out of someone millions of people consider to be the only perfect human in history, but this doesn’t stop Gibson’s cast from trying.
But The Passion’s excessive and graphic violence can’t be characterized as gratuitous, since, after all, it serves the purpose of showing us the pain Jesus endured at the hands of religious and government persecutors. The problem is that Gibson has no sense of redundancy. A single scourging scene lasts about 15 minutes. Jesus is turned into raw meat loaf in shots that get gorier than gangster and horror movies. All this takes place before he reaches the cross, creating doubt about whether a mortal man could have survived such torture long enough to make crucifixion necessary. The makeup and special effects have such a strong impact that the movie becomes difficult to watch. As the bloodlust drags on, the viewer may ask, “Why won’t he just die, already?”
Far less numbingly, The Passion renders a fascinating portrayal of Judas’ deterioration into madness and then suicide, but this subplot ends maybe half an hour into the movie.
James Caviezel is decent as Jesus, but he follows a weak-and-weepy prototype image. Just once it would be nice to see Jesus portrayed as weighing more than 115 pounds and suffering his persecution with a semblance of strength. Remember that Christ was no wimp, but a supreme revolutionary, who turned over the tables of money changers in the holy temple and faced the highest ranks of religious authority, calling them hypocrites without fear.
As with previous screen and stage productions depicting the life of Jesus, director and co-writer Gibson’s emotionally provocative The Passion of The Christ focuses on the torment the Messiah endured in completing his ultimate mission. Gibson attempts to set himself apart from other filmmakers who have portrayed the most controversial act of capital punishment in world history. And, certainly, the film is a form of evangelizing. Gibson’s Web site for the flick offers all kinds of information about Jesus and Christianity, even offering to connect people with a local church. Gibson himself is a member of a sect of the Catholic Church that doesn’t accept the changes made in 1960’s Vatican II, when, among other things, the church allowed the Mass to take place in languages other than Latin and dropped its blame of all Jews for the death of Christ.
Ironically, however, it is Gibson’s calculated effort to demonstrate the enormity of Christ’s suffering that causes The Passion itself to suffer.
The film’s opening scenes are mesmerizing. Following Judas’ agonizing betrayal for 30 pieces of silver, Christ pleads for heavenly mercy. Gibson’s use of early-morning darkness, combined with images of a satanic figure, set the ominous mood.
Students of Scripture will immediately notice that Gibson’s dialogue does not strictly adhere to historical documentation. When Jesus prays to heaven, “Rise up, defend me,” it implies that he is not entirely prepared to accept God’s will. The movie script then returns to Christ’s more familiar words, pleading that God take “this chalice” from him, only if divinely permissible.
As Judas leads the Roman captors to Jesus’ camp, Gibson employs a short, slow-motion struggle sequence, as Christ’s remaining disciples resist and one captor loses his ear before Jesus miraculously restores it. Alas, nothing in the remaining 90-or-so minutes of The Passion is so visually arresting. After chastising his followers with a reminder that those who live by the sword will die by it, Jesus goes willingly. One can only wonder if he would’ve chanced death by sword had he known of the blood orgy that lay ahead.
Scripture states that “Jesus wept,” but only one time.
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