The Passion of the Christ

Caught a preview of the film this afternoon, and I feel like I have a lot to say.

Some of what Mel Gibson has done here works, some of it doesn’t. The direction of the camera, and the editing, are both occasionally a little suspect, and the acting isn’t always up to snuff. But the period is evoked effectively, and Gibson certainly doesn’t fall into the trap of treating his source so reverentially that the project falls apart.

But before I go any further, let’s get the controversies out of the way:

The film has been widely accused of being violently anti-Semitic. Appreciating that I speak from a Western, Christian, slightly conservative and certainly evangelical standpoint, I don’t completely see the anti-Semitism in there. I think that if you went into the movie expecting to find that sentiment, it would be very easy to miss all the other things going on that don’t so much water it down as demonstrate that it just isn’t there. Given the events that are being presented, I would (in a bit of a cliche, admittedly) liken it to accusing Schindler’s List of being anti-German. In this regard I find little difference in my my viewing of the film and my reading of the Gospels on which it is based - these are the events reported, nothing more.

As for the other controversy, this is a very violent film. But, as someone who has been known to watch and enjoy violent movies, I wouldn’t say it was much (‘much’, please note) more extreme than some movies by Woo, or Rodriguez, or Tarantino (Kill Bill, anyone?). That said, Gibson does occasionally linger longer or provide more detailed sound effects than may strictly speaking be necessary. But he does this for a reason. The Gospels don’t display much of this detail; to simply say that Jesus was flogged and crucified allows us to forget that we are talking about bloody and brutal torture. Mel Gibson certainly doesn’t allow us that luxury. It’s not an easy watch, and I can’t help but wonder if it is perhaps ever so slightly overstated - the Roman soldiers who carry out these acts are painted as foolishly brutal sadists, taking almost ecstatic pleasure in every drop of blood spilled - but I also have to wonder if we can allow Gibson a bit of hyperbole as he seeks to remind us of the stark reality of first-century policing in an occupied territory.

Tabloid-bait dealt with, I should state clearly where I’m coming from for the rest of this post: as a believing Christian in the Protestant wing of the Church, I certainly cannot consider this film very (if at all) objectively, and what follows has as much to do with how it interacts with my faith as it has with what I thought of it as cinema. Understandable, if you consider that this film deals with a series of events that are some of those at the very heart of what I believe. Which is also why I can’t help but be a bit more serious and go into rather a lot more detail than I normally do in my movie pseudo-reviews.

Something I shouldn’t have been surprised by, considering Mel Gibson’s traditional Roman Catholic background, is quite how serious an attempt (and how successful, by and large, that attempt) he made at portraying the spiritual aspects of what is going on. Most effective is the representation of Satan; least effective are the demon-children hounding Judas. I can imagine this would be very difficult to do without coming across as pretentious, daft, or both, and this film is only very occasionally either.

In making a two-hour film, and in attempting to realise some characterisation, Gibson has taken some license with the Gospel accounts without ever breaking faith with them. His added detail is certainly credible, and is of the kind that isn’t included in the Gospels simply becasue it isn’t useful to their purpose. This could never have been a strict word-for-word adaptation, as film is inherently a vastly different form to the Gospels, and to attempt that would just have been silly.

Unfortunately, in focussing most on events, the character of Jesus is particularly underdeveloped. Caviezel is at his most effective in the initial Gethsemane scenes, when Gibson uses his license to flesh out the sparse Gospel accounts to suggest the pain of Jesus’ struggle with what he has to do. This, more than anything else, strengthens the rest of the film by reminding us at the outset that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, and if it wasn’t for this scene it may even be easy to detach from the later violence.

The best-developed character is Pilate, for a change shown not so much as a coward, rather a man trapped by the political realities of his situation (how much of this is artistic license, I don’t know, but it is certainly consistent with the Gospel accounts). Both he and an excellently-portrayed Judas drew much sympathy from me.

My major difficulty with The Passion - and I suspect that of many who view it from the same point-of-view as me - is that it only tells half of the Easter story while merely hinting at the rest. While Gibson does refer to the reason for the Crucifixion (with the opening text from Isaiah 53, verse 5 if memory serves: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”; with Jesus’ words to his mother, “See, I make all things new.” ; with references to his coming to forgive sins), he merely points to its fulfillment (the Satan character’s cry of anguish and anger as he realises his defeat at Jesus’ death; the final scene of the risen, wounded Jesus walking from the tomb). A more definite reference to the Resurrection would emphasise God’s power over evil. But this is not what Mel Gibson set out to do.

From my perspective of belief, I found this to be very powerful and moving film. Partly on account of making the violence Jesus suffered (on our behalf, on my behalf) completely inescapable; partly because it reminded me of something I sometimes forget, that the names in the Bible are people who feel and hurt and suffer and weep and bleed; partly, in fact, because Mel Gibson’s willingness to display for all what he believes asks a couple of questions of me.

The point of the Crucifixion is God’s grace, that “all have sinned” and God had to do something spectacular and painful to deal with that, and he did. That grace isn’t directly displayed in this film, but it is pointed to. After a rough and demanding ride, there is that glimmer of hope.

As an accurate depiction of the last hours before the Crucifixion, this film largely has it. As cinematic entertainment… I can’t view it as entertainment. In terms of quality of film-making, it’s not perfect but it gets the job done. Would I recommend that you go and see it? Certainly. If you believe in the truth of what it presents, it will shake you to your core. If you don’t, then fair enough, but please don’t be afraid of the questions it asks. That’s the worst thing about modern/post-modern/secular society - nobody’s allowed to ask the questions anymore…

(Review from Empire and comment from a mate of mine. Update: Review and comment from the Times.)

(Update II: slight edits for sense and clarity.)