Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a difficult, important, and sobering film. It is also a masterwork.
The Passion follows the last few hours of the life of Jesus Christ, and it does not flinch from showing the horrible suffering and anguish that transpired in those hours. Actor Jim Caviezel does a brilliant and heart-rendering job of portraying a suffering that is almost impossible to understand. His performance is beyond brilliant – he conveys the pain and anguish of the Passion with only a few lines in a nearly forgotten language.
Technically, this film is a masterpiece. The cinematography is some of the best I have ever seen. The locations, the costuming, the production design, all of it is practically flawless. Gibson’s decision to use Aramaic and Latin for the film’s dialog was a gutsy but necessary choice – it places the audience in the time and place of the Passion in a way that using English would make the piece sound inauthentic.
And this film strives for a sense of authenticity. The scourging of Christ is one of the most horrific scenes in cimematic history. It is a scene that is almost unbearable. At the same time it is necessary. That is what was done – that is how inhumane it truly was. The gore is not excessive in service of the film’s message – Saving Private Ryan was far bloodier – but it is the human aspects of Christ’s suffering that give this film its power. A scene with Jesus as a carpenter building a table and interacting with Mary lends the character of Jesus a sense of humanity that only magnifies his suffering in context. When we see him so viciously tortured, it is painful to watch. This is a film about suffering and pain – and the strength of a man who can endure unimaginable torture and yet still forgive those who torture him. Had Gibson backed away from the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion he would have backed away on the very heart of this film.
There are moments in this film that are nothing less than heartbreaking. The pain in the eyes of Mary, brilliantly played by Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern (the Jewish relative of an Auschwitz victim) displays a sense of profound sadness. Monica Bellucci’s Mary Magdalene has a small but well-played role. Pontius Pilate, played by the Hungarian actor Hristo Shopov and his wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) each are given nuanced and weighty roles.
Of course, the question that most often haunts this film is the question of anti-Semitism. However, the film I saw could only be called anti-Semitic if one starts from anti-Semitic premises. Yes, the character of Caiphas is not sympathetic by any account, and Pilate is portrayed quite sympathetically, but those calling this film anti-Semitic forget that Jesus, the Apostles, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and many of those portrayed as sympathetic to Jesus are also Jews. The temple authorities at the time were deeply corrupt, but they do not tarnish the Jewish people anymore than the actions of the Nazis make all Germans somehow corrupt. The message of this film – and indeed the message of Christianity is not about laying blame, it is about forgiveness. I can see nothing anti-Semitic about a Jesus who argues that Christians have the moral duty to love their enemies. One can only think of The Passion is anti-Semitic if they’ve entirely failed to understand it – and Christianity as well.
Moreover, there’s a deeper reason why so many seem to have such a visceral hatred for this film.
The lesson of this film is not about laying blame with others. It is that we all share culpability for what happen. We cannot simply blind ourselves to our own iniquities. Each of us bears personal responsibility for what happened. Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins – all of us, and each of us bear the responsibility for what happened. That message is not easy to accept for many. Just being a “good person” isn’t enough. Just paying taxes isn’t enough. The empty expressions of false compassion that substitutes for the real thing are not enough. Faith in nothing more than oneself is an empty faith. Unless we are willing to believe in something greater than the mere self, we are no better than the crowds that condemned Jesus for their own selfish interests. To those whose life revolves around the latest Hollywood parties and constant self-promotion, it is a direct slap to the face to their entire way of thinking.
In a world of artifice, easy answers, and pop psychology, this film challenges us to experience suffering beyond anything we could ever truly know and understand, and by witnessing such suffering come to know the absolute best and the absolute worst of humanity simultaneously. It is a challenge to our comfortable pedestrian lives that speaks of something extraordinary. It is a film that brings the essence of Christianity into focus.
No wonder so many fail to understand it.