The History Place - Movie Review

The Passion of the Christ

By Fred Harvey
The History Place
3/14/04

This is a thoroughly engrossing, at times even profound, but extremely violent interpretation of the events surrounding the death of Jesus.

Directed and co-written by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ differs remarkably from previous Jesus films by featuring actors speaking ancient Aramaic and Latin, which is truly fascinating and a highlight of the whole movie. Portrayed by James Caviezel, Gibson’s Jesus is deliberately not Anglo-American looking as in so many past accounts. Both of these elements serve to add an immediate aura of authenticity to the film. The script, according to the film's Website, is a "composite account" from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. However, it is embellished with visual effects and a handful of fictional additions not found in the gospels.

Interestingly, The Passion differs from previous films by beginning at the end, showing just the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus. Late Thursday evening, following the Passover meal with his apostles (which Christians call the Last Supper) Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane located just outside Jerusalem to pray and contemplate his approaching death. This is where the film begins, spookily at night with Jesus, divine, but also all too human, suffering the torments of self-doubt and fear. Into this scene, Gibson inserts a ghoulish, strangely erotic looking young Satan who tries but fails to tempt Jesus into skipping the whole ordeal.

Soon, it begins. Temple guards arrive in the garden accompanied by Judas, a follower of Jesus who has now betrayed him. During his subsequent arrest, one of the guards delivers a near-knockout punch to Jesus, leaving his face looking like the boxer Rocky after a tough round. The moment is extraordinary for its degree of sheer viciousness and it marks the start of two hours of non-stop extreme brutality directed against Jesus, by both the Jews and the Romans.

First, Jesus is dragged before the Pharisees, the highest ranking Jewish religious authorities, in the middle of the night and is simultaneously beaten up and questioned as to the validity of the extraordinary claims he has made. When it becomes apparent that Jesus considers himself to be the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God, supposedly with the power to destroy the holy Temple of Jerusalem and rebuild it in three days, then all hell breaks loose. Jesus and his growing legion of followers represent a threat to the age-old religious and social order in Jerusalem.

Prohibited by law from killing this perceived blasphemer, the Pharisees instead turn to the Romans who rule Jerusalem along with most of the known world. The Romans, however, generally prefer to remain in the background, leaving local religious and political affairs to local people as long as order is maintained.

On Friday, Jesus, all battered and bloody now, is brought by the Pharisees to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, and is portrayed by them as a serious danger. But Pilate, looking him over, is not so sure. Rather than take action, he dumps Jesus back into the hands of the Jews and instructs them to take him to Herod, a local political ruler.

Herod, wallowing in a den of debauchery, finds Jesus curiously amusing and decides he is just plain crazy. He promptly dumps Jesus back into the hands of Pilate. Now, confronted by an ever growing and rowdy anti-Jesus mob incited by the Pharisees and temple guards, Pilate tries to calm things down by giving the crowd a gift, so to speak. He lets them decide whether Jesus, or a convicted murderer named Barabbus, should be set free. The crowd chooses Barabbus and for the moment is appeased. But for Pilate, the question remains – what to do about Jesus? Once again, the mob, spurred on by the Pharisees, directs its wrath toward Jesus. Pilate tries to appease them by ordering Jesus to be taken away and lashed severely, but not killed.

Animalistic Roman guards who exist to inflict pain then have a field day with Jesus, beating him with big sticks and a gruesome wipe-like device tipped with metal barbs. All-the-while the Satan ghoul guy watches with delight, cuddling some kind of evil baby-creature in his arms. This whole sequence, made deliberately long by Gibson, is perhaps one of the most violent in film history, a truly wrenching experience to endure.

Beaten to the brink of death, Jesus is crowned with thorns by drunken Roman soldiers and dragged back to Pilate. The anti-Jesus mob is still hanging around and now demands death by crucifixion, once again spurred on by the Pharisees. With things looking more rebellious by the moment, Pilate consents. Gibson shows the ordeal that follows in the same kind of ultra-realistic gore as the rest of Jesus' suffering.

Along the way, however, there is a truly magnificent moment. Inching through the streets of Jerusalem while carrying the cross, Jesus is spotted by his mother Mary from a side street. He then falls badly to the pavement. Here, Gibson cuts in a scene from the childhood of Jesus, when, as a boy he took a bad tumble in the street. Cutting back and forth Gibson shows Mary dashing to aid the fallen child and then dashing to aid the fallen bearer of the cross. When she reaches him, amid unimaginable physical agony, Jesus the cross bearer looks at her and says, "Behold mother, I make all things new." This may be the most powerful religious moment ever seen on film. It is the acknowledgment by Jesus that he is voluntarily enduring all that is happening in order to sacrifice himself.

The portrayal of his mother Mary by Maia Morgenstern is quite intriguing. She is presented as someone who fully understands the magnitude of all that is going on, patiently enduring the horrific ordeal because it is necessary.

Unfortunately, upon the death of Jesus on the cross, Gibson falters somewhat from the lofty heights the film has reached at times thus far and goes for the predictable thunderous skies sequence with minor earthquake thrown in for good measure as seen so many times before. Of particular note, Gibson shows the Pharisees enduring what appears to be the wrath of God as the ground shakes beneath their feet and the walls tumble. Somewhat disappointingly, the resurrection is reduced to a quickie scene, as the credits are seemingly about to roll.

And there you have it.

So, is the film and its portrayal of the Jews anti-Semitic? It depends on what is in the mind of the person watching the movie. If the viewer is inclined to be anti-Semitic, then the film might nudge such a person further in that direction. If, on the other hand, one professes to follow the teachings of Christ, which Gibson intersperses throughout the film via occasional flashbacks, they will set aside any negative notions and remember what Jesus said about the importance of love.

Rated R for graphic violence.

The Passion of the Christ - Official Website
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