The Passion of the Christ: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
Content warning: the following contains graphic images and descriptions of torture and antisemitism.
I have a complicated relationship with Christianity.
Growing up Catholic, it was very difficult to find solace in faith. There was nothing fun or fulfilling that came from being religious, and as a result, my family’s relationship with the church died almost immediately after confirmation. As an adult, I no longer associate myself with the church, but I haven’t fully given up on God. I find my faith through the world-moving simplicity of “God Died” by Cynthia Rylant; through the synthesized grandeur of Jon Bellion’s “Hand of God;” through the rock and roll bombast of Jesus Christ Superstar. My connections to God are found through the love of others and through media, because media is a space in which God is love and Jesus was human — two things the church never bothered to teach.
Were I an adult in 2004, I believe that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ could have been a game-changer for me. Its very intention was and is to radicalize audiences to Christianity through showing Jesus and his death without the immaculacy of stained glass or the bloodlessness of marble. A portrayal of what really happened that Good Friday in all its gore and tragedy could be amazing.
Well…at least it succeeded in depicting the “gore and tragedy” part.
In all fairness, there are tiny nuggets of greatness to be found in The Passion of the Christ. As a technical whole, the film is extremely sound. Special effects are disturbingly good, the cinematography is excellent when it wants to be, and it’s strong in its silence, but doesn’t waste a single word when it chooses to speak. The choice to make the film entirely in Aramaic and Latin is incredibly effective at plunging the viewer into the New Testament, and demonstrates an attention to detail rarely seen in modern filmmaking. It would be more effective if there were more than 3 people of color in this movie set in the Middle East, but as we will later learn, historical accuracy was not high up on Gibson’s priority list. Jim Caviezel does quite a good job playing Jesus Christ. The role requires the ability to express a lot of emotions without aid of words, as well as imbuing faith, bravery, loyalty, and of course pain — all of which Caviezel succeeds at. His performance is so visceral that you can feel his pain through the screen (perhaps aided by the multiple injuries and illnesses he suffered on set.) Maia Morgenstern’s Mary and the focus on her character throughout is perhaps the greatest thing in the entire movie. The Virgin Mary’s significance as a biblical figure is usually disregarded beyond the Immaculate Conception, but Gibson remembers and emphasizes that she was in fact there, and that she had to watch while her baby was murdered. It’s a captivating, illuminating choice that brings a layer of humanity to the Passion heretofore unseen in adaptation. This is bolstered by the quiet anguish of Morgenstern’s performance and the wonderful chemistry she has with Caviezel in the rare moments when they are on screen together.
That’s where the positives end.
As previously mentioned, the concept of using violence in The Passion is a concept with a lot of utility. A period-accurate depiction of crucifixion could put Jesus’ sacrifice into perspective for Christians who think “so what” when they hear “Jesus died for your sins,” and demonstrate the courage of his convictions for non-Christians. It works from a historical accuracy angle, too. Seeing is believing, after all, and seeing crucifixion as it would have been could serve as a tangible window into Ancient Roman history. However, Gibson doesn’t seem to care about the logic of beating Jesus to a pulp so much as he cares about the beating itself. The manner of Jesus’ death was not an anomaly. There was nothing unique about his crucifixion beyond a crown of thorns and a sign on his cross, and while the process was so brutal that people did sometimes die before actually getting on the cross, Jesus is not recorded as having been one of these people. If the film claims to be biblically and historically accurate, shouldn’t it be in accordance with this information? Nope. Not according to Gibson. Everything has to be turned up to eleven regardless of context or continuity. The crippling fear of death isn’t enough of a burden for Jesus to bear during the Agony in the Garden, instead we need an appearance from Satan (whose inclusion in the story is as ludicrous and unnecessary as the color correction effects on Caviezel’s eyes.) It’s not enough for Judas to commit suicide as a result of his crushing guilt. Instead, he has to be cursed with eternally dry lips and chased out of town by a mob of satanic children in the lead up. It’s certainly not enough for Jesus to be flogged with a lead-tipped whip. No, it is imperative that he be scourged over 72 times with two different instruments on both sides of his body, and fall five times carrying the cross instead of the recorded three. And that’s not even mentioning all the physical trauma he endures before his conviction. There is neither narrative intention nor historical basis behind the violence in The Passion. It twists sacrifice into spectacle with such extremity that it becomes barely better than a Saw movie.
It’s impossible to talk about The Passion or Mel Gibson without talking about antisemitism, nor should we do so. Antisemitism has been present in depictions of the Passion since the canonical gospels were first penned, and as such, an adapter should seek out and seize upon opportunities to be a good ally; to use one’s platform in repudiation of the claim that “the Jews killed Jesus,” a claim which Roger Ebert refutes best in his own review of the film:
“The libel that the Jews ‘killed Christ’ involves a willful misreading of testament and teaching: Jesus was made man and came to Earth in order to suffer and die in reparation for our sins. No race, no man, no priest, no governor, no executioner killed Jesus; he died by God’s will to fulfill his purpose, and with our sins we all killed him. That some Christian churches have historically been guilty of the sin of anti-Semitism is undeniable, but in committing it they violated their own beliefs.”
Combating antisemitism in the Bible and the faith should be at the top of any Christian’s priority list. But, as we have already established, Gibson’s priorities when making this film were, to say the least, skewed. To a casual observer, it may be hard to notice any outward bigotry. It is only upon second viewing that one really starts to notice how Ciaphas and the Pharisees look like an army of Shylocks, how the film lingers on their twisted faces and conniving glances and takes great pains to set them apart from the crowd—and worst of all, how the consequences for the amplification of the violence in the story land squarely on them. Gibson has created a film in which the Jews aren’t just responsible for killing Jesus, they’re responsible for subjecting him to an unimaginable level of torture; a level so intense that it could only be perpetrated by something inhuman. The saddest part about all of this is knowing that in Gibson’s eyes, Jewish people are not human. He has proven that time and time again, and if the bile he has spewed over the last decade hasn’t been enough to get him ostracized from Hollywood, this film should have been.
There is a scene early on in The Passion that details a flashback to a time before Gethsemane. Jesus has just finished making a table and Mary goes out to see. She examines his work and is skeptical of what he made (apparently Jesus Christ was also the inventor of the bar table,) but she indulges her son for a while and he manages to sneak in a joke now and then. In a scene that lasts less than two minutes, we see everything the film could have been: the relationship between mother and son; the messiah’s roots as a man of humble beginnings taking up his father’s trade; a typical Galilean way of life; a history that breathes life into what once was and gives life to what has not been seen. As for the best scene in the movie being the scene with the least amount of gore…I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Mel Gibson had the opportunity to make a good film. A moving film. A film that reinvigorated the spirit of the New Testament and spoke to the gravity of Jesus’ sacrifice and the importance of his teachings. Instead, we got this. A film entirely composed of everything that makes me not want to call myself a Christian. A film that disregards compassion, humanity, and faith in favor of enough blood and gore to drown out any of its scant moments of greatness. A film which demonstrably does not care about accurately representing its source material or passing on the teachings of its namesake. The Passion of the Christ is not even a film. It’s A 127-minute justification for jerking off over the messiah’s corpse.