Let me just say this up front. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a beautifully shot film. The composition and sets are absolutely gorgeous, which contrasts with the brutality on screen. Also, the acting is superb by just about everyone, none of whom are speaking in a language they are fluent in or indeed that has been spoken for a couple thousand years. That said, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is still a bit of a failure, but one so complex, it demands explanation.
I suppose I should start by saying why in the world I'm putting a review for this film on a website that specializes in horror films. For one thing, I try to mix things up a bit. I have reviewed some films of interest which do not fit into horror but they're here anyway - SCARLET DIVA , GANGS OF NEW YORK, EROTIC SURVIVOR, THE HULK, MONSTER, and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 are just a few of these films. None of them are horror, but they are of enough interest to warrant mention on this site.
On a second point, I can almost guarantee the film is more violent than any horror film you are likely to see. In fact, it is the most violent theatrically released film I have ever seen, and it didn't get any easier to take on a second viewing. This is bloodier than FACES OF DEATH, gorier than KILL BILL and more brutal than SCRAPBOOK. It is now the high water mark for on-screen violence. All this made moreso in that none of the violence is done for a comic effect, even if some of the characters come off as one-dimensional. Another thing is that the film is frightening, partially because of the cruelty on display and partially because the message seems so blurred.
A "passion" in the sense of this film, is the persecution and death of a martyr or prophet. In this case this is THE Passion, relating to the trial, torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, portrayed here and in the Christian faith, as the son of God. If you were raised with the story, as I was, you know it well. This is not the birth of Jesus, nor unfortunately is it about the teachings of Jesus. This is about his torture and death. To put it into context, the place this holds in the Christian faith is that Jesus came to teach us how to live in peace. He offered himself up as a sacrifice for the rest of us, to absolve us of our sins so that through his own persecution, we may stop persecuting others. I want to stress this because aside from an opening verse and a few references, the symbolic gesture of Jesus' death is not covered too well in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
The film opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly after the Last Supper. Jesus (Jim Caviezel - THE THIN RED LINE, FREQUENCY), knowing that he is to be tried and killed, prays to his Father for guidance. If there is another way out of this, Jesus wants it. But if this is what must be done for wash away the sins of man, then so be it. An androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) tries to tempt him but to no avail. Having been paid his thirty pieces of silver, Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) arrives and kisses Jesus, thus pointing out to the guards who the man is they should arrest. They take him to the high priests, who mock him and spit on him. These are the least violent moments in the film.
The rest of the film involves the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), his "scourging" before the guards, the Stations of the Cross in which Jesus is beaten, whipped, stoned and forced to carry the cross that will eventually crucify him until he finally reaches the mountain of Golgotha, where he is nailed to the cross, and left to die. It is these moments that account for all but about twenty minutes of the running time.
There is absolutely no denying that this is an intense experience. For better or worse, I have seen many acts of violence on screen. In film, I have seen simulated violence, most often in an exploitive manner. Working in television news, I have seen many real acts of violence, which were in turn molded into an exploitive manner. But even for eyes as jaded as mine, this is a hard film to take. It is very disturbing. But is it disturbing because we are seeing the ultimate messenger of peace butchered before our very eyes, or would it be equally hard to take to watch anyone brutalized to such an extreme degree?
As you may have surmised, I am a Christian. It's not always an easy thing to explain to people, reconciling a love of horror with my faith. There is no shortage of agnostics and atheists within the genre. Since ancient, religious and mythological clashes between good and evil are a mainstay in the films we love, they tend to be more outspoken then they would be in say dramatic or comedic circles. That's fine, I get along fine with most of these people and if I don't it's most assuredly not because of any religious beliefs. I myself simply believe in a benevolent higher power, and since I was raised with the teachings of Christianity, I seem to relate to them by default, with no disrespect to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindu or anything.
See, it was hard to reconcile with myself as well. I am a fan of art and the freedom of expression. I believe in equal rights for all, male and female, gay and straight, black, white or whatever. Don't applaud that, it's the way things should be. My politics are also quite liberal and yes, I have a profound disdain for my current leaders now that you mention it. So, I see the same news reports as you do and get pretty well pissed off. People who speak for the Christian faith spewing hatred, discrimination, warmongering and a conservative agenda. It's been like that ever since I can remember. But it's important to note that this is just one vocal portion of what's out there. It took me a long time wrestling with my conscious to realize that most of the problems I had were not with Christianity, but with Christians, or more appropriately, a bunch of hatemongers who think of themselves as Christians. Anyway, I'm not going to go into a big long rant about my own personal beliefs. I'm not going to do that because they are personal, my own beliefs. I've already spent way too much time explaining myself here. It's what I didn't want, for this to turn into some rant of sidestreets and tangents. I could explain myself for pages to little avail and it would have nothing to do with the review at hand.
The only reason I bring this up is that over the last year, perception has played a big part in the debate on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. It is very hard to separate one's opinion of this film from their own beliefs. If I were to not mention anything and praise the film, one could assume I am a hardcore Christian, possibly even a fundamentalist. If I were to not mention religion and slam the film, one could assume I was an agnostic or even an outspoken atheist. The media at large has created two camps in the debate. They've turned a critical dissection into a theological war, where none should exist. Unlike many who have criticized THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, I do still retain a strong spiritual foundation. And yet, I still found the film to be mostly despicable.
First. we deal with the presentation, where the film fares best. Director Mel Gibson made a big deal about being authentic. But it is important to note that "authentic" does not hold much meaning, as the story differs slightly in various church teachings. As far as the old school Catholic faith is concerned, it is indeed authentic. Much was made of Gibson's decision to use the dead language of Aramaic. Actually, this works much better than expected. Language has always been a problem in Biblical pictures. A high English traditional approach sounds overly theatrical as in the old pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. they go extremely modern and have a case like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, a film I love, but whose New York accents put off many filmgoers. Here, there is an excellent balance. And although there is some question as to whether dialogue should have been spoken in Greek or Hebrew, the Aramaic works fine.
But the film is not "authentic," so get that out of your mind right now. The first tip off. Any historian with a lick of education now knows that everyone in the film, including Jesus Christ himself would have been darker. And I mean much darker. This is not a strict Gospel picture either. It is important that while it does use the Gospels as its foundation, the presentation jibes more closely with Catholic tradition. Everything from the Stations of the Cross, to the iconography to some of the character representations have more to do with the tradition of the Catholic church than the Bible in general.
Another aspect previously mentioned is the acting. The sympathetic characters all do fine work in the film. But of greater note is the beautiful cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (THE RIGHT STUFF, BEING THERE and yes, he's the father of Zooey and Emily Deschanel) is superb. There is near perfect beauty in the lighting and framing of the shots. The shot composition is amazing.
But like the Great Dane said, "The play is the thing." The greatest error the film made was in presenting the passion as is. It starts in the garden, ends in the tomb. Truth be told, upon my second viewing, there was more flashback footage of Jesus teaching than I had originally remembered. But it was not enough. We are seeing this man persecuted and beaten for two hours and no one knows why. It is a serious blunder because if they had actually taken the time to explain why he was causing an uproar and why he was a threat to the high priests, it would have been more effective. We never learn why the crowd who welcomed him into town a week before now cries for his blood. In fact, the very face that he was so honored is only referenced in one solitary shot. If we were to have everything in context, especially considering Jesus' message of peace and nonviolence, the crucifixion could be seen as an even greater injustice. Some would argue that this is not necessary since just about everyone watching the film probably knows who Jesus Christ was and what he represented. But I have spoken to many people who were puzzled by the film. They knew about Jesus, but they didn't know why he was being tormented. They didn't know what he was doing in town. They didn't understand why many considered this act of violence to be a dark chapter, but one of eventual enlightenment and celebration. So, I would argue that the film failed in getting its point across. Only someone using the film as an aid to an already extensive education could get everything.
For that reason, I find this to be a sad example of any religious faith. By taking everything out of context, the entire Passion is reduced mainly to an innocent man getting beaten to death for two hours. This is the type of film that makes people fear Christians and spirituality in general. It does not bring people together. It drives non-religious types away. It is too abstract for anyone without prior knowledge. An outsider would see a $600 million box office where people cheered a film in which their savior is tortured. Is it any surprise such an approach polarized so many? Without an insider's track, who wouldn't have been turned off by such a prospect?
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is not a story of redemption or hope. It is the darkest chapter in the Gospels, with a vague glossing over of the happy ending. This is a bitter film, an angry film. And that leads us to the villains. I will not criticize the characterization of Pontius Pilate. In fact, I felt the fact he was made more complex, if not entirely sympathetic was one of the few times the filmmakers nailed a character. Too bad it is actually the wrong character as the historical Pilate is not the wishy-washy political animal seen in these films. Everyone else is simply pure evil, without any motivation whatsoever except the need to be evil. There is no doubt that the politicians who tried Jesus, the priests who framed him and the soldiers who beat him were all on the wrong side. They were walking the dark path, to be sure. But this film reduces them to such a broad characterization, it grows ridiculous.
The Centurians are the greatest offenders, possessing all the depth of an extra on XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. Slapping each other on the back and drinking heartily, they have virtually no dialogue themselves. They merely hit and laugh. They laugh with eyes bulging, hands holding their bellies. The presentation is so overwrought, they feel like villains out of a tired B-movie, not the real life strongarms behind the Roman Empire. At one point during Jesus' initial "scourging" (or "severe beating"), they even taunt their superior, grabbing his head and wailing lethal weapons inches away from him. This is patently absurd. I do not believe for one second that they could have gotten away with this. Taunting and ridiculing a superior officer? It would surprise me greatly if they didn't halt the scourging while the Centurian himself was tortured and executed, and his family sold into slavery.
We are also given a needlessly flamboyant King Herod (Luca De Dominicis). The man is be-jeweled, effeminate with eyes darting from side to side. It is pure ham and cheese, hold the bread. Herod was a barbaric and horrible ruler, according to history. But he was not gluttonous homo-psycho on display here. As if the outline the point in bright neon, Herod is surrounded by eunuchs and servants who laugh maniacally for no reason whatsoever, flashing sharpened teeth. There is also a Bengal tiger walking around that no one has bothered to explain.
Another point of contention, and one that was controversial before the film was released was the presentation of Caiphas and the Jewish priests. While I was slow to pick it up, a second viewing actually made them seem a bit worse than I remember. I do not think any ill effect was intended by Gibson or the other filmmakers. There was no anti-Jewish agenda on hand here, nor will it turn out a new generation of neo-Nazis. Nevertheless, the rabbis all have the features of Jewish people used in many anti-semitic propaganda. Likewise, they use the same theatrical hand gestures of these stereotypical pieces. And again, the motive is not explained. If anyone was anti-semitic before watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, those beliefs would be reinforced by this representation, since it plays into the same imagery. Also, since they are the unrepentant people who frame Jesus and sneer and gloat as he is tortured, it would be impossible not to come out against them.
However, one should contemplate the relevance of their faith in the story. Since they are given no context, any faith would have done. They are definitely the bad guys here. If the story called for them to be stereotypical WASPs, then we would come away with bad feelings towards the WASPs. But it's a stereotypical embodiment of the Jews, and one that has been laid out time and time again over the centuries. But remember, the people in the crowd were also Jews, his friends, his enemies and Jesus himself.
Next, we come to Satan him/herself. The first time we see Satan is in the garden, and it's quite effective. The Devil tempts Jesus one more time, telling him no one can handle the burden of the sins of the world. Any appearances after that should have been subtle. But something you should know is that this is one of the least subtle films out there. If Satan is said to be stirring up the crowd, then Satan really is wandering around, glaring. At one point, the Devil is seen suckling an overgrown demon child that looks almost exactly like the monster baby in Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE. That may have been just fine in 95 percent of the films reviewed on this site, but definitely not in this one. Satan also chases after Judas after the betrayal. The story goes that Judas was "plagued by demons" throughout the night. Some have speculated what this could have meant. A common theory with plenty to back it up is that Judas may have been schizophrenic, fearing voices that were driving him mad. Most theologians will admit that many of the "demons" presented in scripture, were just what was used to describe mental illnesses early Christians did not understand. Here, Judas really is plagued by demons. He chased out of Jerusalem by a band of zombie children with gnashing teeth. And right there in the center is Satan, cheering them on.
There is very little subtlety or symbolism in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Films don't get more heavy-handed than this one. Villains are never given complex characters when a simple sneer and evil laugh will do. Barabbas, merely described in the Bible as a murderer, is a one-eyed, molesting degenerate here and he's actually one of the more low-key people in the Rogue's Gallery of Villains. Whenever possible, slow motion effects are shown to really get the impact of the beatings and the falls. Every single blow if given with extra force. Every single shot of violence goes beyond effectiveness and into some unsettling morbid fascination on the part of the filmmakers. By the last hour of the film, Jesus resembles more of a walking mutilated corpse than a human being. It shows a sense of bias on the part of the MPAA. If this isn't an "NC-17" movie, I don't know what is.
There is very little love on display here. As I said, it's an angry film that has unfortunately gained an angry following. The best moments in the film are those quiet flashback moments - the Sermon on the Mount and a tender moment between Jesus the Carpenter and his mother. But they make up maybe ten minutes worth of the Great Gospel Torture Show. It would be impossible for any one of us to imagine what Jesus went through. It would also be hard to imagine what a Jewish man being sent to the gas chambers went through, or what women under the Taliban went through, or what the prisoners at Abu Gharib are going through. Naturally, I applaud violence in many forms, but here it is just too much. It is made worse by the fact that if you were to take away the violence, there would be nothing left. Where is the redemption? Where is the forgiveness of sins? Where is "love thy neighbor as thyself?" All of the teachings which made Jesus the greatest teacher of peace have been given short shrift in favor of a vicious and sadistic bloodbath.