Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Passion Of The Christ (2004) Film Review
The Passion Of The Christ
Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald
I believe film is the most empathetic art medium, and as such telling the most famous story ever told and retold through film seems a natural thing to do in order to see the story through different eyes. In The Passion Of The Christ, Mel Gibson evidently believed it was his duty to take away the thick veneer of romance that many Christians take with respect to the fundamental story of their faith. To reduce the story to one man's suffering for atonement of all the world's sins. To strip it of the wordy and affectionate "Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world" and to make it an entirely human story. And in this respect he is entirely and relentlessly successful, achieving a true feeling of empathy for the man who becomes the crucifix, the ultimate religious icon, and performing the miraculous feat of universality. No clergy has been able to lay down the sacrificial story with the same strength. The medium of film becomes the emotional teacher.
The film is a retelling of the timeframe between Jesus' prayers for strength in Gethsemane through to a wordless epilogue for Easter Sunday's resurrection. Gibson's great passion play creates a shocking psychological reaction through intense violence, which is tempered by your ideological beliefs and psychological makeup. It stays mostly true to the Gospels, although even they have conflicting elements, and also includes some material from the Dolorous Passion by Anne Catherine Emmerich. Bible study isn't my field of expertise, so I shall have to work from memory and Gibson's film to extrapolate meaning.
Essentially, I think the entire film works as a service to the inevitable. The Passion story is the centerpoint for the entire Christian faith for the teachings of Christ to have had any resonance within the world. If Jesus was the Son of God, he could have freed himself easily, but this would annul the entire counterpoint to his sacrifice for humanity's greater good. But he did not fight back, he did not hate, he forgave and loved those who persecuted him, and he died for his beliefs. That's what the movie is about, and that's what it shows throughout.
There are many intense moments in this film, but most of the ones that do not involve violence remain most horribly in our minds. Peter's denial of Jesus, a good man frightened and yet trying to be worthy of Christ's love and his teachings. The visions of guilt from Judas. After Christ dies on the cross, a single drop of rain falls from the heavens onto the ground. Two wonderful, artistic shots one after another signify the weeping of God for his Son. (I initially dismissed them as "David Fincher-lite", but the significance became clear quickly.) And a single tear causes a mighty earthquake tearing apart the temple. I'm reminded of Cecil B De Mille's The Ten Commandments, where one of the children of Israel exclaims as Moses parts the Red Sea: "God shall part the seas with a blast of his nostrils."
The centerpiece of physical cruelty to Jesus, the scourging through to the final moments on the cross, is the single most agonising fully developed act I have ever seen in a movie. The first shot of this is an establishing shot with a stone table, restraints and a table with canes, whips, and instruments for raking and gouging flesh. Even that framed shot was enough to make me draw breath loudly, steeling myself for the bloody and gruelling torture. It wasn't enough. It's not as though Gibson is reaching for his audience. Each moment of slow-motion agony is relative for our understanding.
A moment during the scourging brings up a recurring character. Humanoid, but neither identifiably male, nor female. It was carrying a horribly deformed baby with care - I shan't say love. I view this as a perversion of the love between parent and child, Satan himself embracing the hideous child as though mocking God's will of having Jesus suffer for our sins, a temptation that Satan would never let his offspring suffer as much as his Heavenly Father is. A horrid mockery of Mary's unending love for her son. The eyes alone are enough to chill me.
And indeed, Mary, John and Magdalene suffer openly with Jesus. A particularly deeply felt moment comes as Jesus falls under the weight of the cross, and Mary sees Jesus falling as a young child. This scene is woven together for brilliantly manipulative impact, and it's like a sledgehammer on our senses. We have suffered empathetically with Jesus's physical torture, and to feel his mother's suffering as her son is led to his death is almost unbearable. The quoted dialogue "See, mother, I make all things new" is heartbreaking, and the music cue used here flows into the suffering and compassion with such strength, that I struggled to contain myself. The physical violence I could take, but I unashamedly wept for this simple human story. The unconditional love of a mother for her child, juxtaposed perfectly as God's love for humanity.
The violence and cruelty goes on, and on, until we're nearly wrung out by the whole affair. Thankfully, the film is occasionally broken up by flashbacks to his previous teachings, during the washing of the feet of his disciples, the sermon on the Mount, and Simon's heartbreaking denial prediction. His words of "Love your enemies", carefully cross-cut against his prayers for the tormentors forgiveness during his throes on the cross is a powerful piece of editing work. Gibson ingeniously mixes modern filmmaking skill with invisible thread, patching together his artistic feeling of the slaying of the Lamb of God.
Jim Caviezel's work, cannot be undervalued in the movie. He lends a human gravitas to the story, and it's not hard to see, in those precious - both in the sense of performance, and in giving the audience a moment to breathe - few moments where we are treated to a man who isn't being beaten, whipped and exhausted, a portrayal of a straightforward, kind, uncommonly wise man who may or may not have changed the world. It's in the eyes and voice, the certitude, utterly embodying the one belief of loving your neighbour. A stunning choice, and the performance of the year. Watch the memories of previous teachings and how they brilliantly juxtapose exactly what is being delivered. For example, Magdalene on her knees mopping up the Christ's blood cuts to her stoning, where Jesus saves her. "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone." - an astonishing irony, in that the sinful punish the sinless throughout the Passion. It is no mere simple choice that leads to the opening quote, "By his wounds, we are healed".
The Passion Of The Christ is one of the most fascinating and empathetically painful films I've ever had to watch. The ferocious imagery sears the eyes and at the same time, it is also uncannily beautiful. It may not challenge my beliefs, nor do I agree with others in theirs. Gibson is a solid storyteller, and I appreciate him and this deeply passionate (which is indeed the appropriate word for the film) and personal work. This is one of the best films of the year.Reviewed on: 04 May 2005