The Passion of the Christ

There are many reasons to love The Passion of the Christ, and to hate it, which are separate from the movie itself, which must be described as spiritual even if you run a deficit in that department. It’s a spiritual choice to know Jesus and live in the shadow of his suffering, as it is to deny his pain any power over you and to see a film merely about a man being tortured. There is great pain in The Passion, directed to such conscientious extremes that the film is about torture. Whatever else you can make of that, you have to bring the holy spirit with you, if you hope to see it, into a film that is about nothing but pain. This, and not any dispute with its religious content, is my main contention with The Passion.

Torture itself is emotional, but it is not automatically personal. We must relate to or at least appraise the person being tortured to feel anything for them, or we’ll feel only for the torture itself. In other torture films like Takashi Miike’s Audition and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, the weight of the pain is in its subject. The Passion displays Jesus (Jim Caviezel) but does not characterize him. It's easy to become emotional during any of director Mel Gibson’s many mini-bloodbaths but it's difficult to get personal. The emotion is of a different kind: you may feel for Jesus, but in that way that you'd regret intensely the similar torturing of a dog, without necessarily knowing them or needing to. The torture is presented here as sympathetic, but self-evidently.

That’s because characterizing Jesus was not Gibson’s intention. His whole film points to prior knowledge that could make The Passion a searing emotional journey, but if you don’t bring that knowledge in with you, it might come across more like the last part of a miniseries you didn’t see or an R-rated History Channel special. Without this knowledge, the film is starkly empty. Jesus does not hate his captors because he knows that people are all basically sinful ("They know not what they do”). He doesn’t hate himself, who has been prepped and bound up to these events inevitably since the day he was born. He does not hate God, else he would have nothing. In other words, Jesus has no relatable human emotions in this situation, as he did in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. If he was anyone else, everyone would complain that as a protagonist, this person is unfeeling, unemotional, and aloof.

But he’s not anyone else: he’s Jesus Christ. Being relatable isn’t central to his story. While this may work in a fresco or tapestry, it is alienating in a movie, one which tells us not to relate to the hero and also not to hate those who do this to him because it must happen. I perfectly understand the distant, satisfied reaction of someone who watches The Passion with the same vigor as a sermon or a documentary recreation. I don’t, however, understand the tears shed over this movie with greater zeal than they would be for anyone being tortured in this way. The movie is designed above all to advocate accepting the fulfillment of a prophecy – it actively negates the concept of feeling anger or pity for anyone involved. People say of many things, “You get out of it what you put in,” but I don’t think this has ever been more applicable to a movie than to The Passion.

Showings of this movie were so controversially anticipated (the film had trouble finding a distributor at all) that they more closely mirrored the geek allure surrounding an Eli Roth gore film than most religious releases (those movies commissioned by the church and made to promote church attendance, such as the aggressively faithful accident story Breakthrough coming out this week). All of this presupposed that The Passion would be full of personal stakes, and people responded as though it was. But the movie cannot be personable if its entire premise is that it contains no empathy. No one can be blamed or hated for anything that happens in it. It cannot be anti-Semitic, as some have claimed it to be, because in order to be so the film must portray the death of Jesus as the fault of the Jews. This movie, as a strict account of people and places, can be no more anti-Semitic than the source material (not that the Bible is: I'm saying that the politics of the story were there before Gibson got there). No one is really to blame for Jesus’ death because no one is at fault for their actions in The Passion; Gibson interprets God’s presence in this story as a universal excuse to not be responsible for the things we do, must do, and will do. Here, the death and torture of Jesus is as necessary and inevitable as a good rain before sunshine.

As a Bible story, this makes it faithful to the material. But as a movie, this ambition stuffs The Passion with unrelatable people, whose villainous nonchalance works easily into the messianic intentions of the material but not into its human equation. Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) wards Jesus off as a social threat, Judas (Luca Lionello) betrays him on a whim, Peter (Francesco De Vito) denies him three times. But no one is involved with each other in The Passion. All interactions are from far away, the distance of a courtyard or sanctuary. They speak in separate scriptures, in a big cast that has almost no ensemble element. This is a God’s eye view of the human race. In terms of characters speaking to each other, there aren’t even that many “scenes.” It has the quality, evident even in the behind-the-scenes talk of authenticity, of a reenactment.

The most compelling moments involve not Jesus but Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), desperately trying to find a reason to exonerate Jesus. Pilate’s dilemma is palpable as a peace officer and a man under Caesar’s thumb who also wants to do the right thing by an innocent man. By this dilemma, he becomes a larger presence than Jesus, whose iconic profile offers a lot of candied awe and no resonance. “All men who hear the truth hear my voice,” the messiah says. “What is truth?” Pilate replies, and he gives you the impression that you’re looking at a philosopher addressing a salesman.

Most of the scenes that are not torture are flashbacks involving Jesus either saying a famous line or interacting with a loved one. The latter are the most humanizing, and might have allowed Jesus to rise from his archetype and become flesh. But as deeply as Caviezel emotes pain, he only rises to the level of the icon and never to the man. The Jesus in The Passion could be the very one modeled into the crucifix, or painted relentlessly into the conscience of the Renaissance; Daniel-Day Lewis was no less pictographic as Lincoln, and as I now sometimes see Lewis on the penny I can see Caviezel hanging around the necks of my Catholic relatives. But the film’s real trouble is that its creator’s intentions force it to bear a man who endures the most physically trying times and yet faces no emotional adversity from them. Gibson has extrapolated the legend into action, but not into a person. Perhaps we could have lingered longer on Gethsemane, where Jesus wept with doubt. In truth, I think that scene could be a whole film (and it would have been about a person).

Instead, Jesus grits his teeth through having his flesh rent with metal filings, thorns piercing his forehead jagged and bloody, his body crushed and beaten and spat upon. He endures it because he was told to and because he believes that good will come of it in the scheme of the cosmos (and because it satisfies his director’s obsession with his own idea of accuracy). But what good of it will come in the scheme of us?

Gibson’s desire to convincingly portray Jesus’ trial becomes reductive through realism. He levies so much torture against the man that it becomes unbelievable, from the view of the audience, that he would not die. His refusal to stand up for himself or to be angry is symbolic of his Christian ideal, in the brightly lit version of these images that William Blake painted. But in The Passion, the torture is so exaggerated that his consent of them comes off as improbably self-destructive. Yes, he may be the son of God, but he has never been called superhuman. Here he is portrayed as enduring tortures that are made so visually severe that we can’t believe he is anything but a demigod. Where other depictions take what Gibson apparently considers a pussyfoot perspective of these events, they do not distract from the central figure, which is Jesus and his passion. Here, he is shown merely as someone who can endure pain and that’s all he really has to do in this film: the movie is like a feature-length third act. Gibson’s portrayal would differ only slightly if it was the depiction of any number of thousands of tortured and crucified dissenters in the history of the Roman empire because it is about a man being beaten and not about this particular man. Because nothing relatable comes out of the central figure of this story, The Passion becomes less emotional even than the stories of the men beside Jesus on their own crosses.

Does Gibson know this? It could be why he throws in terrible outliers: Satan appears in the story, in strange horror movie shots. And for all his supposed intentions of historical authenticity, at one point, Gibson finds the need to let Ghost Hunters influence him and throw in a demonic jump-scare. It’s as out of place as a dance number would be.

More convincingly, mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) sees Jesus collapse as he bears the cross down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. As he hits the ground, she sees a four-year-old boy, not a messiah, not a God, but her baby. Mary’s ability to see her son as a child drops a little humanity into a story about someone who’s been told their whole life that they mean something in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps this is the cornerstone of the Jesus story: the belief that no amount of torture can prevent us from meaning something. We hope the cosmos cares about our pain.

Why Gibson chooses to depict this detail is a strange choice, along with no fewer than five similar falls in ridiculously maudlin slow-motion, in a film that strives above all for a perception of realism. None of this is strictly in the Bible, other than passing lines about Jesus being scourged or spat on, so liberties are being taken based on other accounts already. But Gibson acts like there was never a good reason for these images to be different than this, and so whereas the other impressions were Hollywoodized glamor shots of torture, they were not faker than Gibson’s Hollywoodized pornographic shots of torture. Even Mary Magdalene, with Monica Bellucci bearing her name, is witheringly, unconscionably sexy.

“Passion” is a brilliant word for this story, a perfect summary of the Jesus paradigm. It meant “pain” or “enduring suffering” in Latin and now stands in for the deepest feelings of love available to human beings. From this one word, we may experience the etymological voyage of the entire Christ story: his endurance through torture was proof of his love of us. And now, with Mr. Gibson’s help, we may return the favor, for our endurance through his torture film must be proof of our love of Jesus. There is absolutely no other reason to watch it.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson

Benedict Fitzgerald

Anne Catherine Emmerich (book)

Jesus Christ Jim Caviezel
Mary, Mother of Jesus Maia Morgenstern
John Christo Jivkov
Peter Francesco De Vito
Mary Magdalene Monica Bellucci
Caiaphas Mattia Sbragia
Pontius Pilate Hristo Shopov

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