The Passion of The Christ review

"Enjoy the film," said the guy who'd just sold me a ticket to Mel Gibson's controversial movie The Passion of The Christ. I grimaced slightly (on the inside). After all I'd heard, would it be possible to enjoy a film described by some viewers (Christians as well as pagans, I should add) as basically a splatter movie or a gore-fest? Would it make me ashamed to be a Christian (as some Christians have suggested), or would it provide the ideal vehicle for evangelising the neo-pagan West (as have others)? As it happens, neither option quite fitted the case. It didn't make me ashamed, but nor did it greatly move me.

Now, it may well be that lots of people will decide to follow Jesus after seeing The Passion, but if so, I'd put that down to the prompting of the Holy Spirit rather than to the acting of Jim Caviezel (who is admittedly impressive as Jesus) or to the undoubted courage of Mel Gibson in trying to film again the most influential (and probably the most filmed?) story of all time.

For one thing, the film assumes from the outset that the viewer knows a fair bit about the gospel stories. It certainly starts effectively, in an eerie, moonlit, Garden of Gethsemane with a sweat-drenched Jesus imploring his Father for an escape route from his mental anguish. But if you'd never heard much about Jesus, I'm not sure what you'd make of being dropped into the middle of a story like this. It might take you a while to figure out who the long-haired weirdo is, and why he keeps talking to himself.

For another, all those strange references to carrying the sins of the world (what is sin, anyway?) come pretty much out of the blue. Come to mention it, the film never really explains who the androgynous-looking evil guy is, either, though he seems pretty keen to prevent the long-haired character carrying that sin stuff . . . .


dmittedly, that's a slightly provocative way of approaching the film. Most people who see it will probably have at least some idea of what's going on. Yet there does seem to be a tendency in some sections of the Christian public to think that the whole thing's self-evident; almost a tendency to suggest that anyone who so much as sees the movie will be drawn to conversion. But the fact is that the gospel has never been self-evident (I seem to remember something about faith?), and this retelling of it is no exception.

In fact, in ways such as its (apparently inaccurate) use of Aramaic and Latin, the film restores something of the strangeness of the story, giving us fresh glimpses of it as something over which we have no exclusive rights. Similarly, I'm not even sure that the film aims primarily at telling the story for non-believers. In its title, in the way that it's structured, and in the devotional imagery it draws on, The Passion strikes me much more as Gibson's personal meditation on Jesus' passion than as an attempt to simply narrate what happened.

For example, the film's story closely matches the practices of Catholic piety, following the Via Dolorosa through the traditional Stations of the Cross and pointedly highlighting each of Jesus' Seven Last Words. At times, Gibson is even prepared to sacrifice cinematic continuity in order to uphold the devotional tradition, as when Jesus falls three times while carrying his cross towards Golgotha. From a cinematic point of view this feels a bit like overkill, but it is in fact a nod towards the ritual of the Stations, in which this is said to happen.

Arguably, the film's much touted violence is also an extension of these traditions. Certainly, it's far more graphic than anything described in the gospels, none of which describes in any detail the flogging Jesus received. Yet there are longstanding artistic and devotional traditions which focus on Jesus' wounds, and Gibson's movie aligns itself with these when it displays the words of Isaiah 53:5 on a blank screen at the beginning. The film's graphic blood-letting is perhaps best considered as an extended meditation on this verse.


iven this insistently Catholic meditative context, I am slightly surprised at the film's rapturous reception in some sections of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, movements not generally noted for their sympathies towards Catholics. This has prompted me to wonder whether most evangelical Protestants are approaching the film from angles quite different to Mel Gibson's, particularly when it comes to the question of the atonement.

I am no expert here, and I recommend that readers look for deeper consideration of these issues to the article by Martin Sutherland on page[ 777]. But it is certainly the case that evangelicals are generally more inclined towards a 'penal', substitutionary atonement theology than are most contemporary Catholics. Penal atonement requires Jesus to have suffered gruesomely in order to satisfy an angry God's wrath-at-sin, a theology which fits well with the bloody and lacerated body of Gibson's Christ. According to such theology, only this level of punishment meets the justice of God.

Yet this is not the only way of theologising the atonement, and the New Testament itself uses a variety of metaphors to describe what happened on the cross. Among other things, the crucifixion is described as a blood sacrifice, as the destruction of a dividing wall, and as the ripping open of a temple curtain into God's presence. At the level of popular piety, therefore, I suspect the film focuses on the wounding of Jesus, not so much to speculate on the internal motivations of God the Father, but rather to drive believers to remorse at how their personal sins required Jesus to go to the cross. He went through this for me.

I get the feeling that Gibson is trying to awaken this kind of remorse. Certainly, it had something like that effect on me. It made me weigh my courage against that of the various characters, making me admit that I'd probably have run away like Peter, without the guts of Veronica or Simon of Cyrene to get in the way of the Roman justice machine. In this regard, it's interesting to consider Mel Gibson's only appearance in the film. It is his hand that drives the nails into the cross, as if the entire film is a devotional admission by Gibson that he is personally implicated in Jesus' death.


onsidered like this, as part of a devotional tradition, the gore seemed somehow less gratuitous than I had feared it might be. Nonetheless, it was (intentionally) horrific and it certainly deserved an R16 rating. If a filmmaker decides to depict the beatings in any depth, such a rating is probably inevitable. The gospels are not children's fairy stories. As the Vigilantes of Love once sang,

If you're gonna come around here and say those sort of things
You've got to take a few on the chin
If you talk about sin and redemption
You'd better wear your thickest skin...
I continually wanted the violence to stop, so that the film's brief flashbacks to other incidents from Jesus' life came as a huge relief. But I think that's a right reaction.

Regardless of how bloody our atonement theology needs to be, it is never right for one human being to wish suffering on another, a fact reinforced by the gospels' refusal to dwell at any length on the details of Jesus' suffering.

They are certainly at pains to record that it happened, and it may well have been as bloody as Gibson portrays it. But it's curious that a focus on the bloodiness of the passion is something that has developed largely outside the pages of the New Testament. And if the gospels don't dwell on it, the epistles also generally move quickly from Jesus' suffering to consider what it means for the world.


he questions of how bloody Jesus' suffering needed to be, and how bloody our atonement theology needs to be, are probably larger than we can ever answer for sure. But we do need to be aware that our answers will be closely connected to our understanding of God. Thus, we need to be careful about assuming that the quantity of violence is the important thing about the passion, or that Jesus' divinity somehow made it easier for him to bear the suffering.

Certainly, people have suggested to me that any normal human being subjected to the suffering experienced by Jesus in this movie would have died long before the cross. I don't think Gibson means to imply any docetic heresy (by which Jesus only seems to be human), but the film's violence tends, arguably, in that direction, by suggesting that Jesus had superhuman strength to resist it.

I wonder whether there was more of this tendency, too, in the way that Jesus stands up after enduring the first round of beating from the Roman soldiers, almost as if he is asking for a second dose, which the soldiers obligingly (and far more horrifically) deliver. Finally, while carrying the cross through Jerusalem, Gibson's Jesus rather cryptically utters the words of Revelation 21:5, "See, I make all things new!" Arguably, this implies a kind of divine mind, separate from his human suffering, with which I'm not altogether happy.

Again, this is another huge topic, but I'd prefer the suggestion that "everything . . . Jesus does is both fully divine and fully human action."1 In other words, our tendency to separate the divine from the human attributes of God may be because we understand God wrongly, as remoter and more 'other' than the God of the Bible actually is, without fully accepting the scandalous revelation that God is revealed to us in Jesus.


recently heard the earth-shattering suggestion that in fact, Jesus' divinity probably made him less prepared than anyone else to suffer as he did, not least when the mental and spiritual dimensions of his suffering are taken into account. At any rate, I'd suggest that all of these possibilities and all of Scripture's diverse atonement metaphors need to be held together in trying to gain an adequate understanding of the cross, which is why it's not ideal to set too much faith in one retelling of it.

Having said that, I should acknowledge that Gibson's film doesn't channel thought on the atonement in only one direction. It gives, for example, a central role to its Satan figure. Satan, a pallid look-alike of the Emperor in The Return of the Jedi, stalks behind the Jerusalem crowds in silent, goading delight as Jesus is led to the cross. His presence is so surreal that his influence on events could be understood in a Walter-Wink-exposing-the-powers sort of manner, or it could be understood more literally.

But either way, Satan's chilling presence in the film conveys the sense that the humans involved are really only actors on the surface of an event that is being enacted at deep, cosmic levels. At the moment of Jesus' death, Satan erupts into the frenzied, demonic laughter of apparent triumph. This seems to cohere with one of the oldest atonement traditions which stresses the idea that Jesus acted as the devil's ransom (compare Mark 10:45) in order to free us from sin.

Satan's presence in the film also helps to cast the charges of anti-Semitism into relief. Against the background of Jewish and Roman characters, Satan's pale, blue-eyed appearance looks particularly Aryan, and his directorial role in events could be taken to absolve the Jewish leaders from ultimate responsibility for Jesus' death.

Having said that, the film is still harder on the Jewish leaders than on the Romans. Caiaphas is portrayed as a self-important and conniving individual, while Herod looks like a hedonistic escapee from a fancy dress party in an Evelyn Waugh novel. In contrast, Pilate appears urbane; certainly much more humane than historians suggest.

Admittedly, the rank-and-file Roman soldiers are brutes, but their centurion shares Pilate's humanity, thus depicting civilised Romans as basically decent and noble people. I don't think this amounts to full-blown anti-Semitism, but it's good to remember that these portrayals involve a fair bit of historical interpretation.


here's also a lot of interpretation at work in the film's portrayal of the women, but it's interpretation which I rather liked. Surrounded by the brutality and hysterical power-games of men, the film's female characters join Simon of Cyrene and the disciple John as just about the only people to respond to Jesus' suffering with the compassion and sorrow it deserves.

Veronica, a character from the Stations of the Cross ritual who wipes Jesus' face and tries to slake his thirst, is graceful and courageous in the face of soldierly cruelty. Though some Protestants might balk at the iconography involved in the portrayal of Mary, her central role generally fits well with the gospels' insistence that she is present throughout the carnage until the moment of Jesus' death.

There are some well-timed flashbacks to Jesus' home life with Mary, too, including a surprising moment of humour between them. It's not exactly high comedy, but it's a poignant reminder that Jesus was the son of a caring mother, and that there is a side to his biography of which we know nothing, into which the violence of the crucifixion is a savage intrusion.


ortraying Jesus' suffering in any form, of course, raises all manner of questions about the relationship between God, suffering and the world, none of which can be portrayed without involving theological assumptions. If that's true of the gospels, it must inevitably be true of Mel Gibson's Passion (gosh - I'd argue that it's even true of Little Red Riding Hood).

Not least because there are four versions of the story in the Bible, rather than simply one, we must remember while watching any Jesus movie that it's neither an innocent nor an objective interpretation, least of all the definitive one. But for reasons I've tried to indicate above, I think the film acknowledges this throughout.

The gospels are literary documents into which every generation of Christians must enter imaginatively, and with which every generation must wrestle in order to tell again the story that brings the world the good news of what God is like. It's therefore vital that it's interpreted and retold constantly, in film, fiction, poetry and pubs.

Gibson's film is a welcome part of that exercise; of presenting "the word made strange".2

Given the multiplicity of movies about Jesus, I'm confident that Gibson's emphases won't take exclusive hold of the Christian imagination: unlike The Lord of the Rings, it's not likely that we'll have to wait a hundred years for another cinematic retelling.

Notes

1 Colin Gunton, Act and Being (London: SCM Press, 2002), pp 149-150
2 For another (possibly unintentional) example of that exercise, readers might like to track down the Gospel According to St Matthew, a very different 1960s version of the gospel by the Italian Marxist director, Pier Paolo Pasolini.

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