‘Passion:’ Profound or unsubstantial?

Ted Pigeon

There are so many different perspectives from which to view Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Some people will see the film as a religious experience and others will simply seek a good story in the form of a well-made movie. Gibson spared no expense in realizing his vision of Jesus’ passion, and in that regard his film achieves everything he wanted it to. It is an efficiently gut-wrenching and occasionally moving experience, but it never hits the level of transcendence that the subject matter deserves. “The Passion of the Christ” is exactly what it claims to be: a harrowing, unflinching account of Jesus’ final hours as recorded by the four Gospels. Over the course of its 126-minute running time, we see the central character endure countless floggings, beatings, whippings and eventually a merciless crucifixion in unrelenting detail. There isn’t much beyond that from the standpoint of drama, and that’s essentially the point.

Right from the beginning of the movie, Gibson establishes the dark nature of the story almost immediately through moody lighting and constant slow motion shots. The film opens in the fog-infested garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel), trembling and saturated in sweat, prays to his Father while being tempted by Satan. Before long he is arrested by Roman soldiers and brought before the Jewish High Priests, where he is interrogated, spat upon and beaten. As the story goes, he is then brought before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), who is in deep conflict over whether Jesus truly deserves to be crucified or not. As Jesus’ mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) helplessly watch, Pilate eventually concedes to the demands made by Ciaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the angry mob before him.

The remainder of the film is a blood bath like nothing ever put on film. The centerpiece is a 20-plus minute scourging scene in which Jesus is whipped by the Roman soldiers. In this scene, we see his flesh being torn from his body as blood streams from his many wounds. By the end, there isn’t an inch on his body that’s not covered with scars and the ground beneath him is stained with his blood. This scene is probably the hardest to watch. After that, the rest of the film closely follows the 14 stages of the Cross as Jesus carries his cross through the dusty streets of Jerusalem and eventually to Calvary.

One thing that overtly comes through in this film (other than the extreme violence) is the ambition and devotion on the part of Mel Gibson. Every shot in this movie is meticulous in detail and exists for a specific reason. It’s evident that Mel Gibson wanted this world to be not only believable but completely authentic, and he does a good job. All the dialogue in the movie is spoken in Latin and Aramaic, which adds to the sense of realism. So on one end there is a strong sense of authenticity to the picture, but this is ultimately an artistic expression of a vision. With the help of Caleb Deschanel’s brilliant cinematography and John Debney’s fine musical score, Gibson fills this movie with an incredible amount of cinematic viscera. But when looking past all of the surface details, “The Passion of the Christ” is not as deep or heartfelt as it should be.

What ultimately prevents this movie from reaching greatness is that it makes very little effort to show us anything other than brutalization. There simply isn’t much else to the movie. Yes, the violence is indeed gut-wrenching and effective, but Gibson essentially banks on this idea alone to really move audiences, and it’s just not enough. He is exclusively interested in drowning audiences for almost two hours in non-stop savagery, so much that the reason for it all is somewhat muddled along the way. Throughout the movie, there are small glimpses of Jesus’ life in the form of a few short flashbacks. Such scenes attempt to condense the life of Jesus and what he preached into a few small moments, which is utterly impossible. Added up, these flashbacks are no longer than a few minutes, which is interesting, especially when considering the 20 minute scourging scene at the center of the movie. The flashbacks are a nice contrast to what’s happening in the present, but what they really prove is that Mel Gibson would rather slam audiences with blood and gore than provide a real portrait for any of the characters.

Rather than taking the time to develop Jesus’ character, “The Passion of the Christ” assumes that its viewers are Christians, all of whom bring their perceptions of Jesus with them to the movie. But what about the agnostic viewer? I can’t imagine anyone not being affected by the amount of dehumanizing violence on the screen, but that only goes so far if there isn’t anything else to the movie, and in this case there isn’t much. The only people likely to be truly and profoundly moved by the film are Christians, and that will be due to their religious background on the subject, not the merits of the movie itself. If the character of Jesus had been built within the context of the film, then the experience of watching him being crucified would have been much more powerful, and Gibson wouldn’t have to rub our faces in it. But I must stress that this was the director’s intent. Whether or not one agrees with it is up to the individual. You’ll either be deeply moved by the heavy violence inflicted on this man, or you’ll yearn for a little more depth in the way of drama and characters.

“The Passion of the Christ” is no doubt a labor of love and dedication on the part of Mel Gibson. I’m sure it is everything he intended it to be. But my admiration for his film is limited solely to the powerful realization of such a grim vision, one that previously had never been committed to film before with such intensity. This is a movie that’s important for Christians because it paints a new picture of Jesus’ passion and death. But if it had been less about the violence and more about the man enduring it and his message, it would have been much more potent.

However, regardless of these issues, “The Passion of the Christ” is a noteworthy achievement that can leave an indelible mark on the mind. It will stay with you long after you leave the theater.