Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004)


(director/writer: Mel Gibson; screenwriter: Benedict Fitzgerald; cinematographer: Caleb Deschanel; editor: John Wright; music: John Debney; cast: Jim Caviezel (Jesus), Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene), Hristo Naumov Shopov (Pontius Pilate), Maia Morgenstern (Mary), Francesco De Vito (Peter), Luca Lionello (Judas), Mattia Sbragia (Caiaphas), Rosalinda Celentano (Satan), Claudia Gerini (Claudia Procles), Jarreth J. Merz (Simon); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mel Gibson/Bruce Davey/Stephen McEveety; Newmarket Film Group; 2004-Italy/USA-in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles)

“Has such anti-Semitic possibilities and no upside for anyone but believers in Mel’s vision that the execution of Christ is more important than his life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mel Gibson’s religious drama about the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life has been made for the devout and fails to reach a wider audience except through controversy. I hated this movie; for me the R rating stands for revolting. It’s a torture movie of the exploitation kind against all humanity not just Jews, that is no different from a stylish action movie like Lethal Weapon targeting a male teen audience at the multiplex–only this one has the pretense of religion and has targeted an Evangelical and conservative Christian audience with savvy marketing moves by supposedly pawning itself off as Mel’s $25 million sacrificial gift to Christianity. But Mel doesn’t do the Christians a favor in presenting such a masochistic film. It’s not the best way to represent the faith, as his all-forgiving God acts more like Braveheart ready to strike out at revenge at a moment’s notice (that scene at Golgotha where a raven mysteriously materializes to pluck out an eye of the sneering disbeliever, the bad thief, soon after Christ promises his other repenting cross-mate, the good thief, an eternal trip to paradise). Not only Jews but hopefully progressive Christians might also be appalled at this film’s sadistic unrelenting thirst for blood, which leaves no room for serious debate over ideas. Mel does not seem particularly concerned what damage it might do to Jewish and Christian relations that have undergone much repair due to ongoing dialogue between the two faiths ever since the Second Vatican Counsel in the 1960s no longer blamed the Jews as Christ killers. Mel’s view of the crucifixion is taken from prior to that time, in the good old bigoted days.

Jews and Christians will see the film colored through their own experiences, with the Jews concerned about how negatively they are depicted, seemingly all with hooked noses and crooked teeth calling out as mindless rabble for the death penalty, while the Christians are meant to fully see how much Jesus suffered for mankind in those last hours–with the context ringing hollow of any other message to the world about his good deeds or miracles. There’s over one hour of straight gore and excessive violence from Christ being brutalized and spat upon by the Pharisees to being whipped by sneering and laughing caricatured villainous Roman soldiers to the horrors of Christ being pummeled again by brutish Roman soldiers as he carried the cross to the crucifixion. It leads to the crucifixion where Mel’s hand nails down the hand of Christ, and then it mercifully ends after 126 long and unbearable minutes at the resurrection. If you didn’t know the story, the film is so confusing and pointless you wouldn’t have a clue what it was all about and why Christ was so feared as a threat by the Jewish priests and Roman authorities. You would also have no idea about his teachings, or why the Jewish crowd turned against him.

To like this film is to be already an unabashed believer in the Christian dogma, there’s no wiggle room to differ from Mel’s limited vision and still like this film. There’s about 15 seconds of movie time to tell us that Christ stood for love, which is put in as an afterthought that maybe Christ did teach something that was universal and could be understood by all people. Unfortunately, it rings hollow. All that will be remembered will be the continual violence presented against one man and his physical destruction as he displays heroic courage in his martyrdom. The gruesome torture of a one-dimensional Christ played flatly by Jim Caviezel becomes second-fiddle to the film’s real star–Mel doing what goes for fancy directing to make sure that we notice that’s him responsible for all those showy grimacing with pain shots of his main Man. There’s no Sermon on the Mount, but only a return to telling the story like in medieval times when presented as Passion Plays and Jews were condemned for killing Christ–a time of institutionalized anti-Semitism. It’s a personal vision that portends to be literally based on the Gospels but upon examination takes artistic license with the Gospels and ignores history, for one thing making the Roman official Pilate out to be a weakling influenced by the Jewish mob. That’s certainly not so in the New Testament or the way history recalls the ruthless tyrant. In Mel’s version it’s that abject Jewish high priest Caiaphas alone who pushes for Christ’s death. Also Mel used as one of his sources the 19th-century German beatified nun and mystic Anne-Catherine Emmerich, an avowed anti-Semite who said the Jews used Christian blood to make their Passover matzohs.

There does not appear to be a good reason that I could determine to present a film that is so intellectually indefensible and inflammatory, not giving an inch to care how it might be viewed by others as offensive. Though the film itself might not be anti-Semitic, those who are have plenty of gasoline to keep the anti-Semitic fires going after catching how blood-thirsty and despicable were the Jews. It was reported that Syria’s dictator Assad told the Pope recently, “See, we both have a common enemy.” When this film gets to Syria there will be no interfaith dialogue like in America to clear the air, and in the Aramaic language the statement about the blood curse on the Jews will be heard even if the translated subtitles were cut. Mel’s odd behavior has not allayed my fears about his intentions. In an interview, he mentions that his 85-year-old Holocaust denying father never told him a lie and he would never say anything bad about him. Can it be that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree?

The film opens with Christ in a foggy Garden of Gethsemane confronted by a tempting androgynous Satan while his disciples are sleeping off the Last Supper. Betrayed by Judas, who snitched him out to the Jewish religious establishment, the Jewish police come to arrest him. But things get a little dicey when Peter tears off one cop’s ear, which Jesus promptly heals and calls out for non-violence. Brought to the evil and calculating Caiaphas, Jesus is abused and then brought to the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate for official punishment as a blasphemer who claims to be the Messiah. Pilate is portrayed as more reasonable than any of the Jewish leaders, who is reluctant to murder him for his blasphemy against the Jews but has no backbone to turn against the Jewish leaders and so agrees to the death sentence. He generously gives them one more chance to change their mind, but the base Jewish crowd chooses the murderer Barabbas over Jesus to be pardoned as only one release is called for by the holiday tradition. There’s also a homophobic scene of the crazed King Herod camping it up as a queer as he questions Christ in his court, and finds the rabbi to be merely a fool. At Golgotha, Jesus suffers and his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene are shown reacting with caring and pained expressions. They are the only Jews who are given dignity in this entire film (But for Mel they are probably already no longer Jews).

It was meant to be photographed like Caravaggio’s flagellation painting but the master painter realized that he wanted his audience to meditate on the spiritual suffering and not be sidetracked by the physical suffering, so his painting left no unnecessary marks on Christ’s body. But Mel has Christ in constant agony and dripping in blood (this make-up effect gets tiresome and the blood becomes less convincing as the film trudges on). The Passion becomes increasingly exhausting instead of enlightening, with no artistic value to speak about. It’s more like a propaganda film that should play in churches who share the same view.

The filmmaking was mediocre, as every scene was heavy-handed and uninspiring. Even the pretense of playing it in street Latin (spoken by the Romans) and Aramic (spoken by the Jews) to give it a documentary feeling of weight and realism, only made it seem more ridiculous and distant.

The only question this film left for me was, if such an emotionally charged religious outlook was capable of doing any good? I already know that in the name of Christ such evils as the Inquisition, crusades, and slavery were permitted. Mel recently whined in one of his selective interviews that he has probably martyred himself in the business to those Hollywood types (It’s not hard to guess the religion of those types he was referring to).

If I weren’t a film critic, I wouldn’t waste my time seeing such a clumsily made bloodbath film that has such anti-Semitic possibilities and no upside for anyone but believers in Mel’s vision that the execution of Christ is more important than his life.