I wasn't the first out the gate to go to The Passion of the Christ. But of course I wanted to know about it, so I asked everyone for their impressions as they saw it. Almost unanimously, the answer was: it was very moving. And true enough, it is moving. I cried at several points, and I think someone would have to be either completely closed to it or else made of stone not to shed a tear. It's a powerful film.
As well as having emotional power, Passion also remains strong from beginning to end, unlike for example, the CBS Jesus mini-series which started off with a bang and then deteriorated to a frantic succession of stock religious images. It's also much more evenly directed than Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. The first two-thirds of Zeffirelli's near-masterpiece truly were masterful, but Zeffirelli's directorial skills foundered in his Passion sequence, and Robert Powell's Jesus suddenly shifted gears to seem like a "stoned" blue-eyed alien visitor to planet Earth.
A dispassionate Passion?
Nevertheless, I found the Passion somehow unsatisfying. Its emotional effect comes from three sources: brutality (and brutal it is), a sweeping, haunting, and moving score, and the viewer's own faith.
That last part is crucial. Of all the Jesus films I've seen, Gibson's Passion does the least to give any context or interpretation to Christ's suffering. We aren't shown why Jesus choose the path to the Cross, what he taught, how he impacted the lives of his disciples, his miracles, nor his radical message of universal and unconditional love. The emphasis is strictly on the Passion (the word originally meant "suffering") of the Suffering Servant. Christians bring with them the necessary context for the film to be meaningful, but some non-Christians who see it may well see little more than an unbearably graphic depiction of a man being tortured to death. This probably accounts for some of the controversy around this film.
To be fair, Brother Mel does use several flashbacks (brilliantly, BTW) to try to give a taste of who Jesus was. While they're well done, these scenes feel almost like afterthoughts. A shame, too, since they show so much missed potential, and left me longing for more. There's a shot of Jesus falling as a child, and Mary comforting him. A short sequence of him working as a carpenter. And two or three more very short flashbacks of him teaching are all that we get. More flashbacks, and longer, could have made this far richer.
Show us enough of the Sermon on the Mount and his relationship with his disciples to realize that this Godman is proclaiming something incredibly revolutionary, and previously unheard of—to love—not just friends, but enemies, too! To rejoice not just in good times, but during slander, violence and persecution to ourselves. That the Kingdom of God is here, and all who love are part of it! That message is just as unacceptable today as it was 2000 years ago, (to Christians and non-Christians alike), but that is the message he taught and lived. Interspersing an unhurried and sensitive portrayal of his message with the brutality of the Via Dolorosa could have been much more moving and meaningful.
A Passion for the age of Fear Factor
Passion is almost unbearably violent for those who haven't become desensitized to violence. Is it a case of wretched excess? Some find it too much, some don't. Count me with those who did. The Gospel writers didn't want to relive the torture and brutalization of the Lord—the accounts are succinct, anyone familiar with Roman scourging and crucifixion didn't need (and certainly wouldn't want) the gory details on precisely how mutilated his skin became. On the other hand, most of us now are ignorant of the terrible whips the Romans used, as well as the slow agony (often over days) of suffocation by crucifixion. However, having read The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View a couple of times, I can say that simply imagining the horror in my head was more effective. Watching the violence spelled out on the big screen (for well over an hour) seemed gratuitous and offensive.
Subtlety, understatement, letting the viewer's mind fill in the details—nuance is becoming lost in modern cinema. We're becoming a bit more like the Romans, we relish grossness, we want to see blood and guts. If the age of Fear Factor needs a Passion film to shake the most jaded viewer, this is it. Is it necessary? Maybe for some. But just as with the loudest note in a symphony, or the brightest color in a painting, the hardest-hitting effect in a film should not be over-used.
Creativity and literalism
Jesus films have generally come in two basic genres, the literal and the creative. Jesus of Nazareth, the CBS Jesus miniseries, and The Gospel of John are all prime examples of the literal kind, while The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell are examples of the creative kind (which usually piss off conservatives).
Passion is almost exclusively literal. Gibson tried to produce it as realistically as possible, even going to the extent of having the Romans speak Latin and the Jews speak Aramaic. However, it's baffling why he fails on very simple historical matters when he's obviously put so much effort into historicity.
An example: the Latin the Romans speak is not the Classical Latin of the times, but Church Latin. While Church Latin is pronounced much like Italian, Classical Latin is quite different: veritas (truth) would be pronounced "weritas," for example. Any Classical Latin scholar could've taught the entire cast the correct pronunciation in an hour.
I'm totally unqualified to judge the Aramaic in the Passion, but my hat is off to Gibson for doing it. Certainly Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic as their everyday language, and while the New Testament was written in Greek, its writers thought in Aramaic. There are simply dozens, if not hundreds of passages that make more sense when retranslated back into Aramaic or Hebrew than they do straight from the Greek. Lack of Aramaic studies is one of the biggest holes in contemporary scholarship. Anything which raises awareness of the importance of this vanishing language is helpful.
The costuming seemed badly off. The costumes of the Temple guards seemed almost impossibly heavy. Would anyone in a Mediterranean climate don what looks like 30 pounds of leather? Come on! And the Sanhedrin's robes also pushed the edge of plausibility. The Romans' armor looked more comfortable by comparison! (If you want to see superb costuming and sets, rent Jesus of Nazareth. In my opinion, no other director has even close to Zeffirelli in this regard).
Details of the crucifixion were also implausible. The nails go through Jesus' palms, and he strangely carries a cross shaped very differently from those of the other two who were crucified that day. It's a Christian cross! And Calvary now is a mountain towering hundreds of feet above Jerusalem, which would make crucifixion a pretty arduous punishment for the Roman soldiers themselves. Let's face it, they were brutal and efficient; it's said that Pilate crucified thousands during his rule in Palestine. Again, Zeffirelli's depiction of ready scaffolding just outside the city seems so much more right than Gibson's.
Some have charged the film with anti-Semitism. I can't agree, although it is easy to why some Jewish groups were alarmed. To emphasize his agony as much as possible, Gibson gives us beatings that are never mentioned in the Bible, and here we see Jesus beaten to a pulp by the Temple guards before the Romans even see him. But on the other hand, the Romans have far more screen time being nasty than the Sanhedrin and Temple guards, and there is an abundance of reminders that all of Jesus' followers were Jewish. For heaven's sake, they're speaking Aramaic! Probably the biggest cause for this perception is that the baddies, whether Roman or Jewish, greatly overact. There are times when the characters around Jesus look more like the leering maniacs in the Hieronymous Bosch painting "Christ Carrying the Cross" (see picture) than officials and soldiers.
What might have been?
Sometimes the literal film dares to do something creative with the Gospel story: the CBS miniseries had Satan appear in a business suit, taking Jesus outside of time and space in the Temptation sequence. The final scene (deleted by CBS) showed Jesus alive in the modern world, playing with a crowd of children.
Mel Gibson has several of these creative touches as well, some more effective than others. A less effective example is the repeated appearance of Satan as a bald androgynous person in black, watching Christ suffer from the midst of the crowd. Much more effective is the all-too-brief Resurrection scene. It's stunningly beautiful.
But my favorite shot in the film was something entirely creative and wholly unexpected: a raindrop falls like a tear from heaven and shakes the earth. It's simply brilliant, and packs an emotional wallop far beyond that of the whippings and scourgings. That incredible scene made me wonder what Gibson is really capable of. What could he have come up with if he wrote a screenplay based on how he felt about the Passion, rather than how he thought it happened? Surely that would have been a masterpiece.