Director: Mel Gibson (2004)
Let me please start out by saying something that is pretty obvious to everyone in our culture. Films affect people. Film can have profound effects on our culture and even individual behavior. Jaws made people afraid to swim in the ocean for years. Psycho made people think twice every time they get into an unknown shower. IT made a generation of people afraid of clowns. Films popularize cars, clothes, music, and even everyday sayings. Some films even touch people on the religious level. There are to very popular films that have done this on a huge scale. Both of these films actually brought people back to the church and mass and confession attendance actually sky rocketed shortly after the release of both. Both films were wildly popular, ridiculously commercially successful and sparked huge controversy world-wide. One was from 1973 and the other is from 2004. Give up? Hopefully you were smart enough to figure one is the movie we are going to look at The Passion of the Christ, and the other is The Exorcist. If you think about these films have a lot in common. The Exorcist is the most commercially successful horror film of all time and among the most critically acclaimed. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best picture and is the only horror film to ever be nominated for Best Picture. (although that is open to some debate based on the definition of “horror“) The Passion of the Christ is the highest grossing non-english film in history. During screenings of both films there were reports of people becoming physically ill, people weeping openly and others walking out of the theatres. Both of these films deal with something very dear to many people; their faith. One uses people’s faith to scare them in the most profound way possible, the other plays on people’s faith by showing them a graphic depiction of how their messiah and religious icon suffered and died all for the sake of redeeming their sins. The point of the comparison is that both films did what they set out to do, and that is affect people. Whether they are good films is a whole other story. Another thing that they both have in common is that they are JUST films. They based on books that were based on (obscure frankly in both cases) actual events. Whatever is said about the Passion is NOT being said about Christ, Christianity or Christendom on the whole. This is a review of a film not of a religion. I know this may be hard to grasp because some Christians, Catholics especially, seem to think it is now part of church doctrine. It is not and therefore it is open to scrutiny. People have a great emotional attachment to this film, there is even a documentary out there (which I have seen parts of. Thanks Catholic school) called Miracles of the Passion. It features real life stories of real miracles that occur surrounding the film.(couldn’t have made that shit up if I tried).
Ok. Now that we did the disclaimer we can now get down to the review. Let me start off with saying I don’t like this movie. I don’t hate it, but I really don’t like it. The severity of my dislike has decreased somewhat since I rewatched the film a few days ago in anticipation for writing this. A few years ago you would have used me use terms like “deeply pornographic” or “snuff film” or “Mel Gibson’s Catholic torture porn”. I will try my hardest not to use those terms today.
Lets get some context for my first experience with this film and for people who don’t remember, the reaction of the general public. I was in 8th grade when this movie came out. I went to see it with my family. (which isn’t really out of the ordinary for us since we have been able to watch R ratings since we could walk). I remember at points in the film hearing people, including my mother and sister, weep openly. I remember during the more grisly scenes of the film people left the theater crying and did not return. I remember after the lights came on people were still crying and I saw two teachers from my school who were also in tears. I remember the extremely awkward meal at Applebees afterward. The remember how it affected people so much. I also remember feeling like an asshole for not feeling very affected by it at all. It was probably one of the first times in my life I asked my self the now frequent question, “Am I a psychopath?”
One of the main reasons I don’t like this film is because of its blatant use of stereotypes. Christians have been doing dramatizations of the Passion since the middle ages. At that time in Europe anti-Semitism was extremely prevalent. The passion plays of the middle ages always had the same central villain, the Jew. These plays would show grotesque figures, non-human in appearance jeering and at jesus as the carried the cross through the streets of Jerusalem. remember the scene with the running of the Jew in Borat? These plays were not really much less offensive than that. There has always been tension between christians and Jews because for much of your life you are brought up to believe that the Jews are the perpetrators of Jesus’s death. Its hard not to with the way the passion is presented to christians. In truth the Passion in the gospels never really explicitly says all the things we see in the dramatizations. If you take the time to crack open the Bible you see that the gospels are actually incredibly vague on the whole story of the passion. In the film Mel Gibson’s portrait of the Jews is not much different from that of the middle ages. If you take the time to look during the film you will see that all the Jews in the film that oppose Jesus are grissled old people and many of them, especially the high priests have exaggerated large noses. This is clearly not on purpose because all the disciples of Jesus are not made to be as ugly and grissled and they don’t really have exaggerated Jewish features, they look more like Italian movie stars. (a few of them actually were.) We are also shown that there are very few people in Jerusalem that don’t hate Jesus’s guts. It seems every Jew wants him dead except for the disciples and the exception of a few others. We can argue all day about whether this film is anti-semitic or not but at the end of the day we know that Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite because of his bigotry he spewed out when he was arrested for DUI in 2006. Sober thoughts are drunken words my friend.
Another stereotype in this film is that Roman soldiers are complete psychopaths. The Roman soldier are portrayed to be so fuckin mean that it’s almost comical. The way the laugh as the whip the shit out of Jesus is just laughable after a while. In the scourging scene the soldiers are splattered with Jesus’s blood they literally rub it in and laugh hysterically. I think that these it would have been a lot more believable if the Romans for the most part were not portrayed as animals. I don’t honestly believe that the Romans in charge of executing criminal could be such a band of laughing idiots. The thing you have to understand is that the Roman army was the most well disciplined and sophisticated fighting force that the world had ever seen at that point. For me to believe that they could conquer then known world while letting idiots behave like that within their ranks in quite a stretch. Although most of the Romans are sadistic drunken motherfucker not all in the film are. The character that actually comes out smelling like a rose is Pontius Pilate. I don’t think I have ever seen more forgiving portrait of Pontius in my life. Even though in the gospels Pontius says repeatedly that he does not believe Jesus is guilty they really lay it on thick in the film. Pontius is faced with a moral conundrum and it seems to be one of the hardest decisions he has ever had to make. It is my own honest opinion that Gibson made Pontius such an identifiable character is not for that sake of Pontius but for a different reason. In all honesty the fault of Jesus’s crucifixion is shared between the Romans and the Sanhedrin. I think that Gibson portrayed the character so favorable (I actually found him to be pretty much the only character I could identify with in the film.) to further shift blame from the Romans back on to Caiaphas and the Jews. What you have to remember is that the Romans pulled the trigger. The Romans crucified thousands of people, it was their main mode of execution at the time. When Caiaphas demanded that Jesus be executed Pilate easily could have told them to go fuck themselves. There are a two other Romans that seem not to be complete assholes. The first is Pilates right hand Abenader. He seem to have some sort of conscience and shows remorse for the death of Jesus. The other is a random Roman that follows Christ on the way to Golgotha. He sees Jesus speak to his mother Mary and takes pity on her. He is also the soldier that pierces the side of Christ as he hang dead on the cross. According to Christian legend his name is Longinus and he later goes on become a saint.
The scene where Jesus goes to be judged by Herod Antipas is so weird it took me completely out of the story. Even though the gospels don’t really describe Herod or his hall in great depth every dramatization I have seen it is always a room full of drunken derelicts lying around cackling at Jesus. This film wasnt any different. Gibson made a point to show that they were deviants by showing men wearing makeup and wigs, people of different races and also some sort of large cat, a cheetah I think. This scene is just an utter mess and is probably the most annoying scene in the film. I know that it is in the gospels and everything but for the narrative it does absolutely nothing.
Gibson did take some creative license while making the film pretty much all of which failed in my opinion. One of the main things that there a few scenes with Satan incarnate either watching events unfold or talking to Jesus. The problem with this is that I couldn’t take the Satan character seriously because he looks just like Tilda Swinton if she had Alopecia. (Go ahead imagine it. Its uncanny) There is one scene that really annoyed me just because I’m kind of a nerd. There is a scene in the garden of Gethsemane where satan is taunting Jesus as he prays one of my favorite Jesus quotes “Father if its possible let this cup pass me by, but your will be done, not mine.” Satan unleashes a serpent to slither about Jesus as he prays. The snake he releases is an albino Buramese Python which isn’t native to the area. I understand that it looks cool and that Satan probably has a whole arsenal of serpents at his disposal but c’mon Gibson use a native snake. The Satan scenes I liked the first few times I watched the film but didn’t really like them the last time around. There are also quite a few scenes where Gibson is clearly trying to scare the audience with either creepy imagery or startling scenes. It just makes me confused to whether this is a drama about the death of Jesus or a horror film, it’s often pretty hard to tell. Another thing I hate is the way Judas kills himself. In this film he is haunted by demonic children that chase him out into the desert where he finds a rope and hangs himself in order to make the horrific images stop. It really takes away from the fact that Judas kills himself because he is ashamed because he betrayed his lord, messiah and good friend for the price of a slave at the time. If you go by this Judas may have not even been all that sorry. He might have killed himself just to make the demons go away. Its may add another spice up the story a bit but I feel it takes away more than it gives.
The main reason that I strongly dislike the film is the violence. The violence in this film is not only gratuitous it actually borders on pornographic. (damn I said it didn’t i?) Mel Gibson wanted to make a film about Jesus that would inspire people and remind them that he died for our sins. The mode he chose to do this is sadism, gore and extreme violence. Instead of showing that Jesus was a good man who taught many lessons to the world that was killed unrighteous. He choses to rape our sense of human decency. He uses this violence to make you feel so bad that someone endured that on your account that you forget all about the teachings and there implications. In the end you just feel bad that this guy is getting the shit beat out of him. My point is that I think people would feel bad watching anyone, including Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, endure the kind of sick shit that you see happen to Jesus in this movie. Gibson shoot the gore is this movie like a director would shoot it in a horror film. They are constantly trying to push the envelope show you something you havent seen before. As you’re watching the scourging at the pillar you see the Roman use a type of whip that has jagged metal hooks at the end. The problem is that type of whip had beads on the end not hooks. Such a type of whip would do way too much tissue damage and most likely cause the person to bleed to death. I don’t think that any doctor would disagree with the fact that no human could endure that amount of pain and tissue damage and not fall into shock. Gibson show violence that is just not necessary at all and serves only to disgust to audience. For example in the scourging scene you see the hooks on the whip get stuck in the flesh of Jesus and has to be ripped out, flinging blood and flesh into the crowd. In the same scene you see the hooks dig their way into the scalp of Jesus. These are the kind of gratuitous gore effect you would expect to see in a horror film. One thing that I noticed as well was that Gibson uses plot devices to justify the level of violence. For instance after the scourging scene we learn that Pontius never intended to flagellate Jesus that badly and Abenader was upset when he saw how badly they beat him. This device gives Gibson the ability to show someone being beating more savagely than would have been the norm.
Another thing that is shown that is extremely unnecessary and make my stomach turn every time I see it is when they are nailing Jesus to the cross. I don’t know if it’s because Jesus is resisting or because his arm wont reach or what, but the Romans proceed to dislocate the shoulder of Jesus before they drive the nail through his palm. The whole movie is just gross. They beat the fuck out of Jesus the whole time and only to make you feel worse. I honestly don’t believe the real crucifixion was as violent as it was portrayed in the film. (not to downplay it. crucifixion is a horrible way to die.)
When it comes down to it The Passion of the Christ is a bad film. I don’t know if id ever recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it but see it for yourself and form your own opinion. Also have some disgression when showing this film to children. I remember when it first came out kids that weren’t allowed to see R rated movies got to see the Passion. Just remember that violence is still violence and this movie has some of the worst I have seen. There is a reason it is a hard R rating. It is not ok for children to see just because it’s about Jesus because to be honest it might just traumatize them all together.
I really don’t like this film and hopefully this review has enlightened you a little bit as to why. My dislike of this film has nothing whatsoever to do with my religious opinion. Even though it has been done since the beginning of film, maybe the 21st century would have benefited from a film about Christ. The problem is this movie focuses on a very minor part of the life of Jesus. It is literally only a few pages in each of the gospels. I don’t understand why we must obsess how and why he was killed. It is only a small part of his life. Should we not focus more on the lessons he taught to the world? I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the world that disagrees with the things taught us about. I have yet to hear someone utter the sentiment, “Fuck peace, love and charity.”
notice the color of the blood is toned down for the trailer