Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a magnificent achievement – a work of art that harnesses all the power of the film medium in the service of a visceral but also theologically subtle and emotionally moving portrayal of the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life.
Controversies surround it, and evangelistic campaigns accompany it, but Gibson’s vision is bigger than the attempt to dismiss it as anti-semitic or to reduce it to a mere marketing opportunity for the Gospel. Furthermore, the film stands as a fitting climax not only to Gibson’s journey of faith but to his explorations of heroism in such films as Braveheart, The Patriot,We were Soldiers and indeed Hamlet. Here is heroism indeed and Gibson gains from James Caviezel, his lead actor, a performance of such intensity and focus so that at no point do we feel Jesus to be the victim of circumstance – yes, sacrifice is the path that has been chosen for him but it is also the path he chooses.
So it is indeed fitting, if initially surprising, that The Passion opens in the Garden of Gethsemane: in a cold misty darkness a dark figure hunched over himself is mumbling frenziedly as a crow’s caw pierces the silence. It is perhaps the boldest decision of the film because Gibson does what very few directors have ever dared to do – put the ‘hero’ in a situation of intense emotional pressure before they have had the time to build any empathy with the audience. This may be ‘Jesus’ but we don’t yet know him well enough to like this particular Jesus or care for this Jesus. Immediately, we are not where we expect to be and we are reminded that Jesus’ passion begins in the Garden, that it was here that Jesus asks the Father if there is a different way, it is here that we see the depth of his obedience, it is here that the battle of will is fought, and won, but at such terrible emotional cost that Luke writes: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Here too in the garden, Gibson introduces Satan – a pale, and curiously genderless figure who stalks the film, his/her eyes wide and cold with menace but without any connection to any previous cinematic Satans – and all the more chilling for that. Satan’s presence in the Garden of Oil (Gethsemane) inextricably connects the Passion to the Fall in the Garden of Delight (Eden). Indeed, at the end of the scene Satan releases a serpent that slithers towards Jesus.
As he crushes it with his heel – I can still hear the squelching, crunching sound – his gaze is on Satan. It is an anticipation of the greater victory to be won on the cross and the fulfilment of God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (3:15) There is, of course, nothing in the biblical account to confirm that Satan was present at Gethsemane, so very early on we realise that despite all the attention to contemporary detail, despite the fact that Aramaic and Latin are being spoken, this is not a literalist presentation of the passion but an interpretation that seeks to bring theological and scholarly insight to the events it presents. Satan’s presence in Gethsemane serves then to make the theological point that Jesus’ battle is not merely against flesh and blood but a battle against all the powers set in opposition to the Father’s will. This is an important perspective that the film reinforces as Satan reappears on several occasions – to watch, for example, as Jesus is scourged and finally, after Christ’s death, to wail in despairing defeat alone on a cracked pavement.
The Passion certainly has more to say than is in the Gospel accounts – some of it justifiable theologically, some of it reasonable speculation and some of it line with Catholic stories. For example, Jewish scholars have questioned the reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial before the High Priest because it would have been illegal to conduct it at night. Indeed, so in the film the trial is twice interrupted by leaders who protest against its illegality but are dismissed by the High Priest. This alternative, albeit minority, voice also serves to fend off any accusation of antisemitism. The film does not present the Jews in Jerusalem as a single block baying for Christ’s blood – there are others, not least the disciples and some of the ruling party, who oppose the decision. Similarly, in the final cut of the film Gibson withdrew the crowd’s statement in Matthew 27:25: “All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children.”
This is perhaps an appropriate concession to the historic abuse of that scripture which has led to centuries of persecution of the Jews. Nevertheless, Gibson does not shrink from the Biblical truth that it was the Jewish authorities, backed by the crowd, who called for Christ’s execution and pressured Pilate to accede to their wishes.
If the challenges to the legality of the trial reflect an interaction with contemporary scholarship then other interpolations reflect the desire to present, as far as possible, a rounded picture of Jesus the man. Gibson achieves this by using flashbacks to earlier episodes in Jesus’ life. There is, for example, a wonderfully heart-warming domestic scene with Mary as Jesus the carpenter is shown finishing off a table, telling his mother he is hungry, being reminded to wash his hands before eating, and then playfully splashing her with water – here is the good worker, here is the son who delights a mother’s heart, here is the man that people liked to have at parties. These flashbacks serve not only to relieve the almost unbearable violence of the scourging and crucifixion but also to build the audience’s empathy with Jesus – here are the strong hands that broke bread among friends, now lacerated; here is the child who fell over in the village, now a man slumped in the city dust…
Similarly, scenes are introduced into the crucifixion narrative which have no counterpart in the Gospel account. Simon of Cyrene protests against the treatment of Jesus; a woman, Veronica in Catholic teaching, wipes Jesus’ face with a handkerchief, whilst in the midst of the melee on the road through Jerusalem up to Calvary, Mary runs to help her bloodied son. As he rises up he grabs her arm, fixes her gaze and says triumphantly:
“See mother, I make all things new.” It is the most daring, startling statement, reminiscent not only of the words of the enthroned Christ in Revelation 21:5 but an encapsulation of the promise of the Gospel. Here is the man, hours from death, covered in his own blood, hardly able to put one foot in front of another, and yet so clear about his own mission, so clear about the extraordinary scope of what he is achieving, so clear about what his suffering will achieve that he cries: “I make all things new.” Indeed, he does.
If the focus is inevitably on Jesus the film also successfully explores the character of several other figures – Pilate, a credible and impressive soldier, but ultimately keenly aware of his masters in Rome, doing what he thinks will best preserve the peace and, not incidentally, his job; his wife who understands the truth that her husband cannot see and knows that he cannot see it; Judas, guiltridden, driven mad by his own actions; Peter disgusted at his own failures…
Nevertheless, at the centre is the bloodiest depiction of the crucifixion ever filmed and one that goes beyond anything we have in the text or seems likely in reality. Before Jesus is even handed over to be crucified he is not only whipped almost endlessly but then scourged with a cat of nine tails – a total of over 100 strokes – in clear disobedience to Pilate’s orders, and in tension with the Gospel accounts which simply record that he was flogged.
Indeed, the ferocity of the beatings is portrayed as a kind of demonised animal bloodlust – the soldiers involved reduced to slavering dogs by their own violence – inhumanity to humanity dehumanises.
And the graphic violence goes on. And on. The taunting of Jesus and his crowning with thorns involves a level of creativity in violence that almost beggars belief. Furthermore, after the almost incessant beating of Christ on the slow walk up to Calvary, after nailing Jesus to the cross, it is turned over and dropped with him underneath. Enough. Surely enough. And undeniably more than I wanted to look at – or did. This excess was perhaps deliberate. Gibson perhaps wanted to push the audience to the point where we too must turn away – this is too ghastly. Perhaps. But curiously this diminished my sense of what Jesus went through – it couldn’t have been that bad, surely? At least, not physically. And even if it had been, the level of violence in the film may become the issue that people focus on, distracting the audience from asking questions about why. Gibson, too, who had so brilliantly caught the spiritual agony of Gethsemane, seemed to miss the opportunity to find a way to communicate Christ’s alienation from the Father, and the awful burden of carrying the sins of the world.
That said, the end of the crucifixion scene is chillingly effective: dark clouds scurry across the land, a high wind sends the soldiers scuttling away, an earthquake cracks pillars and rock – all executed in such a way that there can be no doubt that this is more than coincidence – God is speaking.
The Passion’s focus on the last hours of Christ’s life means that it does not tell us much about why Jesus died, nor what the good news is, but it does brilliantly show us the triumph of the man who came to make all things new, and the price he paid. It may, as Schindler’s List achieved for the Holocaust, bring this pivotal event in history back onto the agenda of the popular imagination – it happened and it changed the world. Certainly, the film represents an opportunity to talk about the Christ we know but that must be done with great care and sensitivity. As with Schindler’s List most people will, I suspect, leave The Passion in solemn and subdued mood.
The Passion is certainly a beautifully crafted and finely conceived work of great artistry and daring, worthy of serious contemplation, prayerful discussion and grateful applause and it may well be the finest portrait of Christ yet filmed. Appropriately, in the end, the film draws attention neither to the brilliance of James Caviezel nor the vision of Mel Gibson but to the wonder of the Christ who gave his life in agony of body and soul for love of the world.