What I heard and what I saw

This isn't a review.  I've read bits and pieces about this film over the last year, and followed its controversial gestation.  I've marveled at the power that this ancient story still holds over our modern world. I've felt a personal connection with the film precisely because I'm not a Christian, and have never been graced with religious faith.  Not having it has engendered a lifelong curiosity in it.  How, I've often wondered, can one believe so profoundly in something that is so discordant with the flow of daily experience?  I'm sort of a faith-groupie, a wannabe believer, but like a reluctant virgin, I'm unwilling to give it up for anything less than true love. And that has never come. I pester the faithful for insights on how they "do it," how they juggle the contradictions of putatively handing the keys over to a higher power whilst they compete for resources in a competitive secular world.  I've been exposed to religion, it just never took hold in me and allowed that extra-rational leap of faith.  I admire the faithful, perhaps I'm even a little jealous of them, but I'm not one of them.

So that's why I felt compelled to journey out alone, into the frosty New England night, and see Mel Gibson's magnum opus on the last hours of Jesus Christ. This isn't a review because, lacking religious faith, I don't have the sensory apparatus to parse the nuances properly.  Like a eunuch reviewing a porno flick, I'm a seeker, not a believer and so the best I can offer are my impressions. This is what it felt like to an agnostic immersed for the evening in the central mythos of Christianity.    

Full house

The Falmouth Cinema Six had two showings of the film last night, and the young lady at the ticket booth said that both performances were nearly full.  I arrived late and slipped into a seat near the back.  This was, admittedly, a minor bit of cowardice in that my habit is generally to sit a little too close for the comfort of my companions, the better to immerse myself in the film. In this case, self-preservation got the upper hand, and I'll admit to a fleeting thought that it would be easier to slip out from the back rows if I couldn't take it.  

I was disappointed to see the typical stream of snack bar ads, movie trivia quizzes and upcoming movie trailers preceding The Passion.  I'd read that many theaters were foregoing these distractions in deference to the presumed gravity of the event.  I couldn't detect any discernable demographic in the audience.  Perhaps it was a little older crowd than usual, but there were teenagers with their parents and even a toddler or two (what the hell were those parents thinking?)  I wish I knew what percentage of the crowd was among the faithful but nobody was wearing nametags.


The film begins in an eerie glade, a thin long haired man wandering distractedly among the fog and shadows.  The camera pans to the handsome visage of James Caviezel as Jesus, and immediately sets off a low level cynicism alarm: was Jesus a white guy?  The reviewer William Rivers Pitt addressed this topic persuasively in a recent review1:

"The earliest renditions of Jesus, painted by the first Christians called Essenes in the catacombs of Rome, depict a person with brown skin. During the time of Roman Emperor Justinian II, a gold coin featuring an image of Jesus was minted. This coin, which today can be seen in the British Museum, depicts a man with demonstrably non-white features and tightly curled hair. Finally, there is the Book of Revelations, which bears out the crafting of the Essenes and the Roman coin-makers by describing Jesus as having hair like wool, feet the color of burnt brass, and who resembled jasper and sardine stones. Jasper and sardine stones are both brown, as is burnt brass."

One is left little time to ponder this paradox as the scene shifts dramatically to Judas in the company of Caiaphas and the Jewish priests of the Sanhedrin maneuvering for Christ's execution.  The dialog is in Aramaic and a dialect of Latin, both of which are surprisingly pleasant on the ears.  In particular the pronunciation of Jesus as "Yeah-Sue-Ahh" feels very right. The subtitles aren't distracting, perhaps because unlike French or German, very few would presume to watch this movie without them. The priest's negotiation with Judas is soon concluded and a languorous slow motion shot follows the mythic 30 pieces of silver through the air towards the world's most famous traitor. The depiction of the Jews in The Passion of the Christ has been widely condemned as anti-Semitic, but I didn't find it overtly so.  Remember, I'm a non-believer, and lacking the advantage of faith, I find an inordinately universal preponderance of bad behavior among the higher echelons of most all religions, be they Muslim clerics inciting suicide bombers, pedophile priests or swindling televangelists.  Caiaphas and his ornately clad cronies seem very contemporary in both their cynical pomposity and their frantic desire to repress all dissent

Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, that attempts to delve into the troubled motivations of Judas, he is depicted here as a one-dimensional man, a whinging cur who betrays his master without any apparent forethought and almost immediately regrets it.  I'm not a biblical scholar, but it doesn't take much insight to infer that Judas was compelled to betray Jesus.  Whether this compulsion was forced upon him by a determined God, or was a result of a universal flaw in the spirit of man is a question of some import, and Gibson declines to address it here.

Blood and Guts

We leave the hapless Judas groveling on the floor for his silver and the scene shifts back to the Mount of Olives where Jesus and his disciples are wandering in the gloom.  Jesus detaches himself from the group and utters the first of many historic lines, 

"Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done."

And so it begins.  The music ramps up into a martial thrum and the stomp and clink of Roman soldiers announces forcefully that the preliminaries are over. The story from here on out is one of almost unrelenting graphic violence.  From the moment the soldiers first lay their hands on Jesus, to his last breath on the cross at Golgotha, the film presents us with an almost forensic examination of the brutal torture and death of a human being.  

It's hard to watch without flinching, but all hyperbole aside, some scenes from Fight Club are equivalent.  Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs also come to mind as ready examples.  Worse yet, horrible atrocities of torture and murder occur with mind numbing regularity in real life.  Saddam & his wretched sons tortured, raped and murdered with impunity.  Young girls are abducted and sold into a growing sexual slavery market. Piles of the amputated limbs of children create a horrifying spectacle in Sierra Leone.  Our world provides abundant examples of heinous evil and the uniqueness of The Passion of the Christ is primarily that it forces us to watch it.

The Fourteen Stations

After the first ten minutes or so of bearing witness to Christ's torture, you've either decided to leave the theater, or settled in for a long and painful ride. I found myself becoming oddly dispassionate.  The biggest surprise about The Passion is how weirdly normal the story begins to feel as it plays out. The Roman soldiers are sadistic thugs, but that's about what you'd expect from uneducated soldiers posted for years to a distant foreign outpost. Caiaphas and the other Jewish priests act like the corrupt small town politicians they are, Pontius Pilate (played convincingly by Hristo Naumov Shopov) is a beleaguered Roman bureaucrat who wants the whole problem to go away.  And, the mob is just like any mob, crazed, incendiary and out for blood. Jesus suffers his torments resolutely, but then again, he has little choice. It all makes perfect sense

Astute observers will recognize that the bulk of the film is organized around the Via Dolorosa or The Fourteen Stations of the Cross2.  Each station is a specific event in the Crucifixion and the movie flows between them with a ritual inexorability that I presume mirrors the devout Catholic "walking the Stations," on Good Friday.  

  1. Jesus is condemned by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin
  2. Jesus Accepts His Cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets Mary
  5. Simon is enlisted to help Jesus carry His Cross
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls the second time
  8. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
  11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross
  12. Jesus dies on the Cross
  13. Jesus is placed in Mary's arms
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Right up to the moment that Jesus releases his last breath I felt a deep connection with the film; an anger at the tormentors, and an admiration for the grace with which Jesus bears his trials.  Then, in a bizarre moment, we cut to a scene of the Devil who, exasperated at having been unsuccessful in tempting Jesus, writhes in his defeat.  The camera pulls away from this odd scene and the entire world appears to morph in a cheezy Photoshop water droplet filter. There's a blurp and suddenly everything is different.  The battle hardened soldiers are running around in circles wringing their hands and crying. Earthquakes split open huge chasms in the temples and swallow screaming extras into the maw of Hell. We see the devil thwarted and quaking in his lair.  Thunder and wind rip over the hill at Golgotha and the carefully constructed edifice of realism that has been building for the last hour and twenty minutes is hopelessly shattered.

For a brief moment you almost think there's a new ending in store and the good guy wins this time. But, no, Jesus is dead and the earthquake simmers down and it's back to business as usual.  We've had the Faith moment and moved on into a pompous B-grade natural disaster movie.  The elusive extra-rational ascendance into rock steady spiritual faith as expressed by Mel Gibson.  The transition is artless and crude and left me thoroughly pissed off. My impression was that the instant Gibson strayed off the well trodden path he stumbled and fell into a hopeless gummy miasma of kitsch.  

The passion of the Christ is a work of art in the most authentic sense: a deep reflection of its creator's soul. But it is ultimately an abject failure. Mel Gibson has constructed an admirable platform from which to deepen our understanding of Christian faith, but once he looks beyond the wall, he finds he has nothing to add.  Faith is still a featureless wall, a blank slate that he adorns with a few clichés that hang forlorn and miserable.  We suffer along with Jesus through the Stations of the Cross, but when the moment of truth comes nigh, the film loses its way and leaves us desolate.  

The final scene depicts a completely healed and freshly coiffed Jesus rising from his slab to the drone of martial music. The implication is that he's headed off to war but rather than feeling consoled, I felt cheated. 


This isn't a review, it's an exhortation: please go see this film and write an excellent and insightful review of it.  Help a lost faithless wretch like me to better understand.



I'd like to make it perfectly clear that none of the above is consciously intended to offend.  I truly do have a deep respect for those whose lives are graced with faith. It has been a lifelong quest of mine to understand it. That desire, more than anything else, has driven this commentary.

Resources & Notes

1 William Rivers Pitt's Review: www.truthout.org/docs_04/022704A.shtml

2 The Stations of the Cross website: www.14stationsofthecross.com/html/links.html

From the New York Times:

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 29 — "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's new film about the Crucifixion, continued its strong box-office run over the weekend. It took in an estimated $76.2 million over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, for a total of $117.5 million since it opened Wednesday.

That is the second-highest five-day total ever for a Wednesday opening, behind only "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which made $124.1 million in its first five days in December. "Passion" had the highest opening-day ticket sales of any February film in Hollywood history.



shyHyena says re The Passion of the Christ: This is good, sir, though my overall take is different. A note on the end bits: it may be overdone, but it's largely not original: sun darkened, massive earthquake, veil in front of the Most Holy Place torn in half.

/msg shyhyenaThanks for clarifying. Any specific scripture refs we should note?

Matthew 27:45+, Mark 15:33+, Luke 23:44+. Oddly, John, perhaps the spookiest gospel, doesn't mention any such wierdness. Devil sightings are all Gibson. (Although the 40 days in the wilderness tempted by the Devil story says that Satan departed "until a more opportune time"...)