The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's ‘The Passion of the Christ'

While attending Mass as a child, I used to wonder why it was necessary to change the wine into blood. After all, the consecrated bread had become body, and a body already contains blood. Why more blood? I had to wait forty years for my silly question to be ferociously answered by a movie.

In Mel Gibson’s long-awaited, long-dreaded The Passion of the Christ, blood courses across the screen, forms puddles in cobblestone courtyards, drenches the torture implements that shed it, soaks garments, and renders the face of Jim Caviezel (who plays Jesus) unrecognizable. Blood becomes a distinctive force in this movie, an element, a character. The Passion isn’t just a gruesome movie but a ritual that exalts the blood of Jesus, because the release of this blood released humanity from sin. Those who charge Mel Gibson with being obsessed with blood and violence are correct, but they are making an idle point, since Gibson obviously believes that blood sacrifice lies at the very source of his religion. And since when is moderation the salient virtue of artists and Christians?

Christ embraces his destiny in the very first scene, an invention of Gibson and his scriptwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald. (Though most of Passion’s script was drawn from the Gospels, it also contains several inventions, and this first one sets the course for the remainder of the film.) During the agony in the garden Satan tempts Christ to abandon his divine mission because “saving their souls is too costly.” At first, Jesus resists quickly through prayer. So Satan slithers up to him in the shape of a serpent and Christ crushes its head. At that very moment, the temple guards appear to make their arrest. Thus, Eden has been superseded by Gethsemane, the tempter this time has been resisted, and Jesus is the new Adam who will wash away the original sin bequeathed to us by the first Adam. Gibson is dramatizing the second and last turning point in the history of the human race. Can’t we grant that this is something to be obsessive about?

Still, has that obsessiveness resulted in a truly dramatic work of art? I think not. Drama, to be sure, shows us people making important decisions that have profound consequences, and the scene I’ve just described truly fulfills that definition. Yet it’s over before the movie is 5 minutes old, and the rest of this 125-minute work simply details consequences. Its protagonist never again makes comparable decisions. (Later, we see the dramatic decisions of Pontius Pilate, but Pilate is a secondary character.) As Catholics, we cherish Christ as the center of history, but I think we must also acknowledge that he is not an apt protagonist of drama unless the dramatist shapes his story carefully. In the abominated (though not by me) The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese, following the Kazantzakis novel, also portrays a satanic temptation of the Redeemer, but he placed it toward the end of his movie, so that when Christ rejects the devil’s offer of normal family life, the spiritual triumph becomes the climax of the story. In contrast to Scorsese, Gibson has elected to make a ritualistic work rather than a dramatic one, a cinematic equivalent of following the stations of the cross on Good Friday, conducted by a Savanarolaesque priest in a very gloomy church with cement benches to sit on, and spiked kneelers to pray on.

To his great credit, Gibson only employs the latest, violence-simulating movie technology to make us understand the physical magnitude of Christ’s suffering, but the director underestimated the reaction of audiences to being bombarded by big-screen torture. Like flesh, sensibilities tend to form calluses under duress. In The Passion, the physical agony doesn’t steadily mount until we feel the most pity for Jesus at the crucifixion. Instead, arriving as it does after so much torture and so many beatings, the crucifixion comes across to a numbed audience as nearly redundant, though logically and theologically it is the climax, the raison d’être of the film. That a movie’s physical power and intellectual design do not match points to some central failure in the filmmaker’s artistry.

There are other artistic failures, and one of them has provoked the charge of anti-Semitism. Though there are intermittent hints throughout The Passion that there are several religious factions riving the Jewish faith in Jerusalem under Roman rule, and that only one of these divisions seeks the death of Jesus, Gibson simply isn’t up to the task of portraying this historical complexity justly. Too often, we see the supporters of the high priest, Caiphus, raging within a courtyard and echoing their leader’s demands for execution. The question arises, what are the Jews outside the courtyard up to? We hear, very faintly, their rumbling cries. Are they too crying for the blood of Jesus or are they protesting his arrest? (An early temple scene shows certain Jewish priests and dignitaries opposed to Christ’s arraignment.) I don’t think Mel Gibson is anti-Semitic. He certainly isn’t indicting first-century Jews en masse, but his camera stays close only to the ones urging execution of the dangerous new rabbi from Nazareth. Cinema, unlike literature with its blessed discursiveness, is an art of surface excitement, and in this movie the shouts of the mob drown Gibson’s rather feeble attempts to convey the historical context.

Gibson has talked about his indebtedness to the visions of a nineteenth-century German Augustinian nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, as dictated to the poet Clemens Brentano. Emmerich apparently inspired one of the most striking images in the movie: the mother Mary and Mary Magdalene sopping up blood from the ground of the scourged Christ. I wonder if Emmerich is also responsible for another thread of images that runs through the movie: Satan keeps reappearing in various guises, urging Judas to commit suicide, provoking the crowd, etc., until, finally, a baffled Satan rages when Jesus dies and completes his mission. What this amounts to is an ongoing duel between Jesus and the devil. Was Gibson trying to inject a dose of suspense in a movie whose ritualistic nature eschews suspense? If so, this device proves fruitless because Satan is never shown tempting the people who could really thwart Jesus’ sacrifice. Imagine a scene in which the devil tempts Mary to provoke guilt in her son for abandoning her. As it is, the presence of Satan in all scenes after the initial Gethsemane episode registers as mere goosing of the narrative rather than a valid component of a drama.

However static The Passion is schematically, many individual scenes possess vitality, oddity, poetry. The use of Aramaic and Latin saves the dialogue from the tonal gaffes even the most intelligent biblical movies lurch into. A world-class cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Natural), gives us a world seen by torchlight, so golden and so dank that you can well understand why the people in it yearn for messiahs, yet crucify them when they appear. His framing, too, is wonderful: when Simon of Cyrene stoops to relieve Jesus of his burden, the foreheads of the two men incline toward each other under the tilted cross, and a poignant communion hovers in the air. John Wright’s editing maintains the battering pace Gibson obviously wanted. The costumes actually look like clothes, and I can pay the designer, Maurizio Millenotti, no higher compliment than that.

I can neither praise nor fault Jim Caviezel’s performance, for he was never allowed to give one. Under the lash, under the cross, face unrecognizable under a mask of blood, he suffers and staggers and suffers. It’s not acting, it’s the compliance of a hostage. The supporting performances are all good, though I must single out Hristo Naumov Shopov’s Pontius Pilate for conveying the governor’s anguished seething while maintaining surface stoicism, and Maia Morgenstern’s Mary for her effortless archetype of maternal love. But Gibson’s best triumph as a director of actors is with the men portraying the Roman soldiers. These aren’t matter-of-fact troopers following orders, but sadistic voluptuaries, smacking their lips in satisfaction while doing a job that’s fun. Yet they remain human, all too human. This is ensemble acting so good that it locates a specific abyss in moral history, an abyss of materiality in which a good torture session could be equated with a satisfying meal or a sexual bout. Eat flesh, caress flesh, tear flesh. What’s the difference when nothing transcends matter? In a world like this, a Messiah had to arrive if humankind was not to go completely crazy.

One more tribute to Mel Gibson. For all the faults of the movie, I think it has provided a salutary shock and a sharp reminder to many Christians, but to Catholics above all, that though Christianity may urge its followers to achieve social amelioration, justice for the oppressed, world peace, and all the other things rational people can agree upon whether they follow the teachings of Jesus or not, the sacred roots of Christianity are not rational at all but speak to desires within us that can only be satisfied by magnificence and extremity. The Passion of the Christ is soaked in blood. Ritual tends to be. How amazing that a ritual is now playing in multiplexes.

Published in the 2004-03-12 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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