Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a failed experiment. The aim of the movie is to shatter the 1950’s matinee-epic vision of the Messiah and replace it with a visceral sense of Jesus’s humanity and his suffering. Gibson is essentially reacting against the tradition of the effete, otherworldly Jesus whose death was anything but painful. The fundamental motive behind the movie, which must be understood if we are to make any judgments, is to show Jesus as a man, suffering just as much as any human being in that situation would.
Gibson attempts to realize this goal by translating the medieval passion play to the screen. Of course, he takes his cue from mystical writings and the Gospels more so than he uses any particular passion play. That said, his relentless emphasis on convincing the audience that Christ sufferedmaking us uneasy spectators to his ordealis unmistakably an extension of the passion-play tradition. Many of the most common criticisms hurled at the movieoverly blunt statement of its message, one-dimensional characters, too much violencedo not quite apply if the film is to be interpreted as a modern-day passion play, and therefore little more than a piece of propaganda. After all, we judge propaganda by its ends rather than its means, and the question must always be: Is the message effectively expressed?
The only problem is, the movie fails even as a passion play. First off, the use of flashbacks is embarrassing. That technique is one of the prime clichés of the movies, and for that reason flashbacks should always be handled very carefully. Unfortunately, Gibson’s pounding and brutally blunt style does not lend itself well to a matter requiring such care. The flashbacks serve two purposes: to provide context and allude to Jesus as a teacher, a carpenter, a loving son; and to offer momentary relief from the violence of his passion. However, these brief scenes represent merely the most superficial and cursory examination of Jesus’s life and teachings, and, more importantly, they are not in keeping with the passion-play tradition. Obviously, medieval passion plays did not take a break to show a moment from the Last Supper. Such contrast of tone helps make watching the otherwise gruesome movie more bearable, but it sabotages Gibson’s point. You can sense the uncertainty of the filmmaker during these flashbacks, as if he has decided to temper his material because he’s anxious about it. That nervousness is a major flaw: no work of propaganda can stand up if it does not at least feel assured.
The Passion falls flat in another even more glaring respect. Even though it may at heart be a passion play, it still has to work on the screen. Theater and cinema are two very different modes of expression, and, for Gibson’s film to work as a film, it needs to possess something that allows it to leap from the screen, so to speak, and truly touch its audiences. Unfortunately, by the end of its two hours, The Passion feels more like a prolonged snuff movie than a depiction of the Christian faith’s most important event. The flaw in this case lies precisely in Gibson’s attempt to humanize Jesus. Theoretically, I respect that goal, but I believe it backfires in the context of a full-length feature film, because there is so little to indicate, in any deep sense, what all the blood and gore is for. Jesus’s pain should indeed be portrayed as that of a man, but without any moral or spiritual context for the violence, it feels empty. Christ’s passion is the central moment in Christanity because, according to the doctrine, Jesus endured unspeakable suffering and was crucified so that humanity may be saved: he died for our sins. Although Gibson includes quick glimpses of Jesus’s divinity (he heals a Roman soldier’s ear, he forgives his executioners), I didn’t feel the movie grappled, in any deep way, with what his death meant. Gibson’s experiment is highly problematic here: perhaps the medieval passion play did not require anything more than a man suffering onstage, but the two-hour movie equivalent turns the audience into voyeurs of another man’s pain, not witnesses of a “passion.” I’m not saying Gibson should have used more extensive flashbackshe should have used nonebut rather that he should have expressed, in purely cinematic terms, the divinity behind the event, the grace behind the violence. The approach he chose might have worked for a half-hour movie, but at the end of two hours it beckons the question: Why do we care? As soon as we wonder that, the propaganda has clearly failed.
Whether or not this failure demonstrates that the passion play can never be properly adapted to cinema remains open to speculation. It's important to remember that passion plays were usually performed just outside the church building, during the Easter season. They grew out of the liturgy that commemorated Jesus' passionthe last week of Lent directly preceding the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For medieval audiences, the plays fused with their own experience of the liturgy and, within this context, with their witness of the baptisms at the Easter vigil and their participation in the celebrations of the mass on some of the days of Holy Week and at Easter. A passion play's performance, while portraying Jesus as a suffering human, was therefore part and parcel of a larger experience that constantly reminded these audiences of his divinity in all sorts of ways (as did their own faith). Moreover, when Christian churches today commemorate the stations of the cross the participants in the recreation are members of the church community who undertake the task, and thereby become performers, as an expression of their faith. As depicted in Denys Arcand's wonderful film Jesus of Montreal (1989), the audience and the performers are one, in a sensea single body of faithful joined also by their belief. Thus, another problem with Gibson's movie is, ironically enough, the screen: it is a barrier that separates the audience from the performers. Gibson's passion play is removed in every sense from the context that, in the passion play tradition, constantly recalled Jesus's divinity as well as his humanity; the audience itself is further removedplaced in a modern movie theater, watching a screen, eating popcorn, etc.and, of course, not necessarily composed of practicing Christians. On all levels, it's clear that the modern cinema prohibits the fusion of audience and performers, of the liturgy within the church and the play outside, of the suffering man depicted in this play and the sacrament of the eucharist in which Jesus's divinely empowered, sacrificed body and blood are eaten and drunk.
One last point remains to be made, and fortunately it's a simple one: The Passion of the Christ is indeed anti-Semitic. Whether it was actually fueled by anti-Semitism in its making is unimportant. The result on the screen breathes such hatred. Gibson goes out of his way to depict the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as a conscientious and tortured manalmost a tragic hero, who, by his weakness, gives in to the Jewish mob demanding Jesus's death. The film's Pilate does not exactly jive with the historical account: we know that Pontius was, in fact, a notably cruel governor who showed no hesitation in sending Jews off to crucifixion. But, then again, Gibson doesn't claim to follow the history books. The problem is, not even the Gospels are as kind to Pontius as he is. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Pontius's wife has dreams of a bad omen associated with Jesus's death, and so, out of fear instead of principles, she advises her husband not to crucify the man. Pontius gives it a few moments' thoughtsnothing like the prolonged soul-searching we see in the moviebefore bowing down to the mob and sending Jesus to be beaten and crucified. (In The Passion, he first orders Jesus to be beaten but not killed, trying to buy time and hoping to appease the Jewish priests without crucifying him; only once that plan has failed does he finally, with great reluctance, send Jesus to die.) It's clear who the real villains are in the movie: Caiaphas and his fellow priests, who sneer at the bleeding Jesus and continually call for his death, not once displaying a shred of mercy. Thus, when we compare the authority figures in the filmPontius Pilate v. Caiaphaswe find an obvious imbalance. Plus, the only Romans in the film who are truly villainous are the soldiers, who are depicted in such an animalistic fashion (and are even scolded by their own officers for their brutality) that they hardly seem to represent the Roman establishment. Granted, the movie also features the kind gestures of the likes of Simon and Veronica, but on the authority level the anti-Semitism is undeniable.
Although it may sound like I absolutely detested this movie, I did find things to admire. For one, if you can get past the ideological slant of the film, it's beautifully shot (though not as visually compelling as it should have been, in my opinion). In particular, the pietà is exquisitely handled: it's by far the best and most touching moment in the film. The resurrection is, likewise, well-donenot depicted in the same hammer-the-point-home style of the rest of the movie, but rather swiftly shown in a single take. Finally, one may admire the focus and clarity of vision with which the story is told. Is The Passion worth seeing? I would hesitantly say yes, but not on account of its quality. The movie is, at its core, an experiment, and it's unlike anything that has been done before. That's the reason to see it, and the only reason. Other than that, it's very little more than a brutal, sadistic, hateful, and fatally flawed venture. With a few nice shots.