Where to begin? Going in, I’d heard some of the scenes were very graphically violent. I imagined some brief bloody scenes dealing with the crucifixion, among lengthier uplifting sequences surrounding the life of Christ. Big mistake. Instead, this movie is unrelentingly violent and repulsive from beginning to end. What we’re given is two hours of Christ being beaten, whipped, scorged, and crucified, shown in the most sadistic and bloody manner possible. I often use the question, “Would I want to see this movie again?” as a measure of how effective a film is. Well, I wouldn’t want to see this film ever again for the rest of my life. And I could never in good conscience recommend it to anyone else.
I’m not denying that Christ was put through tremendous suffering, nor that being crucified is an extremely horrific way to die. But somewhere after shot after shot after shot after shot of Jesus (played by James Caviezel) being subjected to various painful and sadistic tortures, I had to start questioning what point the film was trying to make that it hadn’t already made in the first ten minutes. Although the screenplay is supposedly based upon the four canonical Gospels (particularly, it seemed to me, the Gospel of John), the Gospels actually give very few details about these proceedings. In the English translations, Matthew and Mark both state Jesus “was beaten with whips” and later “crucified” by the Roman soldiers. Luke omits the whipping entirely (Pilate suggests to the crowd that Jesus be “punished” and then allowed to go free, but Luke implies the punishment option was rejected and never carried out.) John relates that “Pilate ordered that Jesus be taken away and whipped,” and later laconically states, “So Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.” Contrast these brief statements with the sadistic, drawn-out sequences in the film, and you realize the film is indulging in many cases in gratuitously violent speculation. And again I have to ask, “Why?”
Something else I noticed is how selective this film is about authenticity. At times it goes ridiculously out of its way to be authentic, while at others it casts reality to the winds without a second thought. For example, the characters speak Aramaic and Latin, for no reason but to presumably add realism. However, this is one case where subtitles seriously deaden the film’s impact. Many of the scenes, particularly those involving some of Jesus’ most famous statements, would’ve been so much more effective and emotionally moving if spoken in English rather than merely rendered in text. Then there’s the issue of the cross. Some historians maintain that the traditional “cross” used by the Romans for crucifixion was actually in the shape of a “T” – i.e., a horizontal cross-member atop a vertical upright. Furthermore, the condemned were forced to carry the cross-member, and not the entire cross, to the site of their execution. Such that the popular image of the cross as we know it, and the familiar pictures of Jesus carrying the entire cross on his back, were probably not how it happened. The only reason I mention this is that the filmmakers are evidently aware of this, yet fudge things anyway. The two criminals put to death with Jesus are shown carrying only the cross-members, and are crucified on T-shaped structures. Yet Jesus is shown carrying and dying upon the traditional cross image. Apparently director Mel Gibson wanted to preserve the traditional Christian iconography at the expense of authenticity. All right, but then why bother striving for realism with the two criminals? All it does is create a strange anachronism. There’s also the matter of Gibson’s portrayal of Herod Antipas. Of the four Gospels, only Luke mentions Pilate sending Jesus to Herod at all, and gives few details of the meeting. Historically, little is known of him beyond the fact he was a son of Herod the Great. So Gibson’s portrayal of Herod as an overweight buffoon appears to be less based upon historical evidence than a direct crib from Jesus Christ Superstar. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice should sue.
Perhaps this film’s greatest sin is not the gratuitous violence it revels in, but what it leaves out in the process. Viewers not versed in events such as Jesus saving the adulterous woman from being stoned, the crowd’s frenzied welcome as He rode into Jerusalem, The Last Supper, and others, will be left totally in the dark by the short, scant treatments given here. (In fact, the film even twists the stoning episode around to lend it a bloody and sadistic aspect it never had in the Bible.) Anyone completely unfamiliar with the Gospels will receive a badly skewed impression of what they’re all about, and will be deprived of some of their most spiritually uplifting aspects. Perhaps the perfect example is the treatment given the Resurrection. Arguably the most important part of the New Testament, one might think that a film which spends two hours showing Jesus being mercilessly tortured would at least devote a significant sequence to the Apostles discovering the empty tomb at the end. This would certainly be consistent with the Passion as related through the Gospels. Instead, Gibson gives it exactly one very brief, darkly-lit scene, of a morose Jesus awakened. Then the credits roll. No Apostles, no opportunity for the audience to share in their astonishment and happiness when they realize what’s happened. Gibson spends considerable time chronicling Mary’s suffering as she witnesses her son being tortured and eventually put to death. So why not show her when she realizes He’s risen from the dead? Because A) Conveying the emotions of a deeply conflicted Mary simultaneously feeling tremendous loss and tremendous joy is apparently beyond the abilities of these screenwriters, and B) This film would rather wallow in sadomasochism and brutality than present anything resembling a happy ending. And isn’t the whole point of the Passion a happy ending?