The most controversial movie of the year receives a Supreme Court treatment from Judges David Johnson, Bill Gibron, Joel Pearce, and Dennis Prince. Take up you mat and read on!
So there was this little independent movie that came out earlier in the year and everyone spoke in these old languages and this one Guy got beaten to a pulp and it made barrels of cash. Actually, there's a fair amount more to that, and hence DVD Verdict proudly presents the Supreme Court Review of The Passion of the Christ.
A small preface before we get started. This website, which we are all very proud of, is unique in the way its Judges approach films. Not content with simple capsule reviews and a list of tech specs, our Judges tease out considerable substance—again, I would remind you that William Hung: Hangin' With Hung was nearly 700 frickin' words long. We, like everyone else, react to these movies based upon who we are, and agree or not with the end results, know that the wellspring of language on this site flows from our personalities. Sure, there are some collective conscious aspects—full-frame sucks, "scene selection" does not count as a bonus feature, and there's not much to love in Rodentz—but who we are certainly shapes what we respond to and how.
The Passion of the Christ, I believe, takes this idea, and augments it by a 1,000 or so. This is a film that lives and breathes—although admittedly with staggered, throaty, bloody breaths—because of its director's intense beliefs. It was crafted out of a worldview, binds itself to it, and as such viewers will inevitable fall upon different sides of it.
So here's the format. A selection of our judges will discuss the film through their particular sets of lenses. This is not a forum for us to foist upon you our views on the world and tell you why or why not you may be destined for Hell/Heaven/Purgatory/Saturn/Nebraska. Understand however, we wish to ground our reactions to the film in who we are and where we're coming from, and frankly, ain't that what makes DVD Verdict, DVD Verdict and why you love us so damn much?
The Court held, with regard to The Passion of the Christ DVD Release
Months and months of controversy swirled before Mel Gibson's release of his R-rated Passion play. Powered by concerns over anti-Semitism and graphic depictions of torture and just the general frenzy that is associated with Christ-centered films, the publicity juggernaut that cleared the way for the film infused much of the country with Holy Hype.
And it paid off.
The film inhaled moviegoers' money and rocketed up the all-time list (currently number eight with a haul just north of $370 million), adding some serious mojo to box office receipts for 2004.
Taken on paper, this is amazing. You see, The Passion of the Christ is essentially a 120-minute onslaught of one man being brutally savaged. It doesn't quite fit the mold of a feel-good popcorn flick.
"So honey, what are you in the mood for?"
The movie focuses on the 12 hours preceding Jesus of Nazareth's death by crucifixion. Beginning in the misty Garden of Gethsemane, the film escorts us, with Christ, through the different stages leading to Golgotha. It's all there: Judas's betrayal, the disciples' cowardice, the stalwartness of the women, the scorn of the people, the indictment at the Sanhedrin, the spinelessness of Pilate, and the brutality of the Romans. SPOILER WARNING! Oh, and there's, like, eight seconds of the resurrection.
Gibson covers his Good Friday bases, but he's unwilling to make the trek to Calvary a walk in the park. The harshness of Jesus's treatment is rendered in all of its crimson detail. The scourging scene is perhaps the most notorious, as Christ's flesh is literally shredded by some sinister looking weapons. The crucifixion itself is equally splatterful as the nails are vividly driven into His hands and feet. Blood flows in quantities that can only be measured in cubic gallons. Sprinkled amidst the ravages of Jesus's persecution are glimpses of his memories and ministry, as well as some scenes with a few of his disciples, most notably Judas, and slight, slight chunks of exposition.
Yet it dominated the box office for many weeks. Churches rented out theatres, auditoriums filled to capacity, showings were often sold out. The movie touched off something; hype is not enough to push a movie into the top ten all-time grosser.
Before we wade in, let's get the disc details out of the way first. There is no doubt that this film will be resurrected in a special edition format. Probably like Christ's baptism in the Jordan, Gibson's movie will receive a double-dip treatment. There are zero bonus materials on the disc. None. Not even a red herring "special features" menu icon that just opens up to disposable clutter like trailers and bios and stills.
However, Fox thankfully didn't skimp on the technical side. The widescreen format is gorgeous, crisp and clear and often stunning. The opening scene in Gethsemane stands out in particular. Not only is any graininess minimal, the color work is noteworthy. When the guards arrive to haul Jesus away, the contrasts between the ghostly blue atmosphere and the bright yellow of the torches is striking. This is a really sharp looking film. Equally impressive is the audio. The Dolby and DTS Digital tracks are powerful and make surprisingly good use of the surrounds. The highlight was easily the climax, as Christ dies; the thunderclaps, the gusting winds, the devastation in the temple, it will fill your room and the LFE will make your gut rumble.
Okay, that's out of the way—let's dive in.
I am an Evangelical, but I certainly don't speak for other Evangelicals. I thought this was the best Christian movie I have ever seen. And here's why.
I characterize The Passion of the Christ as a "Christian" movie because it deals with Christ, as well as truths and tenets cradled by the Christian faith. I don't mean it as "a movie only Christians will enjoy."
The film is shot beautifully. It really is art. Gibson creates some truly gorgeous shots—some derivative of Renaissance paintings, others powered by clever uses of computer animation. The score is haunting, and the performances are strong and hard-hitting. Caviezel particularly projects formidable strength, veiled by unease and pain.
I would argue, however, The Passion of the Christ is a failure of a movie when judged by traditional standards, the main reason being the narrative was plucked wildly out of context. Seriously, if you knew nothing about the story of Jesus or His ministry or any of the history preceding His birth, what will you come away from this movie learning? That he was a stubborn guy with wimp followers who was tormented for a long, long time.
Therefore, I'd like to make the claim it was a film made with Christians specifically in mind.
Now I am certainly not saying that you can't enjoy the movie without being a Christian. But I believe it is an inarguable fact that devoted followers of Christ will be impacted differently than others. That's not offensive. Just like it's not offensive to say Muslims will be impacted differently than non-Muslims when watching Malcolm X. Or that Buddhists will be impacted differently than non-Buddhists when watching Kundun.
For example, it would take at least a basic familiarity with the gospels to realize that that was John sitting with the women, bearing witness to the crucifixion, or that the portion of ministry we got was from the Sermon on the Mount, or the reference to Jesus crushing the snake underfoot.
Christianity is a unique world religion in that its belief structure is built around the dynamic of a personal relationship with Christ. So of course, those who subscribe to said religion will react profoundly different to a film portraying His sacrifice than those who don't.
I don't mean for this to be a blanket statement for all Christians; my best friend is finishing up his M-Div at a Lutheran seminary and he was duly unmoved by the film. But I think it's useful for interpreting the staggering business the film pulled in, as well as my reaction to it.
For me, I was most impressed with the movie in terms of its theological honesty. From here on, be warned I will ground my review with Evangelical thought, though I confess I am far from a degree-laden theologian.
Whereas the other hugely controversial Jesus film, Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ (based upon the excellent book by Nikos Kazantzakis) was an admitted work of fiction and theologically wonky (a film I liked very much, by the way), Gibson has stressed his adherence to scripture, and aside from some creative steps with regards to Christ's memories, the prominence of Mary, and the presence of Satan, events transpire as they do in the Bible, in black and red.
What made Christ's passion so substantial, argues Christianity, was the absence of God the Father. Multitudes of followers from that point on suffered horrendous fates, but these folks had their Creator to lean on. With Jesus, He was solo, and the fact that God literally turned away from the Son represents a fate unfathomable outside of the angelic courts. The film succeeded in transmitting this message. In the Garden, it is obvious that Christ is alone; his confrontation with the Tempter, bolstered by the symbolic clouding of the moon, then strengthened from his march to the Place of the Skull, is a literal God-less trek.
Satan's insertion into the proceedings, though not vivid in the gospels, coincides with much Evangelical belief. Christ's death and eventual resurrection spelled the end for Satan; officially, the sneaky bastard is now on borrowed time. As such, it makes sense that Lucifer would stir the pot and try to halt the process, until it is finally finished and Gibson gives us a fantastically demonic scene at the end.
So what about the fuel for the controversy? First, the anti-Semitism. Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? I didn't think so, but I'm not Jewish either. The high priest Caiaphas was certainly portrayed as a jackass, but there were a number of Jewish Pharisees depicted favorably. Sure, the mob was Jewish, but so were all the heroes.
I would argue that it was the Romans who bore the brunt of the indictment. The soldiers are characterized as callous butchers who actually enjoy beating the Cool Whip out of a person. But the worst was Pilate. Many have claimed that Pilate gets off pretty easy, almost shown in a favorable light. My counter-argument is that it is a far more egregious offense to knowingly condemn a man you believe to be innocent than to make a stand. Christ said, "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." Pilate had a pretty good idea what he was doing, and I believe his spinelessness is the most pathetic story in the Passion.
Second, is the violence. I have already mentioned this a savage movie and kids should not be shown this film. Children need to enjoy their Sunday School renditions of a laid-back Jesus chillin' with some grinning sheep before being traumatized by minced flesh and sinew.
Now, maybe this is a sad commentary on my desensitization to on-screen violence, but I actually found the movie less graphic than I was prepared for. Perhaps it was the weeks of hearing how ridiculous the gore was, but I left the film being less disturbed by the depiction of the violence and more by the duration. The fact that one person is just brutalized unending from start to finish proved to be far more unsettling that the spurting blood. Again, don't show this film to your friggin' kids.
Last note about the violence. I've often wondered what could be interpreted as more disturbing—the violence onscreen in this film, where it exists for a reason, and is pivotal in the message the director is getting across (as well as the text and belief structure on which it is based), or violence onscreen in any number of action movies, some rated PG-13 for example, where it exists purely for sensationalism?
This is not an evangelistic tool. This is not a movie for children, no matter how strongly one might believe they "need" to see it. In fact, I think it is only uplifting when taken in the context of Christian worldview. If you do not believe in the divinity of Jesus or the tenets of salvation, then buddy, this film is a downer! I'm hazarding the theory that a minute percentage of the folks who watched the movie experienced any kind of dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.
"Wow that guy got his ass kicked. I'm enrolling in seminary right away!"
That is the context for my reaction to the film. And I am certain, across the spectrum, people of all shapes, sizes, beliefs, and ideas will react differently—some minutely, some dramatically.
And that, I honestly believe, is how the film's Central Character would want it.
Concurring Opinion: Judge Joel Pearce
The Passion of the Christ was not designed to be a witnessing tool for churches. It was also not designed primarily to be mass-media entertainment, or one of the most controversial films of all time. Rather, Mel Gibson has created a strong personal statement of faith, using the art medium that he is most familiar with. And there is no denying that this film is truly a work of art. Exploring this film as a personal statement of faith is what sets it apart from the multitudes of other Biblical epics and tellings of this story such as have been produced in the past. The choice to focus on the crucifixion does seem strange—I'm sure even stranger without a background in the Christian faith—but it works well here.
Until now, the crucifixion has generally been handled very carefully in film. The reality of what a death by crucifixion would have been like has always been masked by the use of symbols that we have come to understand. The weight of the cross, the nails, the crown of thorns—all of these have become part of a code that is used to describe the last hours of Jesus's life. Here, though, enough detail and realism has been inserted that we cannot gloss over this harsh reality. There is a lesson to be learned from the brutality of the crucifixion for non-Christians as well. This is the kind of horror and pain that humans are capable of putting each other through. Time and time again through history, innocent people are ravaged in order to serve political ideals or assert religious control. Why did the Romans act in the way that they did? They were trained to. They were encouraged to. They do play here like sadistic animals, but that is part of the domination of what they considered to be an inferior culture through brute force.
When The Passion of the Christ came out in theaters, I overheard people discussing the film because they wanted to see if it was as graphic and upsetting as they had heard. They were excited about the film because of these depictions of violence, not in spite of them. I am saddened by that approach to the film, yet I think that these people are making my point for me. Human society hasn't changed that much in the past two thousand years. We are members of the crowd, come to see the spectacle of the crucifixion, only to be repulsed by it once we arrive. Only by cutting through the usual depictions of the crucifixion and finding something new and upsetting and real can we be resensitized to the horror of this kind of act.
All of that said, the moments of this film that stay in my memory are not the ones of brutal violence. I am more often reminded of the moments of quiet beauty, the breaks from Jesus's death when we get to see a glimpse of his life. This is not two solid hours of terrible violence. This violence does begin quickly, about 15 minutes into the film. There are numerous breaks, though, and we get to see why Jesus had become so respected and how bizarre it is for him to be suddenly be on everyone's kill list. This raises one of the points of disagreement I have with the main review. David was far too quick to place the blame on Pilate, and ignores the incredible work that Gibson has done to explore the political backdrop of the story. Pilate, as the Roman governor, is responsible for maintaining order in the province. If a local mob in your province wants you to have someone put to death, it is much easier to kill one man than to put down an insurrection. I think it's impressive that Pilate fought the mob for as long as he did. The Jewish council was also in an ugly political situation, wanting to defend themselves from their Roman oppressors while also defending their faith. Any uprisings caused by religious heretics could bring pain and suffering to the whole Jewish population. It is easy for us to toss blame around this long after the fact, but we might very well have made the same decisions under the circumstances.
Another thing that helps The Passion of the Christ stand out from what has come before is the use of the original languages instead of English dialogue. By making this choice, Gibson emphasizes the visual language of film and the tactile reality of the crucifixion. We don't get to fall back on the familiar phrases from the Bible, even though the narrative never strays far from that of the book. Instead, Gibson uses extremely creative images of the devil and demons in order to slyly subvert our expectations. Even those that are intimately familiar with the story will be surprised—not by what happens in the film, but rather by the way that the events look and unfold. The result is a far richer visual world than I ever would have expected. I am glad that Gibson did decide to subtitle the film in the end, but much of it would have worked just fine without them, just as the passion plays in Latin would have been created to be understood visually by the illiterate medieval masses.
Because of the subject matter and the (ungrounded) rumblings about anti-Semitism, I am worried that this is a film that will be ignored when the awards season arrives. This film has some of the most remarkable cinematography I have seen in a very long time, and I think Jim Caviezel deserves to be honored for his portrayal of Jesus. Rarely has an actor expressed this much with so few words. The Passion of the Christ isn't an easy sell, and shouldn't be. Like the greatest films, though, it is an incredible realization of a personal artistic vision. Judged on those terms, I think it is a masterpiece that deserves the recognition that it has received.
Concurring Opinion: Judge Dennis Prince
Mel Gibson, a prophet? Who says? Certainly not I…at least I don't think so. Yet, somehow, I'm intrigued by his powerful artistic view and deft management and maneuvering that has positioned The Passion of the Christ in the forefront of the world stage. Yes, his project here has been a globe-spanning event and has become the center of worldwide scrutiny and discussion. Gibson, a man who professes he found faith when he was at his lowest moment, is unashamed of his changed heart and is eager to share the Good News with others. Therefore, he has answered the call to witness to others and evangelizes like few others have ever conceived, utilizing the new age of media—both film and DVD—to share his experience and to do his best to let others know of the Redemption that is theirs for the asking. Given that this DVD sold 4.1 million copies stateside in its first day of release, it's clear that Gibson has successfully reached and touched the masses with his unflinching portrayal of the Savior's atonement for all of mankind's sins. And, goodness, there are many folks who are absolutely shaking in their boots over the sustained impact of Gibson's stark sermon.
No popcorn for me, thanks. There's something much bigger going on here.
In the same way the Bible is not just another book, neither is The Passion of the Christ just another "movie." Forget the stable of Hollywood-view "religious epics" that we're offered on cable or satellite TV to make us feel good come Christmas or Easter. No, this film isn't about to make you feel good, not initially anyway. On first blush, this film is centered on the physical destruction of Jesus of Nazareth. As it encompasses the scripture of the Book of John, Chapters 18-20, we're immediately immersed in Jesus's temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane followed by his arrest after being betrayed by Judas. From here on, we're left to endure nearly two hours of Jesus's pain, torture, and suffering on the way to his ultimate crucifixion. Throughout the ordeal, though, we are offered numerous flashbacks that reveal key events in Jesus's time on Earth, most importantly, his teachings to the apostles. By this, we gain understanding of his persecution and destruction and how it serves as a sign of victory and salvation for all who follow him and his Word.
Forget the controversy that has been stirred over this film, charges of anti-Semitism and admonitions of graphic violence. Those arguments really have no merit here, in this Judge's opinion, given it's the sort of stuff that fills so many other films, typically for laugh-mongering or sensationalistic purposes. The brutality is often difficult to watch and the physical decimation of Jesus is not easy to forget, but I found a more disturbing—no, enlightening—aspect of the narrative. Read the Bible any day and you'll learn that the condition of mankind hasn't changed one iota. Though we call ourselves "advanced" and "technologically superior," our core motivations and resultant behavior are just as unrefined as those chronicled in the Bible. To that end, see the hatred of Jesus that comes from Caiaphas, the high priest who is clearly threatened by the Christ's teachings; watch the cowardice of Pontius Pilate, he who looks the other way (he literally washes his hands of the affair) even after stating he finds no crime here yet does not intervene for purely political motive; and look at the crowd, they who along with the Roman soldiers, are easily whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy and quick to pass judgment on another, possibly as a means by which they'd attempt mask their own indiscretions. When viewed on this level, the Biblical dramatization on display here absolutely mirrors our current condition and parallels perfectly to our "advanced civilization." And, this is all good news as it serves as proof that we are still within reach of redemption, those of us who elect to reach for it. The concern that we may have evolved so far away from the teachings of the Bible and that the lessons of the scripture would no longer apply is of no matter here; we are and will continue to live the perpetual human condition.
But what of the brazen violence? It serves its purpose all too well here. Much like a Sunday school lesson designed to soften the impact of Christ's crucifixion for our youth, so, too, have filmmakers soft-pedaled this despicable punishment throughout the years. For those who have casually become acquainted with the Bible or have only heard of redemption thanks to a sports fan holding up a hand-made sign reading, "John 3:16" (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life), Gibson lays bare the level of otherwise unimaginable suffering that Christ endured for our sake. Put another way, if you were to add up the sum total of all our digressions and exact punishment onto one man, well, this is it. No, it's not a pretty sight and it's likely to evoke a response from even the uncommitted viewer. In this viewer's opinion, though, it's necessary to effectively communicate the gift that has been given us.
As a film, The Passion of the Christ is absolutely stunning to behold. Poetic, lyrical, and clearly a work of inspiration, director Gibson treats us to one of the most engaging film experiences yet to be delivered. His screenplay, co-written with Benedict Fitzgerald, is taut and energetic. The incredible cinematography of Caleb Deschanel is nothing short of mesmerizing. The score by John Debney provides the perfect aural texture to punctuate the events on screen. In the acting department, the cast is truly without fault with James Caviezel turning in an Oscar-deserving performance as Jesus. Oh, and the use of the Aramaic language (with English subtitles) throughout was a bold move by Gibson, yet the film wouldn't have the same impact without it. Being so well executed, it will be interesting to see how the Academy greets and treats this picture, caught in a conundrum of typically brushing aside such films yet unable to deny the public's mostly favorable response.
There aren't many films I would truly consider "important," but this would be one. No matter what your spiritual beliefs may be, there is much to gain from seeing this picture. It's an ordeal of sorts that ultimately leads to victory, both within the context of the story as well as in regards to the film itself. If you consider yourself a bona-fide filmgoer, then see this film and prepare to be immersed in a story that makes all other preoccupations you may have pale by comparison. But don't just take my word for it; see it for yourself.
Dissenting Opinion: Judge Bill Gibron
Who would have thought Mel Gibson and Oliver Stone had so much in common? With his dramatization (and as some would call it, reinterpretation) of the Kennedy Assassination—the award-winning JFK—Stone crafted a new mythology for the events that occurred in Dealy Plaza over 40 years ago. For the modern moviegoer, removed by age or poor memory from what is perhaps the single most significant political crisis in the history of our young nation, Stone's brilliant conspiracy cacophony is now the standard-bearer for all cabal-based examinations of the subject. So leave it to the ultra-religious Gibson to set his own filmic Way Back Machine 2000 years in the ancient past and take on the explanation and illustration of the last 12 hours in the life of a carpenter, teacher, and prophet named Jesus. Unlike the sedate, simple spectacles that made up the vast majority of Hollywood's religious movie making, filled with face and name cameos and laced with pretty piety, Mel wanted to bring authenticity and a real sense of suffering, or "passion," to his view of The Bible.
The resulting revelation, The Passion of the Christ, is a perplexing and polarizing film. Very much like the motion picture equivalent of a Tabula Rasa—a "blank slate" that allows the audience and the personal belief system they bring in with them to dictate the overall reaction to the movie—it will either move or miss you, infusing your conviction with confidence or turning your stomach with self-righteous revulsion. It is not hard to see why fervent believers, and those who consider Judeo-Christian teachings to be an important part of their life, fell in love with this film. It does a heroic, heartbreaking job of illustrating the sacrifice, the true "passion" in the archaic sense, that Christ experienced for the sins of all mankind. And as long as you are tapped into this ideology, the movie works its monotheistic magic. From the crisis of conscious and temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane to the final ascension, Gibson crafts a remarkable movie of visual artistry. But for the faithless (who may get a sacrilegious jolly or two out of the unending gore and torment) or otherwise uninvolved, The Passion can feel like a very pretty and powerful party that you never got an invitation to. It is obvious from almost the first frame that Gibson is out to create a new iconography, to craft a brand-new set of benchmark images that will be used in the following eons by the faithful and lapsed alike. Never again will you listen to your priest's homily or a preacher's sermon and not think about Jim Caviezel (who is very good here) covered in a horrifying array of deep lacerations, pools of blood collecting around his nearly defeated body.
But unless you come to this film understanding the basics of Christ's life, especially his final moments on Earth, you may feel sadly disconnected from the amazing exhibition going on in front of you. For all its wonders, The Passion of the Christ offers very little context to its definitive morality tale. It assumes that its audience is as versed in the particulars of Christ as they, the film's creators, are. Therefore, it never once attempts to build in a foundation. We are merely tossed into the middle of this "third act," and it's not long before our "hero" is being mercilessly beaten by his persecutors. While it is an evocative film, shimmering with a visual splendor that will stir your artistic—and perhaps even some faith-based—senses, it only preaches when it should teach as well. As a director, Gibson, along with the aide of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, does not waste a single shot, capturing the symbolism and emblematic nature of this climactic New Testament saga with all the beautiful brushstrokes of a grand master. From the moody, murky opening to the sensational Stations of the Cross, The Passion pulsates with a sense of the sacred and the profane. It is a near silent film, the occasional lines of dialogue (all delivered in historically accurate languages) breaking in to act as kind of a greatest hits compilation of the Gospels. Actually, when the characters stop speaking and let the visuals do the talking, the movie moves from shapeless to sensational. During the last 60 minutes, The Passion of the Christ is as poetic and potent as filmmaking can get.
Gibson commits a couple of obvious mistakes that make the movie a hard one to recommend overall. Oddly enough, none of them have to do with the portrait of the Jews in the film. The claims of blatant anti-Semitism are without much merit. True, the film relies on a very caricature-like concept in presenting its participants, but the members of Caiaphas's council, as well as the witnesses against Jesus, are no more ethnically slanderous than the near organ grinder goofiness of the Roman soldiers, most of which resemble waiters at an Ancient Roman Times theme restaurant. In actuality, it is more of a passive racism, one born out of a desire to neither completely condemn nor otherwise absolve the Hebrews from their part in this story. One imagines that Gibson would argue that for every bigoted image, there is another of a compassionate Jew wailing over Jesus's predicament. But unlike Pilate, given several speeches to forgive the Romans for their ridiculous position in the matter (and the subsequent sadistic treatment), there is not a reasonable voice among the Council. They are viewed as a lynch mob, not the greatest way to instill understanding.
But the issue is really more basic than this. Any good advocate knows that the use of extremes in your attempt to persuade undermines your arguments. You open up your interpretation for ridicule and no one is ever swayed by mockery. Time and time again, Gibson relies on incredibly severe individuals and circumstances. No matter how truthful the representation, it is hard to imagine that the murderer Barabbas was as totally unhinged as he is portrayed. Similarly, Herod's house is a drag queen's paradise, filled with far too many blatantly "fey" references. Indeed, Pilate is provided some manner of measure, but the rest of his staff come across as stupid, brutal spaghetti eaters. As their eyes roll back in their head and they welcome another splash of the Messiah's blood across their brow, these brazen villains may serve a narrative function (and a historical one as well), but it doesn't make the movie any more meaningful.
Instead, it is all part of Gibson's great visual rewriting of the Biblical epic. Where before a flogging consisted of a matinee idol grimacing at the screen, The Passion finally offers up what it would have been like to be the victim of such a nasty sentence. In many ways, the intense bloodletting in the scourging—as well as the crucifixion scenes—are necessary to embed the events in your mind as they transpire. The faithful believe that Christ suffered and died for the sins of man, so you need both to be present to make that point. And Gibson's desire to depict the acts in all their skin-tearing horror is a genius move. Not only will it remain in the memory of the viewers long after other images have passed, but it will simultaneously act as a sort of pictograph pilgrimage. Many viewers left The Passion feeling like they too went through the ordeal with their Lord and Savior. There's no better way to solidify your devotion than a shared experience of something so shocking and sad.
But this will all be moot to someone who hasn't found Christ, or hasn't used his teachings and the religions organized around them as a basis for faith. A good example of this idea is thus: Would Christians feel the same sense of power and piousness had a movie been made out of a significant ordeal of Mohammed at the hands of Allah (assuming that Islamic law could be circumvented and the likeness of the Prophet be offered up on movie screens worldwide). The answer is a resounding "maybe." If the filmmaking is as good as Gibson's, then it probably wouldn't matter. But there will be those who, to paraphrase a line from Rice and Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, will wonder what to make of "this Jesus mania." For them, the life of Christ is as arcane and unimportant as the equally insular view taken by Catholics, Jews, and Hindus towards each other. Religion works best in the exclusive, not inclusion mode. "Us against them" is always the best strategy to take when discussing everlasting life. Without context, without a reason why this man's death is important in the grand scheme and design of the cosmos, there is a real threat that people could come away from The Passion wondering why it took that prisoner, massive bodily injuries and all, so long to get up that hillside. The Stations will be insignificant and the underlying philosophy that made Christ dangerous to both the Romans and the Jewish Council is left for judicial notice—not the best ways to keep all your audience engaged.
In many ways, The Passion is a no-win situation for a critic. Those who believe will look at anyone dismissing the film and feel they missed the Messianic point altogether. Those who argue that religion is the ruination of all humanity will look at any support for this cinematic propaganda and decide to debate it out. As a statement of conviction or an accurate interpretation of the Bible, individuals can disagree. But as a film, as a work of cinematic artistry, The Passion is flawed. It is indeed the best Biblical epic ever attempted by the cinema, and once it discards the political positioning and rabble rousing, the movie makes a very moving and graphic gesture at illustrating Jesus's final, agonizing actions. But this is all artifice for the sake of salvation. Gibson is not just preaching to the converted; he is handing them a new emblematic version of events for future reference and representation. If The Passion does nothing else, it will have served the faithful well. But one senses Gibson could have done much more to sell his beliefs to those who fail to share his convictions. It is this lack of outreach that eventually dooms The Passion. Christ asked that those he left behind spread his "ministry" throughout the world, not his "misery." Someone misunderstood the message.
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