El Bicho's Hive

A Collection of Reviews Covering the Worlds of Art and Entertainment alongside other Snobbish Ramblings.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004


Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Benedict Fitzgerald & Mel Gibson

The Passion of The Christ is about the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. It starts as Judas is betraying Jesus, turning him over to the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders. Accused of heresy and crimes, Jesus is beaten and then taken to Pontius Pilate. Pilate is presented no evidence of any crimes and says that any decision has to be made by King Herod. When King Herod sees no reason for punishment either, Jesus is taken back to Pilate.

The crowds grow angry and restless, so Pilate orders Jesus to be scourged. And scourged he is. He takes a vicious thrashing at the hands of Roman soldiers, a sequence that lasts quite a while and garners the film’s R rating. At first, Jesus is beaten and bloodied with sticks. When he stands up defiantly, the soldiers get out the cat o’ nine tails and whip him unmercifully, reveling in the punishment that they dish out. We see the lacerations and the huge pieces of flesh ripped from his body. The make-up department does an excellent job. People were gasping and a woman next to me was crying. The scourge went on for so long and was so graphic that I felt like I was watching Kill Jesus, Vol.1. Jesus is brought out before the people and to Pilate’s amazement they still want Jesus crucified. Pilate offers his yearly amnesty to one prisoner of the people’s choice, but the multitude chooses the convicted murderer Barabbas. To satiate the crowd’s blood lust, Pilate orders Jesus to be crucified.

As Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha, soldiers beat him along the way and the crowds throw things at him. He is very weak and stumbles repeatedly. Simon is pulled out of the crowd and assists Jesus in carrying the cross. Jesus falls down a number of times along the way and he is then nailed to the cross. He asks why God has forsaken him then later asks God’s forgiveness of the people because they don’t know what they’re doing. When Jesus dies, there is an earthquake. He is brought down off the cross and we cut to three days later as he is walking out of his tomb.

The Passion of The Christ does an adequate job of telling the story of Christ’s crucifixion. It’s not spectacular, but it’s not awful either. It’s a hard film to review because so many people will probably have some bias before they see it. If you want to see it, go ahead, but you need to know the story beforehand because there’s not much in the way of exposition and make sure you can stomach graphic violence. It is certainly not a movie for children. I was surprised by how many were in the audience, but I understand parents have to indoctrinate them young. If you have no interest, you’re not missing anything. It certainly isn’t Must-See Good Friday.

I thought the film was shot well; cinematographer Caleb Deschanel used the paintings of Caravaggio as a reference. His use of light and shadow create good compositions. The structure of the script is interesting and unique; however, by just showing the last 12 hours there isn’t much character development. I don’t know why I’m supposed to care about Jesus. He unjustly takes a beating, but so did Reginald Denny. He also forgave his assailants, but I don’t worship him.

It’s not until late in the film that we start to hear Jesus’ message. Throughout the film, we get flashbacks of Jesus, which give some background to the story, but certainly not enough to explain or understand why Caiphas, the rest of the Pharisees, and the majority of Jewish people that appear on screen have such a rabid desire to have Jesus killed. The flashbacks also fail to show us who Jesus is. They don’t last long enough to present us with any detail. We get a glimpse of Jesus telling Peter that he will deny Jesus three times, then brief moment where Jesus tells people to love your enemy. Unfortunately, the sum total of information from the flashbacks isn’t enough to establish Jesus’ character. He is a whipping boy and not much else.

Pilate’s characterization isn’t believable. He comes off as very weak and easy to manipulate by the Pharisees as if he was playing Colonel Klink in a biblical Hogan’s Heroes. To work his way through the ranks of the Roman army to the point where he would be entrusted to rule over a city, he would need to be stronger and more decisive. He couldn’t expect to stay in charge by allowing this mob rule to take place. Why would the people listen to him in the future?

When you go to religious movies, you have to understand that the plot is locked in and believers don’t care if it doesn’t make any sense. They have faith, but for the rest of us movies require more than that. The burden is on the filmmakers to make the story work. As I watched the film, I sat wondering about things that made no sense to me. Is this the best plan God could come up with? If Judas has to betray Jesus in order for the events to proceed, then isn’t he just as heroic since he too gives his life so the prophecy can come true?

I’m not sure why the focus of the film is on the violence with no reference to the spirituality of the story. I don’t understand Mel’s point in brushing over Jesus’ message, choosing to illustrate the savagery. If you look at the majority of art throughout time, it’s hard to find anything showing a similar amount of punishment. Yes, Jesus suffered, but am I supposed to feel guilty? He was supposed to die according to prophecy, was he not? If that was God’s plan, shouldn’t Christians be glad about what transpired? Are Christians supposed to feel they aren’t living up to their commitment to Christ when they see what Jesus endured? You probably need to have a serious relationship with Christ to get any meaning out of this film, and since he and I are just passing acquaintances, I had no epiphanies.

Now whether it’s accurate is why people are so up in arms. Many historians claim it is historically inaccurate, so that leaves theologically. Is Mel presenting his interpretation or does he claim this is the interpretation? One of his sources is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is based on the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), a German nun. So the film is Mel’s interpretation of Anne’s interpretation. But are the Gospels accurate? They were written anywhere from 30 A.D. to 100 A.D. How accurate can they be when there’s no agreement on when they were written? And am I expected to believe that there’s been no editing in 2000 years. Go to a bookstore and see how many versions of the Bible there are. Shouldn’t there just be one?

A major issue is the argument over Anti-Semitism and I can see both sides of the argument, so who is right? Who gets to say what is and isn’t Anti-Semitic? I didn’t find the film to be Anti-Semitic, but then I don’t find Little Red Riding Hood to be Anti-Wolfic. I understand the concern from Jewish leaders because over 95 percent of the Jewish people in the film want Jesus dead. The main villains of the film are the Pharisees and they are Jewish. I hear some people say that the Romans are the villains, but that’s dishonest because even though they are responsible for the punishment, it’s only because the Jewish people will settle for nothing less. There always has to be a bad guy and in this case it’s people who are Jewish. In some stories Arabs are bad guys, in others it’s the French or the English or Americans. The Romans are very bad as well, but you never hear people protesting that the film will increase anti-Romanism. Why is that? Bigots don’t need reasons to be stupid; they just are. Can anyone create art if they have to worry about what the most benighted people will do in reaction to it? Why should the instability of a few simpletons be the standard bearer for what the rest of us might watch, read, hear, think?

The personal attacks on Mel are ridiculous and unfair because all religions have something that’s wacky about them and all it does is make Christians defensive and rigid. He has already shown himself to be a talented filmmaker, so judge the film and allow him to believe whatever he wants. I don’t care what his father’s views are, either. Mel doesn’t help his cause though when he says he’s going to remove a scene that has Anti-Semitic overtones, and then doesn’t remove the scene, instead only removing the Aramaic subtitles. It only adds to the insecurity and conspiracy theories about his true motives.

If Mel’s goal was to get people talking about religion, it worked. His film is allowing people to have discussions about religion that they wouldn’t normally be having. Author Arthur C. Clarke says, "Religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses," so whether or not the discussions are a good thing is debatable. Like most things religious, I found the film presented more questions than answers and I think my review will have the same effect.