Passion Cross

The Passion: A Less Than Passionate Review

I was about three quarters of the way through Mel Gibson’s controversial rendering of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life before it occurred to me how a movie about Christ could also be about revenge.  I had been well prepared for the sadistic portrayal of the scourging and the gory details of the crucifixion, but had heard almost no mention of Gibson’s many additions to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death.  These additions add up to a strong statement that ought to please both Gibson’s newfound evangelical audience and stalwart fans of his action movies: Jesus is gonna kick some unholy ass in the afterlife.

Revenge is certainly a theme that sits well with Gibson.  Braveheart (1995), which he directed and starred in, earned 5 Oscars for its ultra-violent depiction of the life of Scottish nationalist William Wallace.  Wallace (Gibson) is martyred at the end of Braveheart for endlessly rallying Scottish troops to fight against superior British forces.  Gibson’s more recent historical epic, The Patriot (2000), has a similar theme of wronged common man standing up against the tyrannical British, only this time he plays Benjamin Martin in colonial America.   The heroes in both these films take their revenge for specific crimes committed against them.  In Braveheart, Wallace’s bride is deflowered by British nobles, and Martin’s sons are killed by British soldiers in The Patriot.  Jesus, as he’s presented to us in The Passion is a similarly wronged man, yet we never directly see his revenge against those who have wronged him.  But for he who has eyes it’s there to infer. 

Even before Jesus is arrested he is tempted in the garden of Gethsemane by a satanic figure.  The figure sends a snake slithering over to Jesus while he’s praying to be spared the cup of suffering he’s about to drink.  Seeing the snake only stiffens Jesus’ resolve, though, and with a thunderous stomping of his foot he crushes the snake beneath his heel.  OK, so Jesus is not St. Francis of Asissi , and The Passion is not Brother Sun, Sister Moon. After we see what happens to Judas, though, we might feel the snake got off easy.

Judas is portrayed as a sad, sympathetic traitor.  He’s nowhere near as sympathetic as the Judas that Harvey Keitel plays in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), but there is some sense that he’s reluctant to betray Jesus to the Pharisees.  Immediately after Jesus is arrested, Judas witnesses the brutality that’s visited upon his former master.  Jesus isn’t merely struck or smote.  It’s as though Gibson had to find employment for every fight scene choreographer he’d ever worked with from Mad Max (1979) to We Were Soldiers (2002).  The brutality borders on WWF camp when Jesus is body slammed off a bridge, choked and suspended by his chains a few feet above the ground.  And who just happens to be hiding down there?  Poor, unfortunate Judas.  Needless to say, Jesus gives Judas a serious evil eye, (just before that eye is permanently shut by some soldier’s left hook.)  Judas wails in horror as a devil appears in the place where Christ had recently been yanked upward by his captors. 

At that point I thought the movie was in danger of becoming a laughable, effects-driven horror flick.  Thankfully, the shocking devil-from-nowhere scenes abated.  Still, devils and children (almost one and the same in this movie) continue to pursue Judas until he ultimately hangs himself above a fly-infested camel carcass on the outskirts of town.  The Gospels certainly mention Judas hanging himself, but my King James doesn’t mention the devils, children, camel or flies.  Satan, who’s there amidst the children, seems to be acting as Jesus’ avenging (albeit fallen) angel in this scene.

An even more heavy-handed extrapolation occurs amidst the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus.  Luke’s Gospel is the only one to differentiate the two thieves by personality: one is good and asks Jesus to remember him, and the other mocks Jesus from the cross.  In The Passion, Jesus tells the good thief, “This day you shall be with me in paradise,” just as he does in Luke 23:43.  What happens to the bad thief does not appear in Luke or any other Gospel that I know of.  As the bad thief mocks and taunts Jesus, a fierce looking crow unexpectedly lands on the top of his cross and starts pecking out his eyes until a Roman soldier chases the crow away with a spear.  The message is pretty clear.  Good thief goes to heaven.  Bad thief is going to be in for a world of hurtin’ once his crucifixion is over and those pesky Roman soldiers can’t protect him from the crows of the underworld anymore. 

Other additions to this movie emphasize similar themes that Gibson has drummed to death in his previous films.  Defiance is certainly one of those themes, and it is most notable in Braveheart, when William Wallace screams “Freedom!” just before he is drawn and quartered.  The defiance that Gibson brought to Mad Max was no less evident in The Patriot, and now he’s inscribed it in James Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus.  We are led to believe that Jesus might have escaped with just a pretty stiff caning if he hadn’t stood up after his initial scourging.  The fact that he stands defiantly seems to prompt the supervisor of the scourging into ordering something more severe.  At that point the two scourgers gleefully take up their metal tipped cat-o-nine-tails, and proceed to make Jesus skin look like a dark red Jackson Pollock canvas.  Since the Gospels provide no details about the scourging this is pure Gibson invention.  During the 15 minutes of screen time that the scourging devoured, I couldn’t help wondering why Jesus would ever want to save these people.  But then I remembered, these people are going to hell, and it all made sense.

Not everybody will go to hell, though.  Gibson makes sure we know that there’s always space in heaven for reluctant heroes—another mainstay of his action films.  We know from Luke that the good thief goes to paradise, but Gibson makes a pretty strong case for Simon the Cyrene (Jarreth Merz) too, in this movie.   Simon is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the person called from the crowd to help Jesus carry his cross.  Mark tells us he was the father of Alexander and Rufus, but that’s about it.  In the Gospel according to Gibson, Simon is a reluctant hero.  He is clearly converted by helping Jesus carry his cross.  At first he wants it known that he is just doing this because he’s being prevailed upon to do so, but after Jesus falls a few more times he’s ready to take on the Roman army.  “Stop!” He shouts at the guards who are beating Jesus.  “I don’t care what you do to me.  I won’t help carry this cross if you don’t stop.”  In the next shot we see Simon helping Jesus up.  Their arms interlock in a clear gesture of solidarity.  We know where this guy is going when he dies.

Gibson is certainly free to give his own rendition of Jesus’ passion.  Many have done it before him, and no doubt this film’s box office success will inspire many to follow.  And really it’s not a bad movie.  There are good guys, bad guys, some stunning cinematography, and all of the aforementioned hallmarks of Gibson’s previous epics.  What’s surprising to me is the degree to which people have praised its profound message.   The Archdiocese of Denver is presenting the film with its Imago Dei award for its “profound impact on American culture.”  Billy Graham described the film as, “A lifetime of sermons in one movie.” Even the Pope supposedly said, “It is as it was,” although that has since been contradicted by the Vatican.  If people like this movie, it is certainly not because of any profound spiritual message.  In fact, it is almost completely bereft of any spirituality, and that may be why it’s so popular.  

Good movies are visceral experiences.   Their success is determined by how effectively they manipulate our emotions.  In this sense The Passion may fall somewhat shy of ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), but not because it is more spiritual.   The lack of spirituality is precisely the thing that audiences will like about The Passion.  The portrayal of Mary the mother of Jesus and John the disciple he loved are emotionally moving.  The score by John Debney will work on the most stoic of viewers.  Even the bold decision to use Latin and Aramaic lend The Passion an art film sensibility, but not a spiritual presence.  The Passion is steeped in materiality, almost to the point of being carnal in its graphic depiction of Christ’s wounds.   That is where Gibson’s movie succeeds.

Where Gibson fails is in trying to represent the God of the New Testament, the God of forgiveness.  Jesus says from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” but the words are lost in the powerful imagery—Mary’s clenched fists dropping the stones of Golgatha as Jesus’ cross is raised, and more ominously, the single rain (tear?) drop falling from heaven and striking the Earth like Thor’s hammer as Jesus dies.   I can’t be the only person in the theater who thought of Ezekiel 25:17, “They shall know that I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon them.”  There are profound paradoxes in The Gospels, conundrums that Biblical scholars have wrestled with for centuries.  It may be a bit unrealistic to expect the hero of Lethal Weapon to give us the final word on these paradoxes in a two-hour movie. 

One final point concerns the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against The Passion.  In spite of the somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Pilate and sinister portrayal of Caiaphas, the Romans come off looking as bad or worse than the Jews in this film.  That’s not to say the film couldn’t be used to incite anti-Semitism, but that is clearly not Gibson’s intention.  He is simply following the trajectory of all his successful films, but in Jesus Gibson has found his ultimate defiant martyr hero.  Jesus is a really good guy who’s wronged by really bad guys.  He goes through unspeakable torments, but in the end he has his day.  The final scene of The Passion is as creepy as the opening scene.  A shadow slowly rolls across the screen to the sound of a giant stone turning.  We see the shroud deflate in its sepulchre, then the restored face of Jesus in chiaroscuro profile.  The only sign of his ordeal is the hole through his palm revealing the movement of his naked thigh as Jesus walks forward off screen.  Again we see the triumph of the film’s materiality over any pretense of spirituality.   Rather than the fulfillment of the promise of eternal life, this resurrection looks like a set-up for a retribution-based sequel.  Watch out Romans.  Get ready for The Return of The Christ.

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: March 2004