It’s Easter – so what better excuse is there to revisit The Passion of the Christ? After all, Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 biblical drama may be the most Easter-centric movie ever made. Whereas most filmmakers tend to touch on the key moments of Jesus’s whole life, in The Passion, Gibson builds his entire narrative around Christ’s death and resurrection.
Ol’ Mel doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the violence involved, either. Indeed, The Passion is easily the most graphic depiction of Jesus’s final hours, and the resulting experience – while occasionally veering into needless excess – is undeniably powerful. Yet the film’s visceral impact ultimately undermines its overall message, to the extent where The Passion of the Christ essentially misses the whole point of Easter.
That’s not for a lack of fidelity on Gibson’s part (superficially, at least). On the contrary: The Passion of the Christ follows the story presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John very closely. Sure, Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald have embellished the proceedings with scenes culled from apocryphal sources (as well as their own imaginations), but broadly speaking, what you read in the Bible is what you see on screen.
As such, the film hits all the familiar beats you’d expect. Son of God Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is betrayed by Judas (Luca Lionello) and delivered into the hands of the Jewish high priests, who petition Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) to execute him. Fearing an uprising , Pilate grants their request, setting Jesus on the path towards his death and resurrection, a blood sacrifice foretold in scripture that will restore humanity’s relationship with God.
Over the course of the harrowing hour and half of screen time that remains, Jesus is subjected to some of the most visceral cruelty ever to grace movie screens. Gibson is unrelenting in his desire to demonstrate both Christ’s outward humanity and inner divinity – a flesh and blood being like any of us, who somehow responds to his attackers with love and forgiveness at every turn.
Few directors would have had the artistic inclination (or stomach) to go down this route, but then, Mel Gibson isn’t like most directors.
A lot has been said about Gibson in the last decade or so, but setting aside the trainwreck that is his personal life, there’s no escaping one simple truth: the man is a born storyteller.
The Passion of the Christ finds him on top form; his complete command of structure is evident in the way he brilliantly balances Jesus’s ordeal with flashbacks to earlier in his life. These scenes offer us brief, necessary respite from the brutality that characterises the rest of the film, and elegantly complement or contrast with the events of the main narrative.
Gibson’s decision to have the characters speak only in subtitled Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin was a risky move, but also turns out to be a stroke of genius. It immerses the audience in the story more fully than would have been possible if the actors were speaking in stilted English or Mid-Atlantic accents, and grounds proceedings with a sense of reality (even if the dialects spoken aren’t quite accurate to the time period and region featured in the film).
It’s not just Gibson who is on song for this one, either. As Jesus, Jim Caviezel gives a career best performance, channelling the most human version of Jesus since Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ. As played by Caviezel, Christ possesses a full range of emotions, and is at turns warm, playful, sad, brave, scared and angry, allowing us to actually connect with this man who is equal parts human and divine.
Caviezel’s performance (along with those of his fellow cast members) is given added gravitas by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s painterly visuals, which add extra weight to each scene through sheer texture. You’d be forgiven for not noticing the longer The Passion of the Christ continues, though, thanks to Caviezel’s distractingly grotesque prosthetics.
Don’t get me wrong: the make-up team has done a masterful job of designing and applying the various lacerations and punctures that gradually cover Jesus from head to toe. But at Gibson’s insistence, these artificial wounds are so severe that it’s hard to believe that anyone (even the Son of God) could have survived them long enough to carry a cross to the top of a hill, much less be crucified on it!
A lot of critics and viewers complained about this extreme gore when The Passion of the Christ hit theatres back in 2004, and to be honest, they have point. It’s full-on to the point of making the film difficult to watch, and rather than adding to the emotional power of the film, the near-relentless assault makes you quite numb to it all by the end (even factoring in the flashbacks mentioned earlier).
The other major complaint levelled at The Passion is its alleged anti-Semitism – and look, it’s there. It’s more of an undercurrent than anything else, and how much of it is intentional is hard to say; as a storyteller, Gibson generally favours archetypes and caricatures over subtlety, and the New Testament itself isn’t exactly flattering in its own portrayal of the Jewish elders. Even so, it’s bound to upset some viewers who feel Gibson could have done more to tone down these aspects of the source material, and it feels particularly egregious given Gibson’s own troubling history of making anti-Semitic remarks.
But then, Gibson doesn’t even really get Christian teachings right, either. By obsessing over the violent aspects of the Easter story, he misses the whole point of what it’s really about: a new beginning.
At its core, the message of Jesus’s death and resurrection is about love and forgiveness, and ultimately emphasises humanity’s renewed potential. Yes, Jesus goes through a terrible ordeal and commits a huge sacrifice on humankind’s behalf, but it’s the outcome of that sacrifice – our spiritual salvation – that’s what matters. He’s wiping the slate clean and letting humanity start afresh, free from the (Original) sins of the past and able to move forward towards a better future.
By dwelling more on Christ’s sacrifice itself, rather than on the meaning of that sacrifice, Gibson almost drops the ball entirely, and it’s only in the last few moments of the film that he manages to give the story the uplifting feeling it so desperately needs to close out on.
Still, for all its flaws The Passion of the Christ is an undeniably visceral cinematic experience, even for non-believers like me. Indeed, approach it on its own terms – and some viewers will find that justifiably difficult – and you’ll find yourself swept up by its raw power… even if you won’t walk away any wiser about the true meaning of Easter.