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A Look at Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of Christ"

On Good Friday this year, my wife asked me  what our church might do to commemorate the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Unfortunately, I was only able to give her pieces of an answer, and did a better job describing what happens during a Maundy Thursday service. Good Friday services can vary from church to church, denomination to denomination, and I hadn’t been to one since college. So, we discussed either attending the Good Friday service or settling down to dinner and The Passion of the Christ.

My wife took to searching Netflix and Amazon Prime while I cooked dinner and asked friends on social media for details about the Good Friday service at church. A quiet evening at home after a long work week sounded nice, but I was up for whichever way the dice fell. Unspokenly, we both knew we had left the ultimate decision up to the TV.

Before Good Friday this year, I had never seen The Passion of the Christ from start to finish. Bits and pieces here and there, sure. The garden scene at a previous church, and the last supper clip at a summer camp. Overall, though, I had avoided both the R and PG-13 versions because of the violence. I realize that Jesus’ crucifixion was not bloodless by any means, and the excruciating agony He went through was His expression love for us; yet, I still recoil whenever there is blood, gore or any kind of violence in movies. That, and I had heard that the R rated version contained extra scenes that I would find especially disturbing. So, as the asparagus sizzled in the fry pan, I silently hoped that Amazon Prime or Netflix would have the PG-13 version.

No such luck.

When Miranda announced she had found the R rated version and queued it up, I silently began reasoning with myself. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought. If it was too much, I could always retreat to my office and disappear into the happy, fantastic world of The Sims 4, a recent new game obsession I’ve developed.

As I prepared my plate, I stared at the food, suddenly self-conscious. Pork lay nestled in two pieces of lettuce, drizzled with honey poppy seed dressing and balsamic glaze. Next to those, a small pile of asparagus, sautéed in Extra Virgin Olive Oil and lemon juice.

“It feels really weird to be eating pork right now,” I remarked to my wife as she stood next to me.

“But we aren’t Jewish,” Miranda replied.

She is half-correct. She isn’t Jewish. I, on the other hand, share Jewish heritage. If I remember correctly, I’m the 67th cousin of Jesus Christ, twice removed. Not exactly sure how that all works, but still...being a direct descendant of Jesus is...rather humbling.

The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus’ final twelve hours on earth begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel) is shrouded in darkness and mist as He desperately prays for what is about to come. As it happens in the Gospels, He then goes to Peter (Francesco De Vito) and the other sleeping disciples, rebuking them for being asleep. He steps away to pray again, evoking a disciple to quietly ask Peter about Jesus’ uncharacteristic behavior. Peter replies, “He looks afraid.”

When Jesus returns to His prayers, He has an exchange with Satan (Rosalinda Celentano). After several taunts, the devil releases a long green snake from beneath his robes. It slithers to Jesus, where its head is quickly crushed by Jesus’ heel. I couldn’t help but cheer when seeing this. The force of His heel and the thick eye contact He made with the devil did not go unnoticed.

From there, in the next two hours and seven minutes, The Passion walks us through Jesus’ journey to Calvary. Judas’ betrayal, and his regret when he sees what happens to Jesus. Disciples fighting and fleeing as Jesus is arrested. Peter denying Jesus three times as he is pushing through throngs of people. The entire film is action-packed. There is a lot going on at all times, but the emotions still come through. Between heated discussions of the Sadducees and Pharisees upon Jesus’ arrest, we feel their hatred and desire to see Jesus’ death at all costs. Then, after the intense questioning of Pilate and Herod, we experience Jesus’ suffering as He is tortured and, later, nailed to the cross.

Historical Accuracy and Character Development

There were several moments during the scenes Jesus was questioned that I had to consult Google and my Bible. For instance, when the Romans sent Jesus to Herod (Luca De Dominicis), I thought they were doing it as a delay and entertainment tactic. It didn’t feel like it completely meshed with the story I grew up with. But nope. Luke 23:6-12 describes how Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, who was delighted to see Him and “questioned Him at length.” Kudos for research there!

I did like how Gibson showed Pilate’s compassion, and the gentle characteristics of his wife (Claudia Gerini). The brief exchange that Pilate’s wife has with Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Jesus’ mother, where she gives her a stack of white towels before Jesus’ scourging is very touching. A deep, mother-to-mother moment. No words are spoken, and none are needed. I also applaud how clearly the movie illustrated that choosing to crucify Jesus was not what Pilate (Hristo Shopov) wanted to do.

A huge critique I have regarding characters is that, for me, the disciples were not distinctive enough. I had to keep pausing the movie to double check who was speaking. Thankfully, I watched The Passion via Amazon Prime, so there was a pop up each time I paused. It was very annoying and jarring to do this repeatedly, though.

Additionally, there was no clarification as to who the woman with Mary, mother of Jesus, was until a good ways into The Passion. I had my suspicions it was Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), but I couldn’t tell my wife for sure -- who asked several times and grew frustrated at the movie’s lack of explanation -- until Gibson finally revealed it. In other words, for viewers unfamiliar with the story of Jesus, her identity is too easy to go unnoticed, despite her importance to the story, which is a grave oversight in directing.

Emotional Storytelling

Throughout the segments where Jesus experienced the scourging and whipping, my stomach flip-flopped with nausea. Each time the Romans laughed and taunted, and the sticks snapped across Jesus’ back...then, as He stumbled through town and to Calvary carrying the cross...the crowd screaming at Him, spitting in His was deeply traumatizing and disturbing. However, I did appreciate the tenderness of the woman who tried to give Jesus water, and the assistance of the man selected to help Jesus carry the cross. The scene where Jesus’ mother Mary sees Jesus fall and runs forward, as the movie flashes back to when He falls as a boy, is equally emotional.

Tears rolled down my face when Jesus was nailed to the cross, and I quietly sobbed with His followers as He died.

Next to me, my wife also reacted to Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. Much of it stemmed from confusion and horror. Yet, during the scourging, she marveled at how silent He stayed. She audibly winced when the cat o’ nine tails tore a chunk of skin off Jesus’ back. Then, each time He fell, she would comment something along the lines of, “Can’t they see He can’t walk? Geez, Romans! Let up! This is excessive!”

To this, I agree with her. On the other hand, I recognize that death by crucifixion was one of the most painful and shameful ways to die in Jesus’ time; so, while some of Jesus’ walk may have been dramatized and exaggerated, the overall provoked feeling of horror and protest is well-done.

Remark on Rating

Because this particular version of the film does reveal a lot of gore and violence, I would strongly recommend against younger audiences watching without parental supervision and guidance. There were multiple places that I myself had to watch from behind a pillow, but I’ve always been more sensitive to excess blood and torture in movies. This is especially true when I know that the movie is based off true events. Even so, this version is not for the faint of heart.

Overall Critique

If you’re looking for a good Easter movie, The Passion of the Christ is a good choice. Not the most awe-inspiring directing job I’ve ever seen, and some of the special effects came across as unnecessary, but I do think it was otherwise well-filmed and that Jim Caviezel gave a stunning performance of Jesus Christ. When looking into the “making of” for The Passion, it was incredible to learn that the cast members all had a spiritual awakening to the point of conversion, and that Caviezel faithfully endured personal trauma and injury during filming. He definitely portrayed a more realistic Jesus than in other versions.

I have to give Gibson some credit for this nod to the Pieta in the The Passion. The Pieta is one of my favorite pieces of art ever created. When I saw a replica in a Catholic church in Atlanta, GA, I was instantly brought to tears. It’s a powerful symbol, and I loved seeing it in the movie.

Lastly, having the entire movie in Aramaic was a nice touch. Something else that give the film realism, and made it stand out a bit more. I find Middle Eastern languages beautiful and intriguing, and it was great to hear what Jesus’ words might have sounded like back in His day.

I liked doing something different for Good Friday this year, and not just letting it just slip by.

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