“No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
These words are not merely spoken by Jesus in Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, but they also describe the view of the film itself. This hotly anticipated and breathtakingly mounted epic has become the most controversial film of our time, and now having seen it I doubt that will change. Concerned Jewish groups have cited moments they fear will inspire anti-Semitic feelings, even violence. If these moments are viewed in a vacuum, I might see their point. But what their concerns fail to consider—or communicate—is the entire picture.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Political sensitivities and cultural concerns (at least the ones causing the current controversy), while not necessarily invalid in their initial stage, are ones placed upon this movie—not within it. So we’ll get back to those in a bit; but first, the film.
The weight of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is like a physical force. From the opening Gethsemane moments, it hits us square in the chest. This burden is felt—quite literally—and only grows heavier in the soul as this unforgiving testament unfolds. Yet while it weighs heavy, its burden is also unique in that it leads to such humbling inspiration. This Man’s passion moves you. With throat-choking, eye-watering impact, the final hours of Christ’s life are re-created with an authenticity that can only be understood through enduring it.
That’s essentially what Gibson has created here: an endurance test. For one, that is the story of Christ’s dirge to the cross; physically, mentally, and spiritually, it’s a test of endurance. Likewise for the audience, it’s a test of what we’ll sit through. The R-rated violence of Christ’s physical torture and sacrifice is more graphic than any previous depiction, giving The Passion Of The Christ a wince-quotient that exceeds any film I’ve seen.
But quite frankly, anybody can stage violence. What Gibson brings to this retelling that none of his predecessors have is the spiritual dimension. From the unsettling androgynous Satan to unsuspecting (and horrifying) visions of demonic oppression, Gibson shows us what’s influencing the tangible, physical realm, and that this—not the humans who persecute Him—is really where Christ’s battle is taking place. Not only do we see this, but we feel it. We see Jesus manifestly take on the sin of the world—our sin, not any He possesses—and that’s where THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST packs its soul-wrenching power.
That power is the result of superior cinematic craftsmanship. Gibson achieves his vision through the marriage of its eerily executed parts. Images hypnotize. Edits shock. Music haunts. Locations transport. The aesthetic combination of them all greatly disturbs while, admittedly, engrossing the admiration of a cinephile’s eye
But it’s James Caviezel’s supreme commitment to the role of Christ that transcends the film from depressing tragedy to inspiring conviction. For as unjust as the murder of Christ is, it’s His love for humanity—that which makes this Innocent take on our judgment—that is the message and driving force of the story. Caviezel taps into something else entirely beyond The Method. It is nothing short of a spiritual experience for him and, subsequently, for us, not only in the scenes of torture but also (if not especially) in those that reveal Christ’s forgiveness, peace, and love.
In terms of the story, it is The Experience that drives this plot that is, essentially, more experience than plot. Devoid of a three-act structure or calculated narrative arc, The Passion Of The Christ is simply one long event. No major twists and turns occur (most know the nuts-and-bolts of it anyway) as Gibson just walks us through it, albeit with uncompromising realism. It’s not conventional, and while it may be one of the biggest hurdles for an audience to get over it’s also what makes the film an all-consuming force. It never stops for a breather. It never lets up.
But Gibson does mix it up as he inter-cuts the road to Golgotha with differing perspectives and insightful flashbacks. From fictionalized memories to direct re-enactments of Scripture, each diversion puts Christ’s passion—and the film—in context. They enhance His passion, bring understanding to it, and most importantly define it. By the end, we see this film fully for what it is—the story of The Son Of God who died for all humanity willfully, and loved and prayed for all who persecuted or rejected Him even as they did so. If that’s not a call to not persecute people but rather love them, then I don’t know what is. Indeed, as Gibson’s film highlights, he who is without sin can be the only ones to cast the first stone.
There have been some that have refused to see the forest for the trees, and some will probably never stop viewing it through a fearful paradigm. That stance is as unfortunate as it is baffling. Take, for example, The Mona Lisa. While having a chin in the painting, it is not a painting about a chin. Neither is The Passion Of The Christ about Jews calling for Christ’s death. While those moments are present, the classic Passion story (and this film) is about the willful decision of The Son Of God to die sacrificially. It’s a story of choice, not victimization or murder. There is a guilty party, however, but it is humanity itself.
As the Scriptures made clear and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST explicitly re-enacts, no man—Jew or otherwise—had the power to kill Christ. But even to the extent of some peoples’ involvement, Christ’s response to his persecutors remains not only one of the story’s most powerful themes, it is also the clearest moral response to assuage any concerns of violent anti-Semitic uprisings. For anyone who uses THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST as vindication for hatred and bigotry (anti-Semitic or otherwise) is as inexplicably—or willfully—obtuse to the film’s message as its critics seem to be.
A Christian who spews hate as a result of this film is an illegitimate, and stupid, one. Salvation is impossible without Christ’s death and resurrection, of which Christians are thankful for, not angry about. Most importantly, Christ’s response to those who enacted the crucifixion is not only contrary to bigotry and violence, it specifically forbids it.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is no more anti-Jewish than World War II films are anti-German. Just as corrupt Nazis didn’t represent every German, neither do corrupt Jewish leaders represent an entire Jewish race. Rather than a “Jews vs. Jesus” framework, director Mel Gibson frames his story in the reality of the day, that Jesus—rather than being hated by all Jews—was a polarizing figure within the Jewish world. Some feared Him, even hated Him, but many others loved Him.
Gibson responsibly depicts this reality as we see Jews defending Christ before the Pharisees themselves, as well as other expressions of love for Christ by many other Jews. One of the film’s (and Gospels’) more fascinating perspectives is that corrupt Jewish leaders aren’t the only ones who deny Christ but some of His disciples do as well. There’s plenty of guilt to go around. A corrupt Jewish leadership may have called for an innocent Man’s death, but the Christian perspective is that they were simply doing our dirty work. And ultimately, it was Christ’s decision—not theirs, and not ours—that put Him there. It was His choice, but our guilt.
Through this perspective, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST elevates beyond a voyeuristic experience to that of an introspective one. The clear complicity of it all is personal and undeniable. The result is a film that no one will enjoy, nor forget. It’s as unentertaining as any film has been or can be. But it’s a rare achievement because it is so for all the right reasons. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will make people feel horrible yet fill them with hope. It may even make them feel guilty, but this Christ and His passion reveal the true embodiment of Unconditional Love. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will change lives, and its legacy—like its title Figure—will live on long after the criticisms.
-- Jeff Huston