The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

The Passion of the Christ first published by Movie Gazette, 26 February, 2004, here reproduced in an altered version

“What is truth?” asks Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), and later he expands with his saintlike wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) upon the problems raised by this question, as though it were a serious philosophical conundrum with which he struggles rather than just the flippantly cynical quip it seemed to be in the New Testament.

Truth is indeed a central concern of Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ, which strives for authenticity by putting all its dialogue in Aramaic and Latin (with occasional quotes from the Old Testament in Hebrew), and which asserts itself as a testament to real events by obsessively showing Mary (Maïa Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and various disciples looking on as eyewitnesses to the extreme suffering and death of Jesus (Jim Caviezel). There is even, in this spirit of authentication, a (probably not intentionally) funny scene where a cloth used to wipe Jesus’ bloody face is revealed to be the Turin shroud, as though this real but highly contested object somehow forms a direct evidentiary chain with what is portrayed onscreen.

Pilate, it seems, is right to ponder the difficulties of arriving at truth. For the Gospel according to Mel picks and chooses as it pleases both from the four previous (and different) Gospels and from Gibson’s own horror-film inspired imagination – all of which is contrary to Catholic instruction on the production of Passion plays, shows scant attention to historical fact, and is largely at the expense of Jews. Not only does the spoken Latin have an anachronistically mediæval ring to its syntax and diction, but in any case the lingua franca in the east of the Roman Empire was not Latin but Greek. Pilate is portrayed, perversely, as a pensive, humane man in effect forced by the baying Jewish mob to send Jesus to crucifixion – yet in fact Pilate’s notorious cruelty and corruption earned him a recall to Rome, and he would not have hesitated (indeed did not hesitate) to crucify a troublesome Jew like Jesus.

Here not only do the cartoon-evil Jewish priests, led by Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), demand Jesus’ death, but they are also shown gleefully escorting him to his execution on the eve of Passover – unlikely, given the obvious contradiction of Jewish law. The term ‘Pharisee’ is applied in the film to all those who ‘hate that man’, including the priests, apparently as part of a more general strategy to tar all Jews (besides Jesus and the disciples, of course) with the same brush – but in fact the priests were Sadducean, while of course Jesus himself was a Pharisee.

More controversially, the notorious line (from Matthew 27:25) in which Caiphas declares “His blood be upon us and our children” makes a provocative appearance here (although Gibson has chosen, curiously, to leave this part unsubtitled and encrypted). For millennia Christians have cited this line as canonical proof of the ‘blood guilt’ of all Jews, until such anti-Semitic interpretation was officially overturned last century in the Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council – but Gibson himself belongs to a Traditionalist sect of Catholicism which rejects Vatican II’s reforms. So in The Passion of the Christ, the truth is very much at issue and up for grabs – and while Gibson has already amply demonstrated his indifference to history in Braveheart (1995), it seems more important that a film which on the one hand seeks to reinforce and further inspire its viewers’ pious faith, and on the other risks maligning an entire religious-ethnic group, should be very careful to get its facts straight.

In America, The Passion of the Christ has already outgrossed (in more ways than one) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2004). Both, of course, come with the prefabricated sympathies of an audience already devoted to the writings on which they are based – and while Gibson has chosen to concentrate almost exclusively on the passion and crucifixion of Jesus (with a few flashbacks and a brief coda touching on the resurrection), he can safely assume that his principal Christian constituency will already be familiar enough with ‘the Greatest Story Ever Told’ to fill in the narrative gaps and to provide their own moral background for all the onscreen brutality (and there is a lot of it). What is more interesting, though, is to imagine what a non-Christian audience might make of such context-free blood-letting. Anybody won over to Christian faith by this particular film will inevitably be disappointed by the relative restraint of the original texts, and the New Testament’s striking lack of torture porn.

It is of course entirely valid to convey in such lengthy, gruesome detail the more visceral aspects of Jesus’ experience – after all, scourgings and crucifixions really were an agonising business, and they are well documented, often extremely graphically, by the artwork in any Christian church. Yet the film risks reducing the Passion of Jesus merely to the physical punishments meted upon his body, as though their sheer horror alone somehow suffices to mark him out as special – whereas in fact such punishments were an everyday experience suffered by thousands of Jews in Roman Judaea, and by countless other people under Roman rule. Gibson’s decision to focus on the supposed uniqueness of Jesus’ suffering (where he might better have focussed on the uniqueness of Jesus himself, and on the power of his teachings) forces him to draw a risible contrast between Jesus, all bloody, flayed and, piteous, and the two men crucified on either side of him, who are made to look – absurdly – as though they are having an okay time of it all, and might at any moment start whistling, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’.

Meanwhile we get Jesus presented as a golden boy (with gold-coloured contact lenses); Caleb Deschanel’s exquisite cinematography, often resolving scenes into recognisable painterly tableaux (e.g. The Last Supper, La Pietà); demonic children and a brilliantly slippery, androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) that have much more to do with the horror genre than the scriptures; and a whole lot of scourging, flaying, beating and nailing. Just a pity that this conversion film takes a postmodern, dare one say ‘Pilatean’ approach to its own truth, without ever really pinning Jesus down except in the most literal fashion. Still, it does leave room for a sequel…

strap: Mel Gibson’s passion project comes with painterly beauty and visceral violence – but is also postmodern in its authenticity, funny for all the wrong reasons, and boring.

Anton Bitel