ONLINE EDITOR’S NOTE: AN ADDENDUM AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS REVIEW PROVIDES INFORMATION ABOUT THE EDITS MADE FOR THE RELEASE OF THE PASSION RECUT.
This is a story of unparalleled substance told with unprecedented style. Perhaps the most powerful—and violent—depiction of Christ’s final earthly hours ever put to film, The Passion of the Christ begins with Jesus’ tormented prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and ends with a glimpse of his resurrection. It marches unflinchingly through the suffering and death Christ endured on our behalf, using flashbacks to relieve tension and offer insight into his humanity.
By its very nature, the “good news” of the gospel is the most positive message any filmmaker could ever articulate. Director Mel Gibson does it well. The love and single-minded passion of Jesus Christ shines through. Reverent highlights from his life provide added context to his fulfillment of the Isaiah 53 prophecy at Calvary. For example, as an arrested Jesus watches a carpenter plying his trade, he recalls carefree days of crafting furniture in Nazareth (this includes a sweet, playful scene with Mary). Peter denies him, and we jump to the moment when the bombastic apostle vows his allegiance unto death. A glimpse of Pilate’s water bowl launches a memory of the Lord washing his disciples’ feet in the upper room. As nails penetrate Christ’s palms, the film cuts back to Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Even more stirring is the stark transition from Jesus’ scorned march down the Via Dolorosa to images from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then there’s the flash from the removal of Christ’s robe at Golgotha to the unwrapping of the bread during the Last Supper (“This is my body, which is broken for you”). All examples of powerful symbolism made emotionally poignant by their cinematic treatment.
The filmmakers spend a lot of time with the man commanded to carry Christ’s cross when the weight becomes too much for him. Much of that interaction is speculation, but the prevailing point is that those who carry his cross are forever changed. Mary, John and Mary Magdalene remain by the Lord’s side until the bitter end, an amazing display of loyalty.
The movie’s prevailing tone is one of respect and adoration for Jesus Christ. It’s not excessively preachy, yet it never downplays the eternal significance of his identity and actions.
Everything about Jesus is spiritual, and the depiction of his suffering, death and resurrection is inherently a spiritual one. “I’m not a preacher, and I’m not a pastor,” Gibson said. “But I really feel my career was leading me to make this [movie]. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize. … Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converting to Christianity.”
Additionally, several scenes deal directly with supernatural issues. Judas’ spiritual/psychological struggle finds him plagued by demons disguised as children (one draws blood when he bites Judas’ arm). Satan is very effectively portrayed as an androgynous, cloaked figure who drifts through certain scenes in an attempt to convince Christ to surrender his mission (during his anxiety in Gethsemane, his whipping, etc.). The Devil also looks on as Judas slowly succumbs to the temptation of suicide. At one point the creepy presence holds an ugly “baby.” Later, as if from the pit of hell, it screams when Jesus dies. A flashback overhears Jesus preparing his disciples for the arrival of the Holy Spirit, as well as a persecutor. It’s implied that the Spirit makes an appearance in the form of a dove just before Jesus’ torture begins.
The script is based primarily on New Testament accounts of the gospel, but also draws upon Catholic works including St. Mary of Agreda’s The Mystical City of God and the diaries of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich as collected in the book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This may explain a few extra-biblical elements. When the faithless thief crucified alongside Jesus callously challenges the Lord to save himself, a huge raven flies down, lands on the criminal’s crossbeam and pecks his eye out. That unfortunate moment is more than a distraction; it makes Jesus seem vindictive. Elsewhere, Jesus’ cross appears to levitate, Pilate’s wife brings linens to Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene so that they can wipe up his blood, and a woman (the Roman Catholic Saint Veronica) gives Jesus a cloth to wipe his face (legend has it that that imprint survived, and became a “relic” of the crucifixion).
The film assumes Mary Magdalene was the woman caught in adultery (referred to in John 8), and a flashback shows Jesus challenging those bent on stoning her. Depictions of Herod’s court subtly allude to his sexual deviances.
Bloody violence is vivid, detailed and prolonged. It is excruciating to watch, in part because Gibson isn’t shy about showing the physical abuse much the way it is described in Scripture, but also because it happened not to a man, not to a revered historical figure, but to our Lord and Savior. For Christians, it’s personal. Those who have chosen to follow Christ will experience a bizarre emotional paradox while viewing the brutality. Each blow to the face, lash with the whip and nail through his flesh is simultaneously repellent and indisputable testimony of divine love.
Specifically, scenes show soldiers striking and spitting at Jesus. They press a crown of thorns onto his head, drawing blood���lots of it. Guards relish the punishment they’re dishing out, and the camera lingers interminably as what begins as a mean-spirited caning leads to an inhumane whipping that tears the flesh from Christ’s face and body. He is literally shredded, then is dragged across the floor through crimson pools of his own blood.
Jesus is knocked over a wall where he dangles by his iron shackles. Nails are driven through his flesh and into the cross (blood drips through the wood). Viewers will wince when the beam is dropped into its hole. Soldiers break the legs of crucified thieves and thrust a spear into Jesus’ side (blood and water spew out).
Judas’ inner torment is palpable. He takes a rope from a putrefying animal carcass and uses it to hang himself (he is shown dangling from a tree).
The word “d–n” is subtitled.
While taunting and beating Christ, the Roman soldiers appear drunk, and are seen drinking from cups and flasks. It can be assumed from scriptural documentation that the drink consumed at the last supper was wine.
The Passion of the Christ is a stirring, reverent and significant motion picture for believers and nonbelievers alike. In a letter to constituents, Dr. James Dobson places it “among the most powerful and important [films] ever made.” He continues, “In addition to being faithful to the essentials of the biblical account, it is easily the most heart-wrenching, powerful portrayal of Christ’s suffering that I have ever seen.” Those who are unsaved and tempted to marginalize Jesus as a tragic or misguided historical figure will be confronted with the harsh reality of who he was and why he died.
Gibson shot the film in Italy using largely unknown actors rather than a cast of familiar faces. That aids the film’s feeling of authenticity, as does the fact that the actors speak in Aramaic and Latin. (Gibson’s reluctant decision to include English subtitles, however, turns out to be enormously helpful, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the details of Christ’s ministry).
This is more than a respectful biography, though. There’s a vivid spiritual dimension here. The anthropomorphic portrayal of Satan as a player in these events brilliantly pulls the proceedings into the supernatural realm—a fact that should have quelled the much-publicized cries of anti-Semitism since it shows a diabolical force at work beyond any political and religious agendas of the Jews and Romans.
Related to this, Dr. Dobson writes that “shaky charges of ’anti-Semitism’ are really just a smokescreen. I believe that the real problem the liberal establishment has with this movie is that it has the audacity to portray Christ as he really was—not only as an historical figure, but as the Savior of mankind. That is an offense to the postmodern sensibilities of our morally relativistic culture. The fact that Mel Gibson actually hopes to use his movie as a vehicle for evangelism only adds fuel to the fire. … We should not be surprised when the true story of Christ—whether depicted on film or declared from the pulpit—creates controversy.”
Conversely, Christians with a sanitized view of biblical history—or complacent believers who’ve come to take Christ’s suffering for granted as they’ve matured in the Lord—will be shocked into a new appreciation of his divine sacrifice. They may well walk away changed. (Graphic violence and gore makes the film unsuitable for children.)
Anyone riding the coattails of someone else’s faith has to eventually make a conscious decision to own his or her faith. The Passion is the kind of “fish or cut bait” movie that will challenge people to make a firm decision about what they believe and how they will live. The film is rated R and families should never undertake its viewing lightly or without spiritual and emotional preparation. However, unlike films with lesser ratings that exploit brutality, it doesn’t at all glamorize maliciousness and murder. Indeed, it is disturbing for all the right reasons.
“Mr. Gibson’s earnest desire to accurately portray Christ’s suffering for humankind—and to share that pivotal moment in history with a mass audience���is tremendously refreshing to me,” concludes Dr. Dobson. “He has gone to great lengths to ensure that the movie will encourage, rather than offend the millions of Christians around the world for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus hold such profound meaning.”
Addendum: The Passion Recut**
After the phenomenal success of The Passion of the Christ in its initial year of release (it took in $370 million at the box office in the U.S.), producer and director Mel Gibson developed plans to re-release the film every year at Easter.
“To me The Passion of the Christ is a universal story of faith and sacrifice that speaks to the human spirit. It had always been my wish to make the film accessible to as many of those who would want to see it as possible,” Gibson said. He added, however, “After the initial run in movie theaters, I received numerous letters from people all across the country. Many told me they wanted to share the experience with loved ones but were concerned that the harsher images of the film would be too intense for them to bear. In light of this I decided to re-edit The Passion of the Christ.”
As a result, those who have seen the original will notice that the scourging scene is shorter and less brutal. Gone is the sequence in which drunken soldiers egg each other on to greater brutality. Gone also is the scene in which a soldier takes a running start to get maximum power behind his whip.
Viewers do not see the various torture instruments strike flesh, although the soldier still demonstrates the flagellum (cat-o’-nine- tails) on a wooden desk, and it’s still obvious that he requires extra effort to rip its tendrils from Jesus’ body. We do not see spraying blood and dislodged flesh, though. The scourging scene ends showing a bloody and lacerated Jesus being dragged away and the courtyard drenched with his blood.
The crucifixion scene has also been trimmed in places. When the soldiers pound the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, we don’t see the nails actually penetrate, nor is there the spurting blood as in the original. Likewise, the part where the soldiers forcibly dislocate Jesus’ shoulder is trimmed. And the sequence in which the cross is flipped over and miraculously suspended in air was deleted. (Fr. John Bartunek, a Vatican consultant on the film, said Gibson cut that portion because viewers did not understand what they were seeing.)
What is the overall effect of these edits? The Passion Recut is the same film in spirit, Gibson said. “I have toned down some of the more brutal scenes without removing them or compromising the impact of the film.” Gibson’s Icon Productions and the film’s distributor, Newmarket Films, took The Passion Recut to the Motion Picture Association of America hoping for a PG-13 rating. The MPAA, however, felt it still deserved an R. The distributor decided, therefore, to release it with no rating (NR).