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[NSFW - graphic imagery warning] [Reviews] Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ

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Despite the poster and the film, Easter is a joyous occasion. Jesus is risen indeed.

I really don’t know how much I actually need to say. Mel Gibson’s blockbuster arrived to mixed reviews, made a boatload of cash on a small budget, and laughed at the face of any sort of “bad publicity” it may have gotten, earning a few well deserved Academy Award nominations for the effort. The story, though still slightly embellished, is a simple retelling of the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life and is relatively predictable compared to Scorsese’s own rendering of the event.

The Passion is not primarily about narrative, which for some viewers may serve to be its undoing, along with the sheer amount of blood and gore that literally fills most of the movie’s running time. Is it necessary to watch this, as an adult or particularly as a teenager, to comprehend and appreciate what Jesus went through? That’s not an easy question for me to answer, but the film has a macabre talent, and it shows it off all too well.


The story isn’t deep, but there’s a lot of setup.

Following the Isaiah 53 quote that opens the film, the first thing the viewer is likely to notice is that instead of English, dialogue is spoken in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew, and if the film’s subtitles don’t automatically kick in (e.g., you’re watching an old fullscreen DVD of this film on a Blu-ray player), they may take several trips back and forth between the menu and the production in order to actually show up properly, which is needlessly exhausting. In terms of the movie itself, the reliance on subtitles focuses the viewer’s eye on text instead of the actors’ and actresses’ displays of emotion, which can be distracting. The writing and speech would have been just fine in English.

Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, and his disciples are asleep. It’s a night scene, about as poorly lit as an Underworld movie, and the characters look like silhouettes. The atmosphere is established well, however, thanks to an ominous environment and soundtrack. The perspective shifts to the disciple Judas Iscariot, who has just agreed to betray the Lord in exchange for a fee. Why is Jesus agonizing? Those not familiar with the Biblical story might actually feel lost, because the the movie at its beginning doesn’t really stop to establish Jesus’ atonement by substitute for the sins of mankind. Perhaps the target audience was assumed to be well familiar with this.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Satan - from http://www.catholicmannight.com/the-temptation-of-jesus-christ/thanks-satan-for-attempting-to-tempt-jesus/
I kind of see Marilyn Manson–no offense to him–now that I think about it.

The devil, Satan, appears for the first time and heavily resembles Voldemort and someone else I can’t place. In any case, the devil here is a lot less subtle than he can be in The Last Temptation of Christ or even occasionally in the Word itself. Here he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time attempting to tempt or deceive Jesus, instead accentuating much of the physical and emotional pain the Messiah endures. One of the few exceptions is when Satan tries to convince Jesus to doubt his own identity and that of his father, not getting very far. On an unrelated subject, the antagonist’s apparent gender is rather difficult to nail down in this film, especially since this Biblically male figure (such as in Matthew 4) is played by a woman. The appearance is quite unsettling either way, and for purposes of this review, I’m using the character’s pronoun, not actress Rosalinda Celentano’s. Oh, and the devil can summon a serpent, whose head Jesus crushes.

It isn’t long before Judas and Jesus’ would-be captors show up, and there’s a really impressive slow-motion fight scene 300 would be proud of, wherein Simon Peter lunges at these men and begins attacking, cutting off one individual’s ear. Peter’s devotion to his lord is admirable, but as Jesus has accepted the events that lie ahead, he looks stern even while healing and reattaching said ear. Jesus is taken into chains before being dangled from a height for the sake of his captors’ entertainment. John, an apostle, warns Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Mary Magdalene (a follower of Jesus) of what is happening to the Lord; one of these women prompts the captive to reminisce of a happier time when he is making a table. It feels like a very subdued skit, but this kind of movie benefits from whatever comic relief it can muster, which isn’t much. The Roman soldiers generally treat Jesus horribly throughout the film, but frankly they still look characteristically excellent in their costumes. Naturally there’s some blatant foreshadowing from a man who happens to be driving a nail.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas - from http://tribunadoceara.uol.com.br/nas-prateleiras/sessao-nostalgia/ha-10-anos-paixao-de-cristo-2004/
Jesus and the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas. Note the lack of 21st-century dental hygiene (nice touch).

Pontius Pilate, a governor from Rome charged with keeping the increasingly unruly Jews in line, has a wife who here is named as Claudia (and is amusingly played by an actress of the same name). She’s one of the most likable and respectable characters in the film, defending Jesus’ innocence against her easily pressured husband as she does in Matthew 27:19, while also comforting the other women closest to the prisoner as his physical abuse progresses. The Jewish high priest Caiaphas interrogates Jesus in what is essentially a show trial, but Jesus doesn’t take the bait and is rarely provoked to say anything at all. He gets slapped. The prosecution at least asks for proof, but others at this point simply make up evidence out of lies.

I’ve never cared for a certain specific thing Peter does in this movie. He denies Jesus multiple times, as is done in Matthew 26, but at one point Peter outright uses obscenity against an accuser, raising the question of whether his “curses” were simple instances of foul language or were something even more disturbing. Regardless, Peter is reminded of his promises of loyalty to Jesus and is brought to mourning over his actions.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Judas returning coins - from http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-news/13-classic-cinematic-betrayals/
I find it somewhat easy to pity Judas, since he at least apologizes for his deeds.

Judas, meanwhile, penitently tries to atone for his mistakes by returning the silver he was paid to hand over Jesus. The amoral priests don’t even care whether Judas has betrayed innocent blood, and they don’t lift a finger to help him. Later, he is tormented by arguably the strangest characters in the whole movie, demon children who bite him and chant only-God-knows-what. Judas, who in his state has torn his bottom lip to shreds, takes the only option of forgiveness he knows, and with it, his own life.

Questions and brutality

Claudia admonishes Pilate not to condemn a man who hasn’t actually committed offenses worthy of punishment, and even Pilate himself is skeptical that Jesus deserves death. (The governor here lacks the visible albeit dubious force of personality he is given in The Last Temptation.) Nevertheless, Jesus is turned over to endure shame and mockery at the hand of the ruler Herod, this coming after he’s already had his face beaten. There’s a moment of perhaps distasteful black comedy with one man pretending to be dead so Jesus can resurrect him, laughing throughout. Even Herod lets Jesus go without sentencing.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Claudia, Pilate's wife - from http://pyxurz.blogspot.com/2011/10/passion-of-christ-page-3-of-7.html
What if someone you loved had a life-or-death decision to make–and made the wrong choice?

Pilate’s wife is essentially the angel on his shoulder, petitioning more than once on behalf of Jesus, but Pilate fears for his reputation and position and asks a large crowd whom they want freed–Barabbas, a murderer who was involved in an insurrection (Luke 23:19, 25), or Jesus, who is being taken advantage of by so many people around him. Pilate chokes, and though Barabbas cackles upon his release, he doesn’t have the audacity to do so when looking right at Jesus, who at this point is marked for execution by the crowd. The governor compromises and allows Jesus to be severely harmed but not to the point of death, and–well, here we go.

(Graphic and extreme violent content are ahead. Children and the squeamish are hereby warned.)


Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - the beginning of Jesus' whipping - http://jesusthrumary.blogspot.com/2011/04/april-22-2011-good-friday-homily.html

The movie’s near-total lack of aversion to depicting blood and gore is probably its foremost identifying feature, and the story nearly drops out of sight. Jesus’ punishment begins, which is horrible to watch but is only the start of what the Romans and their implements have prepared. Jim Caviezel is rather disturbingly adept at portraying a man enduring nearly unimaginable torture, eventually lacking enough energy to stand up. Satan passes unseen among the soldiers, with the same hollow look in his eyes that Gollum had in The Lord of the Rings. Some of the supporting characters look on at Jesus’ bloodied form, and the Roman soldiers begin or continue jeering the Christ. End of round one.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - scourging - from http://everlastingloveandtruth.blogspot.com/2012/05/powerful-song-hey-peeps-its-been-too.html

A scourge, similar to a cat o’ nine tails, is brought out. As the lacerations on Jesus’ back grow with each swing, one of those swings gets caught in his back and has to be ripped out. I don’t know whether to cry like at least one of the Marys is shown doing, or to be in awe of the absolutely incredible makeup job. Someone had to go through the trouble of making all this, as perverse as that might sound to note, but the craftsmanship is clearly given quite a lot of effort. The soldiers also do an amazing acting job: one of them laughs, one looks stoic, and others look horrified. Each swing resonates within Mary’s own heart–I’m thinking this is the mother of Christ–and the film keeps going with these scenes for a very long time after it’s well and truly made its point.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus, bloodied and scarred - from http://mschaut.wordpress.com/2008/02/22/freedom-become-terror-hr1955-r3volutionaries/

Tactfulness and brevity are not the point of this film, but it doesn’t really spend so much time dwelling on context. Jesus didn’t choose to do any of this because he felt like it, but his enduring all of this was a necessary part of his offering salvation to an otherwise hopeless world (Romans 3:23, 6:23; Hebrews 9-10). That being stated, the movie’s actual mentions of that salvation feel strangely thin, as though–along with the rest of this story–the audience is simply expected to know about this already. The problem is, what motivation would a hypothetical audience member with no understanding of Heaven or justification or the Resurrection even have for wanting to sit through the rest of this highly unpleasant film?

Claudia goes to offer her comfort to the other grieving women. They don’t know whether to trust her, but it’s a sweet and nurturing moment. She runs off quickly, and the soldiers by now are spattered with Jesus’ blood, which fills the cracks in the streets.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus lying on the ground - from http://kristen-soley.blogspot.com/2014/02/jesus-compassion-in-his-passion-he-died.html

It’s perhaps a grim testament to Roman discipline that these soldiers keep doing this over and over without a hint of remorse. Jesus, in a sepia-toned flashback, gives encouragement for people who may be dealing with persecution of their own. He lies on the ground, and the streets are smeared as he is dragged away. The soldiers are scolded for being excessive in their punishment, and the crown of thorns is stuck into Jesus’ forehead. One of the thorns looks like it’s digging into just above his eye.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus, with the crown of thorns - from http://nicolesylvester.webstarts.com/power_of_the_blood.html

Another flashback shows Jesus defending a woman caught in adultery (John 8), who here is presented as being Mary Magdalene. She remains prettier than one might expect a person covered in blood to be, but Jesus is now reddened from head to toe. In one of the few moments of restraint the movie exercises, the camera cuts away right before a soldier spits his drink all over Jesus.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Mary Magdalene - from http://jade7163.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/the-reign-of-the-precious-blind-white-man-continues/attachment/18375164/

The King of the Jews

Pilate brings Jesus before the people again, who now call for their king to be crucified. Indeed, one person says, they have no king but Caesar. (Remember that the Jews had no reason to like the Romans or to enjoy submitting to them.) Claudia is appalled, and by this point I’m so fascinated by her character that I’d gladly sit through a movie of her own if she had one. A hand-washing scene set at the Last Supper is contrasted against Pilate washing his own hands of Jesus’ blood. This didn’t end up working out so well for Lady Macbeth.

Most all that lies ahead of Jesus now is the cross, which he is shown carrying. I haven’t done a lot of reading into whether Jesus would have had to carry the whole cross or just the crosspiece, or whether the nails went into his palms or his wrists, but for the sake of reference, the nails in the movie go into Jesus’ hands. A man named Simon is introduced and told to carry Jesus’ crosspiece, which if anything may be a small relief for a man who’s been beaten too many times to count, to not have to lift something so heavy. He at first refuses but eventually agrees, on the condition that the people know he is innocent and is carrying the cross of a condemned man. The film only really excels at one thing–evoking emotion–but this is done exceedingly well as the story nears its end. A flashback of a young Mary helping the boy Jesus when he falls over would feel corny if not for the unending darkness surrounding the scene.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus carrying the cross, zoomed in - from http://biblefilm.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2012/04/27/the-passion-of-the-christ-the-crucifixion/

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus carrying the cross, somewhat lucid - from http://es.paperblog.com/recordando-la-pasion-de-cristo-la-controvertida-obra-maestra-de-mel-gibson-2549296/
God, grant us this measure of devotion to follow You.

In the midst of an environment where his abusers’ laughter has reached a fever pitch, Jesus’ messages of loving one’s enemies and of offering his body and blood somehow avoid feeling preachy or repetitive, possibly because of the large sections of this movie that lack dialogue, easing at least part of the load on the translators and the audience. The music, which is extremely well done throughout the whole movie, swells as Jesus’ arms are bound by ropes, right before the nails go in. After that is done, which actually takes a while, the cross is flipped over so that he is on the bottom.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus on the cross - from http://merovee.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/pope-benedict-jews-innocent/

Jesus is crucified along with two other individuals, one of whom repents of his sins, while the other questions Jesus to the very end. The former earns his likability and, by the grace of God, finds his place within Jesus’ kingdom within the span of a few lines. The other criminal gets his eyes pecked out by a raven. The weather grows overcast and begins to thunder, and several soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. These monstrous proceedings are finally ending, however, and Jesus at the last gives up his spirit. He closes his eyes, and a single drop of water strikes the ground. The catch? That’s not a teardrop; that’s a raindrop, and it signals the coming of a disaster.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - earthquake - from http://israelsultimatevictory.blogspot.com/2012/04/it-is-finished.html

A storm begins, accompanied by an earthquake that carries a lot of theological implications that the movie doesn’t get into, such as the splitting of the curtain in the Temple (Matthew 27:51). As a parting gift from the soldiers, Jesus–now dead–is pierced with a Roman spear. The buildup of bodily fluids essentially causes the side of his torso to explode, but the soldiers, priests, and scholars are struck with the gravity of what has transpired here. They are humbled, and the devil gets one last appearance, screaming in an isolated location.


Conclusion: A simple but meaningful tale for a brave audience.

While theologically thin, The Passion of the Christ serves not as an in-depth discussion of the history or implications of Jesus’ brief time on Earth, or even as a complex investigation into this life’s significance for any of us, but rather as an intense and generally unflinching examination of what Jesus may have felt and experienced during his final hours. Other than in flashbacks, the movie is surprisingly not very introspective or personal, and thus it seems to miss the character development that The Last Temptation attempted and mostly succeeded at.

The Passion of the Christ has a rather narrow set of skills but has polished those to a morbid shine, and I don’t know if that means that the story needs improvement or that the visuals deserve commendation. This isn’t an easy film to watch or review, and it likely wasn’t an easy film to make. For the most part, however, the movie is a successful one, especially in the area of its production values. I’d forgotten just how amazing the music is in this film. It sounds like a collection of incredibly epic and climactic action-movie themes, and while one might expect that kind of music to become exhausting with use, that doesn’t happen here. The makeup is also superb, but I’ve said and shown plenty of that.

Ultimately, though it’s given such a brief reference that someone close to me forgot it was in the movie at all, the most important part of the story comes at the very end. The cross and the tomb were not the end for Jesus. On the contrary, he is and will be alive forever (Revelation 1:18), and death has no more hold on him. Some details from Matthew 28 regarding an angel and his rolling aside of the stone sealing the tomb are missing from the movie, but the point still stands. Jesus has been resurrected, and despite our faults, he gives us every reason to have a hope we could not have imagined.

Icon Productions - The Passion of the Christ - Jesus' Resurrection - from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2013/04/the-naked-christ-in-film-birth-death-and-resurrection.html


Image credits (property of Icon Productions)

- Movie postersource
- Satansource
- Jesus and Caiaphassource
- Judas seeking forgivenesssource
- Claudiasource

- Jesus in early stages of abusesource
- Jesus being scourgedsource
- Jesus, heavily bloodied and scarredsource
- Jesus on the groundsource

- Crown of thornssource (masses of graphic material)
- Mary Magdalenesource

- Jesus carrying the cross, zoomed insource
- Jesus carrying cross, somewhat lucidsource
- Jesus on the crosssource

- Earthquakesource

- Resurrectionsource (NSFW due to subject matter)


This post was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.

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Written By, dracosummoner

Make the most of life, no matter where you are in it. Work hard toward noble goals, but concern yourself less with what you can gain for yourself than with what you can do for others, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. I love sushi. And pizza. And cheesecake. Face me in Pokémon!