Passionately Disappointed With The Passion of the Christ

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

Perhaps you won’t believe this, but I am a Christian. I was born a Christian, raised a Christian and I continue to be a Christian.

That person, that Christian part of me, that was the one who found Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ so offensive. The film critic part of me found it to be a poorly executed film that bordered on a snuff film. The audience member part of me was horrified in the right places.

To start, I don’t have a problem with making a brutally realistic passion play and committing it to film. I firmly believe this subject is important enough to demand graphic violence. Indeed, if this film was handled better, the violence might have made us weep for this innocent man who loved humanity. Instead, the violence becomes a kind of punishing ordeal. “Can you take it?” Gibson seems to ask. “Do you love Jesus enough?”

This film is not about Christ. It’s about its own blood-spattering. Most passion plays start shortly before the triumphal entry or during the Last Supper. This passion play starts in the Garden of Gethsemane, the better to get to the blood. Gibson includes brief flashbacks to moments like these, but they are so brief that just when you figure out where you are in the Gospels, you’re staring at more graphic wounds.

The most frustrating thing about this film is that it comes very close to succeeding. Jim Caviezel turns in a wonderful performance as Jesus and Maia Morgenstern as his mother matches him. The scenes these two have together are electric and jolt the film’s neglected human heart to life. Monica Belucci as Mary Magdalene does the best she can with the limited material provided. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is stunning, John Debney’s score is affecting and the terse screenplay by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald is wonderful in its almost journalistic account of Christ’s final hours.

The film’s failure lies with Gibson. The Bible relegates Jesus’ flogging to one verse per gospel (the Gospel of John doesn’t even give it that much). Gibson turns it into an over-10-minute “can you stomach this?” marathon of spattering blood. Was it really like this? Undoubtedly. The real question Gibson should have asked was, why should anyone care?

If you are a Christian, presumably you’ve read the Bible and have some sort of relationship with Christ. If you are not a Christian, this film gives you little to no pretext to sympathize with Jesus. It simply drops you in the middle of the story and assumes you know to feel sorry for him. To be honest, someone who suffered this kind of torture would probably get our sympathy, but this isn’t supposed to be just someone! This is supposed to be a man who founded one of the great religions of the world, a man who had revolutionary ideas about how people should treat each other. To see him treated as a slab of meat that simply endures torture is deeply offensive to me.

If we had had context – if Gibson had started with the Last Supper or lingered over his Sermon on the Mount flashbacks a bit longer – all of this would have played much better.

I have heard this film compared to Saving Private Ryan in the graphicness of its violence. I would agree with that sentiment. However, Spielberg gave us reasons to care in that film. He surrounded the brutal battle sequences with humanity. Gibson cannot find the human side of Christ. It seems as though he can only love Christ because Christ suffered for his sins. That’s fine, but if that’s only as far as his faith has evolved, he has a long way to go.

Similarly, Gibson fails to make humanity the villain in this piece. If Christ died for the sins of the world, it stands to reason that everyone who ever lived is to blame. Instead, Gibson unbalances the film by not even mentioning that this is Christ’s mission on Earth until late in the film when we’ve already endured almost two hours of ultra-graphic torture. For most of the film, it seems that, very specifically, the Jews of the Sanhedrin and the Roman soldiers who tortured Jesus are to blame for his death.

Is the film anti-Semitic? Possibly. If you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, you could probably read it into the movie, but I don’t think it’s overtly against the Jews so much as it is against the specific Jews who condemned Christ. That’s not the ultimate problem with this film.

Somewhere in the middle of this film’s second hour, I realized I had gone from seeing a merely pedestrian film (Gibson overuses slow-mo more than any other modern director) to one that contained no deeper truths about God’s wishes for mankind. Gibson has claimed that this film was directed by the Holy Spirit while he stepped back and directed traffic. You can imagine how disappointed I was to find out this film was merely directed by the director of Braveheart.

Every failing of this film is Gibson’s. Why make Herod so impossibly fey and introduce a weird sense of homo-erotic comedy? Why introduce Satan, then appear to have him work against himself by both goading on Judas and trying to prevent Christ from dying? Why have Judas chased by a pack of devil children? Why have Christ come back from the dead and look like he’s really angry – is Gibson setting us up for a sequel? Why introduce the resurrection at all if you’re only going to spend 30 seconds on it?

Every failing of this film is a failing of over-direction. Someone like Martin Scorsese ) or Peter Jackson would have been able to find the humanity in the spectacle.

Instead we got Mel Gibson, who has reduced one of the greatest stories ever told to a two-hour long splatterfest about a guy getting the crap beaten out of him.

2 stars (out of 5)