There is too much fury and not enough forgiveness to be found within The Passion of the Christ, director Mel Gibson’s thematically disappointing interpretation of Jesus Christ’s final hours.
Gibson, never one to shy away from violence as an actor or director, gives us the physical agony in vivid detail. We see Jesus beaten, hanged from a bridge, whipped, flayed and punctured in the temples by the crown of thorns even before his merciless march to crucifixion. His flesh is ripped from bone, and his blood flies up in slow motion, mats his hair and flows in rivulets from his body.
Violence in the film, which was screened for the media Monday in St. Louis, isn’t limited strictly to Jesus. A Roman soldier’s ear is sliced off in Gethsemane. After betraying Jesus, Judas is bitten by a demonic child. And a crucified thief’s punishment for mocking Jesus is having his eyeballs gouged out by a cawing crow.
Gibson has stated that his goal was to emphasize the awfulness of Jesus’ death. Unfortunately, he gets so caught up in grotesqueries and gore that he’s merely pushing buttons by pushing the limit. Missing from the film’s soul is any concrete sense of Jesus’ message, why he made the sacrifice he made or how deeply loved he was by the many to whom he ministered.
The most distressing thought is that parents will take young children to this R-rated film, hoping its graphicness will be justified by the context of Jesus’ tenets of tolerance, love and forgiveness.
As it plays out, the brutality brings about more numbing revulsion than the revelatory empathy Gibson intends. It would be no less shocking, but much more emotionally involving (even for the non-devout), if the “why” of Jesus’ sacrifice was balanced more evenly with the “how.”
We get brief flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount, The Last Supper and Jesus’ welcome to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But they feel less like an organic extension of the film’s heart and more like afterthoughts. (Worse yet, an attempt at comic levity by flashing back to Jesus’ life as a carpenter is misguided.)
But the film always jolts back to its present with the harsh crack of a whip, the landing of a punch or the cry of an angry mob — all cranked to hammering volume on the soundtrack. Its motivation seems to be not love, but an overabundance of guilt and anger.
Gibson has been the target of anger himself because of possible anti-Semitism in the film. The evidence isn’t clear-cut. But Gibson does paint Pontius Pilate as a compassionate politician who orders Jesus’ crucifixion at the insistence of an angry Jewish mob. There is passing mention of Pilate’s self-serving political motives, but little more.
Then again, those committing the horrific beating on Jesus are Roman foot soldiers, maniacally cackling with evil, nameless glee. They act on Pilate’s order without any oversight, reveling as the blood spurts up onto their faces.
From a technical standpoint, The Passion of the Christ is mostly stunning. Gibson has trained the same epic eye on it that he did with Braveheart. Although the opening Gethsemane segment is slow, filmed and paced like a bad horror film, the film’s satanic taunts and visions become more creepy and compelling.
And the film’s look, violent as it is, grows painterly as it progresses, with crisp and vibrant cinematography from Caleb Deschanel. John Debney’s insistent, percussive score is as much a central character in the film as its actors. Grandiose and soulful, Debney’s work is Oscar-quality.
Gibson can’t be faulted for tackling not only an ambitious project, but one so close to his heart. But The Passion of the Christ too often feels too close, inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t share Gibson’s exact views. Only one scene truly connects with great emotion, free of any preconceived feelings going into the film. It’s one that shows Jesus neither as torture victim nor mankind’s savior, but as a mother’s son.
It is quite possible that Gibson doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of the film, its production being such a personally cathartic experience for him. But by rubbing our noses in the violence, Gibson has forgotten the importance of engaging the viewers’ minds and hearts.