Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
Release Date: Friday, February 25, 1994
Director: Mel Gibson
Producer(s): Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety, Mel Gibson
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern
By Nell Minow
Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" is both more and less than a movie. In one sense, it is less a movie than the heartfelt prayer of a gifted film-maker and devout Catholic who has had some very public struggles with sin. In another it is a narrow and harrowing perspective on a story that, no matter what your faith, is bigger than any attempt to portray on film.
Mel Gibson has made this movie to convey his view of the last hours of the life of Jesus. It is not history and not drama, though it has elements of both. It is not a full retelling of the Gospels or of the life of Jesus. It is a personal and spiritual statement about the view that the suffering Jesus endured in the last hours of his life demonstrated his divinity and his sacrifice in taking on the sins of the world.
According to the film’s website, the use of the word “passion” is taken from the Latin for suffering, but is also used to mean a profound and transcendent love. The theme of the movie is Jesus’ statement, “You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them.”
As a movie, it has great strengths. It is a respectful and reverent treatment of a story that has probably been more influential than any other in the history of the world. It has moments of great power. It has extraordinary cinematography by the brilliant Caleb Deschenal ("The Black Stallion") and some stunning images. The shot from above just after Jesus dies on the cross is breathtaking.
But as a movie, it has some weaknesses. Any attempt to reduce even a part of the story of the New Testament to a feature film will not be able to convey all of its power, complexity, and meaning, but even within that context, this version is limited. It does not give those unfamiliar with the details or the import of the story enough of an understanding of Jesus and the other characters to convey all that it hopes to.
This movie tells only a very small part of the story of Jesus, taking place almost entirely in the last 12 hours of his life. The characters speak in the languages of the time: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin (with subtitles in English). There is little effort to explain what happened before Jesus is captured in the Garden of Gethsemane, why his followers were so loyal and why his accusers were so threatened, or who all of the characters are and how they relate to each other. For that reason, the movie will be most appreciated by those who are already familiar with the Gospels or as a starting point for those who want to learn more.
Some of the scenes are particularly awkward, especially a scene showing Jesus and Mary speaking playfully to each other and one with grotesque children taunting Judas. Other scenes can seem overwrought without the missing context. Many people objected to the exaggerated portrayal of the Jews in the film as anti-Semitic, though of course Jesus, Mary, and his followers are all Jews as well. The violence is intended to be upsetting, and it is extensive, detailed, and disturbing to watch. For those who do not share Gibson’s view about the significance of each physical assault on Jesus, it may appear overdone, brutal, even shocking or fetishistic.
Experts will have to evaluate the movie as history and as a representation of religious belief. Ultimately, each member of the audience will have to evaluate it as an affirmation of faith or as an invitation to those who are still searching. Those who are looking for a fuller depiction of the story of Jesus may want to try the Italian film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" or the Canadian film, "The Gospel of John."