This 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. 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.”
I give this movie a “B” because I have to assign a grade. But truly, there is no way to rate this movie as one would the usual multiplex fodder or quirky indie. Without being a theologian or an historian, all I can do is respond as a movie critic, and urge those who want to see it to use it as an opportunity to consider their own faith and the way that reactions to the film highlight our global struggle for peace and understanding.
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 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. 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, 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.
Parents should know that this movie is extremely violent in an intense, graphic, personal, even intimate manner, much more powerful than other R-rated movies with cartoon-style explosions and shoot-outs. We see Jesus brutally beaten for much of the movie. We hear his flesh tear as he is whipped. We see his blood splatter and drip. The nails are driven through his hands and feet. His side is pierced with a spear. Two other men are crucified and one’s eyes are pecked out. There are other disturbing images, including the character of Satan and some grotesque children who taunt Judas. We also see Judas commit suicide by hanging. Gibson has said that the agonizing, unbearable torture is a key part of the story, and parents who are considering whether this movie is appropriate despite the R-rating should see it first themselves to judge how their children might respond to it.
The movie has also stirred up a great deal of controversy about the portrayal of the Jewish elders who ordered the capture of Jesus and urged Pontius Pilate to sentence him to death. Unlike the recent The Gospel of John, this movie does not include a disclaimer to make it clear that the Jewish elders in the story are not intended to represent all Jews then or now. But I do not believe it is necessary. While some people who are already anti-Semitic may willfully misinterpret the movie to support their views, there is nothing in the movie to suggest that it is in any way intended to explicitly or implicitly connect the Jewish people as a whole to the death of Christ. The Jewish elders in the movie are a small group of powerful people who feel threatened by someone who does not support them. There are Jews in the story who are very positively portrayed, including Mary (who quotes from the Passover haggadah in Hebrew), Jesus and his followers, and the people who help him on the way to the crucifixion, especially Simon (a wonderfully compassionate performance by Jarreth Merz). The worst characters are the Roman soldiers, who laugh and taunt Jesus as they beat him and gamble for his robe while they wait for him to die.
Families who see this film should talk about how it fits into their own faith tradition. They should take this opportunity to explore the ways that groups of all kinds have responded to the story of Jesus and to consider the controversy this film has raised about its portrayal of the Jewish elders. There are many fine resources available on the web, including here, here, here, here, and here.
Families might like to look at some of the paintings of Caravaggio, which inspired director Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to create the look and the lighting for this film.
Families who appreciate this film might like to compare this to other movies about Jesus, like The Gospel of John, or King of Kings. They might also like to watch a lovely Italian movie, The Gospel According to Matthew, filmed at some of the same locations as “The Passion of the Christ.” These may be more appropriate for children and others sensitive to violence than this film or for those looking for a fuller depiction of Jesus’ life and teachings. They might also like to watch movies that depict the impact of Jesus on people of the time, like Ben Hur and The Robe. Another very controversial depiction of the crucifixion is The Last Temptation of Christ.