In all the years Iíve been reviewing movies, this is something thatís never happened. Yesterday I returned to my office after seeing The Passion of the Christ. I spent several hours writing a review that detailed how powerful I believed the film to be. Then I woke up this morning, ripped my review down, and wrote a second version in which I took the film to task for its unflinching violence, which in retrospect had seemed a bit excessive to me. Somehow, that one didnít seem right either, so it too came down. My opinion of the film never changed Ė I think itís an important and moving piece of work Ė but I have a significant reservation as well. The original review was written only with my heart, and my second was written only with my head. I prefer to write my reviews with a combination of both, since movies are both emotional and intellectual experiences. So hereís my third (and final) draft.
The Passion of the Christ is, of course, Mel Gibsonís labor of love. Financed with $25 million of his own money (and presented in Aramaic with English subtitles), the movie was turned down by every studio in Hollywood. Undeterred, Gibson partnered up with indie distributor Newmarket Films, on a roll after Memento, Whale Rider and Monster. It recounts the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel). The picture begins just as Jesus is captured after being betrayed by Judas, and it ends with His death on the cross. Gibsonís intention was to show, as realistically as possible, the agonizing experience Christ endured on our behalf. He came to this world to die for our sins, and He stoically endured all kinds of vicious torture with the knowledge that there was a greater meaning behind it.
A powerful message, certainly. Seeing The Passion of the Christ is akin to seeing Schindlerís List or Saving Private Ryan for the first time. They all affect you on a deep emotional level and give you a real understanding of something that is hard grasp on your own. Some things are not easy to visualize until someone visualizes them for you. Thatís a void this movie fills. We all know that Christ was crucified. Weíre all familiar with the images of Him nailed to a cross, a crown of thorns on His head. And Christians around the world Ė myself included Ė undoubtedly have a strong appreciation for the sacrifice Christ made for us. That said, the sheer brutality of the crucifixion never really sank in until I saw it portrayed in this film. I walked out of the theater feeling like I understood the extent of His sacrifice more fully.
Seeing the crucifixion played out hit me on a very emotional level, as it did many members of the audience. Quite a few people in the theater were in tears. The lady two seats down from me openly wailed at times. A thought occurred to me: for many of us, watching Jesus suffer is like watching a family member go through the same thing. Christ is a part of so many lives that this story hits home in a big way. (My local cinema placed several boxes of tissues on a table right outside the auditorium due to the number of tearful audience members.)
But does The Passion of the Christ need to be as intensely violent as it is? Yes and no. Hereís where my inner conflict kicked in. Let me explain. Nothing about the crucifixion is left to the imagination. There is a scene where Jesus is repeatedly whipped and flogged with instruments that tear His flesh. We see the spikes being driven into His hands and feet. We watch as the crown of thorns is pushed into His head. When the spear is driven into His side, gushing blood blows into the wind. Most of the filmís running time is devoted to scenes of Christ being beaten and bloodied. It is extremely rough to watch.
On one hand, the explicitness needs to be there. We need to see the exact nature of the crucifixion in order to give it the proper weight. None of us, obviously, has ever seen anything like this before. Gibson lets us see it for what it was: a form of torture. Because it is graphic, we can understand exactly what Christ endured on our behalf. It is hard not to appreciate the nature of His sacrifice once we confront the truth about how He was killed. Appreciation comes from understanding, just as our forgiveness comes from His sacrifice
On the other hand, I think the brutality goes on long after the audience gets the point. We get the idea, the feeling of the suffering Christ endured, yet Gibson keeps piling it on. This is especially true in the whipping/flogging scene, which just goes on and on and on in stomach-churning detail. At some level, the filmís sheer fascination with the violence almost threatens to obscure the message. This is perhaps not what we should walk away with. Shouldnít this be an uplifting film, the kind we want to return to again and again as a way of reaffirming our faith? Itís hard to imagine many people seeing the movie more than once because, as inspiring as its message can be, it is largely difficult to sit through due to the unrelenting gore. I believe that Gibson needed about 80% of the violence to make the point effectively. After that, he could have trimmed it with no decrease in impact. That extra 20% went just a bit far for my taste.
There are many good elements in the picture, things that moved me deeply. I have great admiration for Jim Caviezelís performance. He brings the right sense of dignity and love to Christ. Caviezel perfectly conveys one of the fundamental truths about Christ: He was assured of his role; He knew that dying was both His destiny and His gift to us. It was why the Father sent him here. Thatís inspiring in ways that words canít fully express. The actor allows us to feel Christís acceptance of his purpose, his quiet knowledge of a higher calling.
I was also touched by the way Gibson pulls back occasionally to give us a glimpse of Christís impact on those around Him. Intercut throughout the crucifixion sequence are short flashbacks to the Last Supper. Here, we see the healthy Jesus preaching a gospel of love and tolerance. The juxtaposition of the message and the suffering illustrates that Christ was indeed willing to die for our sins. I also liked the scenes with Mary (Maia Morgenstern), who watches helplessly as her son is killed. At one point, Christ stumbles while carrying the cross. Mary flashes back to a time when Jesus was a child and fell on the ground. She rushed over to comfort him then, and she does the same now. Little moments like this suggest the influence Jesus had on others. His life meant something special. He had the ability to touch the lives of others then, just as He continues to touch their lives now.
Mel Gibson clearly wants the world to stop and think about Christís message. We are to love one another, love our enemies. Our sins will be forgiven because the Son of God was sent to make a supreme sacrifice for us. This was an act of generosity that should inform our every action, our every decision. Christís ideas are definitely in the picture, and they do make an impact.
All in all, I found The Passion of the Christ to be an emotionally powerful experience, but at times the unceasing violence turned me off. Much of it is essential, but some of it crosses the line into excess. (I urge parents to use caution when taking children to the film for this reason.) It does not encourage you to experience the film more than once, and that is unfortunate. Iím not going to give The Passion of the Christ a star rating. Such a thing is, Iím convinced, largely irrelevant here. I recommend the film. It is worth seeing and talking about. If it gets us thinking about Christís message, then it has served its ultimate function.
The Passion of the Christ is rated R for sequences of graphic violence. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
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