The Passion Of The Christ


Pros: Great Cinematography

Cons: Reduces Christ’s Crucifixion to the level of a snuff film.

(Note: This review originally appeared on in slightly different form)

It is to my mind “Mandingo” for Jews. “Mandingo” was a slave epic made for those interested in watching well-built black men being mistreated. “Schindler’s List” is another example of emotional pornography.-David Mamet

I remember back in 1988 when many fundamentalists were up in arms over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. A friend told me that he’d gone to see it and been informed by a woman outside the theater that if he saw it, he’d be going straight to that lake of fire to fry. What was hilariously ironic about it was that many of the condemners were denouncing the movie without even having seen it.

What was even more ironic was that many of those same people that were denouncing Scorsese for daring to show the life of Christ as a man torn between his duties as the son of God and his human desires were all too quick to give Mel Gibson a pass when he reduced Christ’s Crucifixion to the level of an exploitation film with The Passion Of The Christ.

Yes, I said it. The Passion is an exploitation film.

Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe the fact that it is Jesus Christ being crucified and the fact that the film is in a foreign language keep it above the level of grindhouse fare. And I just saw a cow fly by my bedroom window.

I won’t go into an on-going discussion about the religious themes of The Passion or the harrowing violence. There are already plenty of reviews that tackle that side. Let’s get straight to the point here: that the main flaw with this film is that it doesn’t take us nearly enough into Jesus’s life.

Most films about Jesus show the crucifixion after they show his full life. The Last Temptation did. So did Pier Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew. Certain elements do make their way into The Passion. But are relegated to flashback scenes. Not that this approach couldn’t have worked. But it doesn’t work. The end result is a crucifixion scene with no context and is not anywhere near as emotionally effective as the ones in the movies I mentioned

Now as for the graphic violence, I have no real complaint about it being there. Movie violence very rarely bothers me. Also I think most people would understand why it’s there. Trying to show the crucifixion without violence is like trying to make a film about the Holocaust or Vietnam that isn’t violent.

Think for a minute about the gruesome violence in this film. Let’s play pretend. Let’s say that the person being tortured and crucified isn’t Jesus Christ. Now let’s remove the Aramaic language from the equation. What do we have? A film that’s as gory as an 80s slasher flick and without the Jesus elements about as substantial.

A word on the Aramaic. I’ve seen it posited on the Internet that the reason Gibson chose to make the film in that language is because the dialogue would sound laughably bad if it were spoken in English. At first I found that an amusing shot. But then I reflected that his other screenwriting/directorial effort Apocalypto was also in a foreign language and I realize that may be the case. More likely however, Gibson probably feels that the use of Aramaic gives the film a certain level of depth, that it helps compensate for the fact that his film doesn’t have the poetic/philosophical side to it that Scorsese and Pasolini’s films did.

As for Jim Caveizel as Christ, I will say that he does the best he can with what he has to work with. The problem is, there isn’t much. I won’t say that Gibson can’t direct as he did do a fantastic job on Braveheart (which succeeded as what it was meant to be) and Apocalypto was far more effective in its intentions than this one. But his screenwriting ability is questionable as there isn’t much of a script here. And what there is, wouldn’t pass muster in a 9th grade screenwriting class.

To sum it up, I’ll say that The Passion, while trying desperately to be the film that shows exactly what Christ went through, instead comes off as an ego trip for Mel Gibson. The result ultimately does a disservice to both the audience and to Christ himself. If you want to see a film about Jesus that’s far more balanced and far more emotionally effective, watch The Last Temptation instead. If you’re still afraid of going to hell if you watch that see, see The Gospel. Both of those are far better films and far more worthy evocations of Jesus Christ than this piece of emotional pornography, this Mandingo for fundamentalists.

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