Film & DVD Review: The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of Christ

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Certificate UK:18
Reviewed by David Kerr

Director: Mel Gibson. Starring: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern

It’s not often that a film becomes notorious before it has even been completed, but such has been the fate of Mel Gibson’s monumental The Passion of the Christ, a film based on the last twelve hours on earth of Jesus of Nazareth from his arrest, his ‘trial’ and condemnation to his crucifixion. The film was derided as Gibson’s folly – a glorified vanity project that could finish him off as a director and an actor. Even worse, it was denounced as an anti-Semitic propaganda piece.

Gibson, a strong Catholic traditionalist, was the subject of an incessant barrage of personal attacks led by a Jewish-American organisation styling itself the Anti-Defamation League. Gibson was denounced as the son of a ‘holocaust denier’ who was most likely motivated by a visceral hatred of the Jewish people.

Confident predictions were made that the film would have problems in finding cinemas willing to show it. Gibson would be ruined and would never find work in Hollywood again. Certainly, Mel Gibson took a great risk with The Passion of the Christ. He poured in large amounts of his own personal fortune on a venture that looked unlikely to succeed. Who, the critics wondered, in their right mind would put money into a movie with a religious theme? Who would then have it entirely filmed with unknown actors speaking long dead languages? Gibson decided to let the film speak for itself.

Once released, The Passion became a runaway success. Gibson got his money back many times over for his act of faith and confounded his critics. However, they didn’t go away. They denounced its remorseless violence in the scenes where Pilate had his soldiers flog Jesus and when he was forced to carry his cross to the hill where he was to be crucified. This came across as a wee bit forced – as if the critics were looking for any excuse to condemn the film – given that violent movies are never out of the cinemas and there’s little said about them.

Although popular with both Catholics and evangelical Christians in North America and Great Britain, The Passion became very controversial in Northern Ireland. A minority of Presbyterians believe that any representation of Christ – whether by a statue or a film or video image, or presumably even a children’s nativity play – is a breach of the Second Commandment and therefore sacrilegious, if not idolatrous. Fair enough, I suppose. We can respect that point of view, even if we don’t share it.

Other critics were even more blunt. “The Passion is a Roman Catholic film, with a Roman Catholic director, a Roman Catholic lead actor and a Roman Catholic message'” complained Rev Angus Stewart from the Covenant Reformed Fellowship in Ballymena who believes that “all who love the true God revealed in Scripture” should “reject this idolatrous movie”.

This seems to be overstating a poor argument. There can be no doubt that the film does add to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s betrayal, false trial and crucifixion – mostly for dramatic effect – but it rarely contradicts them. I only noticed one contradiction in the scene where the soldiers tore Jesus’ robe off him, when John’s Gospel says that it was a fancy seamless robe, so they cast lots for it instead of tearing it up.

So what of the film then? Even the seemingly bizarre decision to have all the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin works. It makes it less American and more universally accessible in that everyone, everywhere in the world needs to read the subtitles! English speakers are not given an unfair advantage.

I found The Passion truly moving and I wasn’t alone. I have never been to a film before where all chitchat in the audience faded and where people came out in complete silence!

Many of us are very familiar with the story of The Passion of the Christ, but that very familiarity has probably blinded many of us to the reality of his suffering. We knew that he was scourged by the soldiers, but didn’t realise just how brutal this was. We knew he had to carry his cross, but didn’t understand how difficult this was given his weakened state. We knew that he was mocked by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish mob and the Roman soldiers but forgot that this was a lot more vicious than the banter we receive in work the day after our favourite football team gets a poor result. We knew that he was crucified but didn’t realise just how cruel and barbaric such a fate was. For bringing the true horror home to us all, we can thank Mel Gibson.

Jim Caviezel deserves an Oscar for his moving portrayal of Jesus, although it’s unlikely that he’ll get one! Maia Morgenstern also brought real pathos to her role as Mary the mother of Jesus, who stood by helpless as she watched her son suffer, deserted by all but one of his disciples.


1 Comment »

  1. I watched The Passion of the Christ at the pictures – and it was very soon into the film that the noise of the audience gave way to silence. Yes, this many times told story was brought to life as if told for the first ever time. It was powerful. It brought me closer to Christianity than at any other time (before that). I’m not a Christian – but – the DVD I was subsequently given as a present for Christmas remains reverentially sealed in its wrapping. It has always seemed disrespectful not to view this in an auditorium with fellow human beings…the fact the Ch4 have shown this film and interspersed it with adverts (!) – IS disrespectful and crass. If shown on TV it should be at an appropriate date and time and without commercials. Even the ungodly can show respect.


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