Partly because of the all the fuss, but perhaps more because of my own religious background, I actually decided to go and see The Passion of the Christ. This is a pretty big deal considering the last movie I bothered to see in the theater was Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and my whole plan for this weekend was to get reacquainted with my home and get my life back together. However, it’s been a long time since they’ve made a big screen retelling of the story of Christ and this one, despite all the controversy, looked like it was visually well-made. And besides, what a great title.
We all know “what happens,” so I don’t think I’m ruining anything for anyone, but I think people need to be aware of what they’re getting into when they go to see this film. The film depicts the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from his arrest at Gesthemane (complete with Judas’s betrayal) to his crucifixion (and briefly, his resurrection three days later). The film is subtitled since all of the characters speak in the language they would have during that time– Aramaic for the Jewish characters and “street Latin” for the Roman ones. Because the movie begins so late in the story and there is little or no exposition in the film, it really helps to know, in detail, the story of the life of Jesus. You can obviously follow what is happening, but the experience is probably better if you know about and understand the significance of things like Jesus’s prediction that Peter would deny him three times, the appearance of Veronica and her famous veil, and in general, how crucifixions happened (so you could anticipate all the gruesome steps involved).
The real warning I would give movie-goers would not be about the alleged anti-semitism in the film, but the large amount of graphic violence. Granted, it’s the story of a man being beaten and crucified, so there will obviously be some inherent violence, but Gibson and company have included every gory detail of Jesus’s suffering, from his beating by Roman soldiers shortly before he is sentenced to crucifixion to his pained journey to Golgotha to his actual crucifixion. In other movies with particularly graphic violence, some directors choose to cut away at the last moment, saving the viewers the most gruesome moment and showing them only the “after,” if anything at all. However, as director, Gibson chose to show every single detail as Jesus is savagely beaten and flagellated and as nails are pounded into his hands and feet. Jesus, played by actor James Cavaziel, is extremely bloody and wounded during most of the film. Despite all of the family and children focused previews shown before the film, this film is not for children. I knew what was coming throughout the film and I could barely stand to watch the violence. Numerous people in the audience, including myself, were brought to tears during the most bloody moments of the film.
One of the big lessons the creators of the film seem to be trying to convey is that noone other than Jesus, than Christ himself, could endure and survive the persecution he experienced during those last twelve hours. Whether he survived all of that because he was destined for death by crucifixion or simply by chance is a question of faith, but the film does show us that Jesus’s suffering was no joke. All of the controversy surrounding the film focuses on whether it is anti-semitic, but more than depicting the Jews as the enemy, I think the film depicts all of the people of that time as the enemy. We not only see Caiphas (the Jewish High Priest) out for Jesus’s blood, insisting on his death by crucifixion, but we see a crowd enthusiastically choose Barabbas, a murderer, to be released instead of Jesus and Roman soldiers gleefully beat the Nazarene throughout the film. We see citizens following along as Jesus and two other criminals make their way to Golgotha and as Jesus collapses frequently under the strain of his cross and his injuries, they seize the opportunity to beat and heckle him themselves.
In the end, the film left me horrified with that period in human history itself. Granted, even if you do not believe in Jesus as Messiah, the tragedy is only amplified by the idea that a man who was teaching love and kindness was condemned and killed for it. But even if we forget about who Jesus was for a moment, the real horror is that a human society actually existed where a man, innocent or guilty, could be beaten and tortured like that by the State and religious leaders, that citizens would not only allow but enjoy such a spectacle, and that a system was in place where human beings were actually killed by such a gruesome method as crucifixion. Who knows if we are any better people today– there are most likely places in this world where equally violent and horrible things happen– but The Passion of the Christ, if anything, shows how terribly wrong human beings can be to one another.