Review: The Passion of the Christ

Review: The Passion of the Christ

Emily Monroy

by Emily Monroy
July/August 2004

I must admit it was not religious sentiment that prompted me to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Rather, I was interested in the controversy surrounding the movie. Was it really anti-Semitic? Overly violent? Was it faithful to the Gospels? With these questions in mind, I set out to watch The Passion with a friend (also a Christian) after work one day.

The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson’s third directing effort, after The Man Without a Face and Braveheart. It seems the former Hollywood heartthrob is more than just a pretty face. Claiming that his faith had saved him from a downward spiral into alcoholism and depression, he wanted people to be aware of the tremendous sacrifice Jesus Christ made for humanity. To do this Gibson invested millions of dollars in the movie.

The Passion was filmed in Matera, Italy, a town near Naples, so as to provide a Mediterranean setting similar to Jesus’ homeland Palestine. The movie features James Caviezel as Jesus and Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary. Most of the other roles are played by Italian actors (one who may be familiar to Anglo-Saxon viewers is Matrix star Monica Bellucci, who appears as Mary Magdalene).

Gibson’s investment seems to have paid off. The Passion of the Christ made record amounts of money, and it was popular not only in Christian countries but in Moslem ones as well (it should be noted that Moslems do not see Christ as the Messiah but do honour him as a prophet).

But with the movie’s success came controversy. The most widely publicized charge against The Passion of the Christ was that it fostered anti-Semitism by portraying Jews as “Christ-killers.” Such a portrayal would of course contradict the fact that Jesus died for the sins of us all, so it would not matter whether the Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians or whoever else actually engineered his death. As well, calling Jews “Christ-killers” ignores the role of the Romans in his execution.

I personally did not find that The Passion depicted the Jews in a particularly negative light. That is, the unsavoury Jewish characters in the film were not unsavoury because they were Jews but because they plotted to kill Christ. In fact, the Romans, in my opinion, appeared worse. At least the Jews’ persecution of Jesus was spurred by religious sentiment (that he had blasphemed against their faith by calling himself the Son of God), whereas brutality and sadism seemed to be the Romans’ sole motives for torturing and ultimately executing him. (On an interesting note, one can never accuse Mel Gibson of being sexist. The women in the movie – the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate’s wife Claudia, and the woman who gives Jesus a glass of water on his way to the crucifixion – all behave better than most of the men.)

The other criticism of the film was its violence. I have to say straight up that it is indeed a violent movie, no ands, ifs or buts about it. I would never, for instance, bring a child to see it. A colleague of mine told me he kept his eyes shut for half the movie. I myself closed my eyes for five minutes when I could no longer bear to watch Jesus being whipped by the Romans. But the violence in The Passion of the Christ is different from that in, say, a horror movie like Friday the 13th, where you forget about everything the moment you step out of the theatre. The scenes of Christ’s suffering are intended to actually mean something – the fact that he underwent such treatment for our salvation.

Other critics claim The Passion of the Christ contains nothing of Jesus’ teachings, such as his messages of brotherhood, forgiveness and God’s love for humanity. The film does include flashback scenes of the Sermon on the Mount. I personally would like to see Mel Gibson make a movie about Christ’s ministry some time in the future. On the other hand, to encapsulate Jesus’ entire earthly existence – his birth, ministry, and death – in a two- or even three-hour film is perhaps too much to ask of a director and probably would not do justice to the individual phases of his life.

Was The Passion faithful to the narrative of the Gospels? For the most part, yes. Nonetheless, at times Gibson clearly takes his artistic licence. Much was made, for example, of the scene where Jesus is thrown over a bridge while in chains. This never appears in the Scriptures. Similarly, King Herod is portrayed in the movie as a very effeminate homosexual (in the vernacular, a “flaming fag”), even though the Bible never in any way indicates he was gay. In fact, according to the Gospel of Mark Herod fell in love with the daughter of Herodias and had John the Baptist beheaded at her request.

Finally, what did I personally get out of The Passion? It did indeed make me aware of Christ’s great sacrifice for us, although in my case it did not necessarily influence my faith. I also believe that even a non-Christian can appreciate the artistic merit of the movie. So in the end, I highly recommend seeing The Passion of the Christ.

Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here

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