When dealing with a subject matter like this it is important to draw a line at some point in what should and should not be shown. The Passion of the Christ doesn’t just cross said line, it completely ignores the existence and for a good hour the audience is subjected to horrifying scenes of physical torture so relentless in nature I have to question whether its aims are really the ones Gibson claims to have. Be it the flogging or the breaking and nailing of limbs, there is not a moment of pause and Gibson made sure to include as many slow-motion scenes of Jesus falling to the ground from exhaustion as he possibly could. No matter what the backdrop is I can’t help but look at it as a work of exploitation and bad taste. The music merely reinforces my verdict, being overly intrusive and painfully sentimental. — Fabian from letterboxd
I’d say the above quote pretty much sums up much of what many view as a flaw of this movie. That it crosses the line on violence, shows more than it should; too much dramatic flair, too much gore, too much slow-mo, too much anti-semitism (never mind that the source material in of itself could be considered more anti-semitic than this movie is, but I’ll get to that later). Many hold those beliefs against this movie. And to all of them I have this to say, “That may be your opinion, but your opinion is wrong, you bunch of pansy-assed pussified cry-babies.”
Think I stated that a little too bluntly, but if they’re going to be that blunt and unfair about this movie, then I’m dishing some of that right back at them. I’m going to make a case for (Passion of the) Christ, and demonstrate that it’s undeservedly bashed upon for reasons based on weak foundations, and demonstrate why I believe it’s actually a good movie. Not a perfect movie, I do believe there are some faults to be had here, but good none-the-less.
If I’m to talk about this movie, I should talk a bit about my background and history with this film. I used to be a Christian. I used to follow the word, and get into debates about it with atheists and agnostics. A healthy upbringing I’d say. Healthy open-minded debates tend to bring out the critical thinker in me, and force me to confront the foundations I base my beliefs on (religious or otherwise), and teach me how to defend my beliefs, or convince me that the foundations for my beliefs are flawed and that they must be destroyed and rebuilt to a new stronger set of beliefs. Long story short, I’m no longer a Christian, which means I’m not the same person that I once was when I first saw this movie. Back when I first saw this, it was the MANDATORY film every church-going Christian had to see. So we did. And it was sad. But I thought it was fantastic.
Cut to over a decade later, I watch this film again, unsure of how I would feel about it, thinking that all those criticisms I’ve heard over the past would get to me, make me realize they have a point, and that the movie is garbage. Or that the criticisms wouldn’t get to me, but my tastes in films have changed so much over the years that this one just simply isn’t as good as I remember. Let alone that I’m no longer Christian and there’s an assumption that only Christians could enjoy religious films like these (except the Charlton Heston Ben-Hur film, because that film is awesome). Well, after rewatching it, I can safely say that’s not the case. I still think this is a legitimately good movie.
But now I should address the elephant in the room before beginning. Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic rant. They say, “He’s despicable! He’s a jew hater! It’s sinful to hate on any of those holocaust generational surviving people who deserve all our sympathy.” Know what I say? Fuck the Jews! Fuck ’em!
And now you’re probably thinking, “Jesus, he’s not going to justify verbally attacking Jews is he?” Yes “he” is. “He” is going to justify verbally attacking Jews.
I can justify it because of people like Marlon Brando, who did an interview on Larry King in 1996 and went on a brief rant about how he gets fed up with the Jews in Hollywood, their sensitivities, and how they want to control how films are made (to an extent).
Because of that little incident, Brando had to make an apology or else risk never working in Hollywood again. I heard he had to go to the Pope to apologize, but that’s likely just a rumor with no basis. Then there was the whole Gibson thing. But then there was that incident with Gary Oldman, where he made similar comments, and was angry at the PC hypocrisy with how they treated Gibson, but was then later also forced to apologize.
Now, I’m not sure how true the jewish influence in Hollywood is, I’m pretty sure it’s been exaggerated to some extent by many writers. But I think it’s stupid that they can’t just let off a little steam and a few stereotypical rants (which could have some actual basis), and be forced to apologize for it or else risk never being able to work in mainstream films ever again. It’s ridiculous, and it causes the film industry to suffer for it. I wanted more Mel Gibson films between Apocalypto and Hacksaw Ridge goddamnit! And I think there should be movies with stereotypes for entertainment value, just as I think there should be films which aren’t stereotypical. I want variety, and I want a buddy-cop movie with jewish cops who stop to pick coins and dollar bills off the street, bitch to each other about owing others money from poker games and pawn shops, while arresting and beating the shit out of Santa Clauses during Christmas.
But anyway, yeah, for stuff like that, I can sympathize with Gibson getting in a drunken anti-semitic rage one night. Now obviously I’m not angry at all Jews, that would be racist and over-extending the reasonable boundaries of my anger. I have no doubt there are plenty of people who are Jewish who are every bit as upstanding citizens as there are Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Agnostics, and Atheists. But those who are not should be called out on their sensitive bullshit. So, with that out of the way, let the review begin.
Film begins with a shot of the moon, which if I were to guess is a symbol of the eye of God looking down on the Earth. Jesus looks up to it as he prays desperately in the darkness, terrified, afraid, knowing what is about to happen. In another sector of the land, in the city, one of the lead Jews looks up to the moon as well, before looking down at Judas and going about his business.
Satan eventually shows up to try and detract Jesus from his course, doing his usual temptations and intimidation, and a maggot is seen briefly crawling out of and into his nose (a symbol for death). I have to admit, this is one of the more unique depictions of Satan I’ve seen in a movie. A figure that only lingers in the shadows or blends in the background, not standing out in the open to bluntly state his presence. Has the voice of a man, but is played by a female actress, which gives him a unique sort of presence. The feminine allure of a woman, the hidden power and wrath of a man. And then there’s that creepy antichrist baby that shows up later with Satan while Jesus is being whipped, trying to stir Jesus’ anger and outrage. That is how you do a creepy baby people, none of that CGI Twilight bullshit.
The real “torture porn” portion of the movie doesn’t really begin until the 53 minute mark (nearly halfway through the movie), where Jesus first gets whipped with rods (bamboo rods?), and then with the infamous Cat o’ 9 Tails. That is when the violence gets extreme, and where the film truly gets controversial and divisive among critics, both religious and non-religious. And then there’s the crown of thorns that are forced upon his head as if Jesus wasn’t already bloody and fucked up enough, and then the long agonizing walk while carrying the cross where he would be mounted on the cross and crucified. All of that takes up the majority of last hour of the movie.
Critics tend to bash on this portion of the movie for all the wrong reasons. Torture porn they call it, which isn’t something that should label a movie. That’s not a legitimate critique. They can say the violence and torture get monotonous, tedious, and drag the movie down, but labeling it as torture porn isn’t a good enough response. That’s like labeling something as a fighting movie. What does that mean? There’s not much fighting? There’s too much fighting? The fighting is entertaining? The fighting isn’t entertaining? What does that mean? Same deal with torture movies. It’s about how the violence/torture is handled.
While it is violent, I don’t think it was done in poor taste, and think anyone who disagrees are either pussies or idiots. Here’s why:
1.) The whole point of the “passion” (the definition in this case being suffering and pain, rather than romance and love, which is fitting when considering what the story is about and where it was before this event, and where it goes after this event) is to see Jesus suffering for the sins of the world. And I’m pretty sure a large majority of the population who saw this movie are familiar with the character of Jesus, who he is, what he represents, his backstory in the Bible, why he died on the cross, etc. So with all that in mind, it not only makes sense to see Jesus suffering, but to see him suffering harshly. Because when we’re talking about the sins of the world here, this also means seeing mankind at its lowest, most despicable, and most horrifying, seeing the Roman guards not only causing pain and suffering in such a way that it is nearly impossible to bear, both for those being tortured and for those watching the suffering (both the Jews who want to see Jesus punished and his mother Mary cannot stand to see it, and leave after watching for a brief time).
2.) The violence also sets this film apart from all the other Jesus films, which is good, because considering how saturated the market is with Jesus films that tell the same story with the same events in the same freaking way, some variety was needed (The Last Temptation of Christ aside). For all those bitching about how this film detracts from the teachings of Jesus for the sake of violence and masochism, come on, really? You guys who are bitching about this don’t already know about those teachings? You’re not sick of those movies that shove those teachings down your throat every single time monotonously, and yet somehow get praised for doing so every time? I mean, fuck me sideways, the non-Jesus biography movies coming out these days are just as bad if not worse in that regard. God’s Not Dead? Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas? Their taste in movies suck ass. There’s more to a movie than sending a message you know. It’s how the message is sent that makes a movie.
3.) The film also doesn’t linger on the suffering all that excessively. “What!?” you may state. “How can you think that!?” Well have you paid attention to the torture scenes without covering your eyes and ears and looking away from the screen? You tend to notice a few things outside of the bloodshed (which for the record is some of the best practical effect works I’ve ever seen in my life). How everyone is reacting to the violence. As stated earlier, it becomes too much to bear for some (how much worse it must be then for Jesus, as the devil is sure to remind him from time to time). But then there are the guards who take joy in the torturing of him (as they most likely do others; quite the job occupation those sick fucks hold and enjoy). And then there are those who take pity on him, and are changed by seeing him suffer. We see an occasional Roman guard who becomes touched by the sight of Jesus, or when his mother comes to comfort him. Even prior to the lashings, when Jesus visits Herod’s place, we see one (maybe two) people who briefly look at Jesus, and we see something about their face expression, or in their eyes, when they look upon him. It becomes especially evident when Jesus is carrying the cross when we see not only the person helping him carry the cross who is changed from the experience of being near him (from wanting nothing to do with him to taking pity on him and wanting his suffering to stop), but also that woman who wipes the blood off his face (creating the Shroud of Turin, hardy har har) and offering him a drink of water. Plus there are the crowds of people that gather around the walk to the hill. Many of them are joining in on the tossing of rocks and wanting to join in on the beatings and lashings, from the same crowd that welcomed Jesus into their town 5 days ago with palm branches and cheers. Others are crying and begging for the madness to stop. And several of the Roman guards are having fun either way. It’s an accurate depiction of humanity in general, of how they can react and change on a whim to men/women of fame. This is indicated in a flashback during the walk through the city carrying the cross. One day, people are praising you like you’re the greatest individual on Earth. The next day, people are crying for someone to cut your head off and put it on a silver platter. Oh, and of course, there’s Jesus’ mother and her reaction to her son. At first she isn’t sure if she can stand to see him as he is now, so struggles with the inability of bearing the sight of seeing her son in such agony, and the need to run and comfort her son, contrasted with a flashback of seeing herself do the same when he fell as a child, culminating in one of the most emotional scenes in the movie that makes me break down and cry every time. Music for that scene really elevates the emotion as well.
4.) Did anyone even read the quote at the beginning of the movie? “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed.” Isn’t that enough to let you know what you’re in for and why it’s being done?
5.) The flashbacks and breaks between the violence, how they hone in on the themes and specifics of each scene. While Jesus is being lashed, and wanders his eyes over to the sandals of a roman guard, he think back to when he took the sandals off a servant and washed his feet. When he’s approaching the hill, he gets a flashback of when he was preaching to others. Or when he thinks back on the last supper. The things he says in each of those flashbacks are relevant not just to the torture scenes surrounding them, but to the movie as a whole.
6.) There’s a verse in the Bible that refers to Judas committing suicide by jumping so far off a cliff with the noose around his neck that he bursts in mid-air and his bowels gush out. Pretty sure Gibson held back on the violence in that department. That being said, aside from one of the guards getting their ear hacked off (the blood and gore is intentionally kept to a minimum for that scene), and aside from that other guy on the cross getting his eye pecked out by a crow, the bloodshed is largely kept strictly on Jesus. This is for thematic purposes, because his blood is supposed to heal the wounds/sin of the world, by having his body become as wounded and damaged as the world is.
As for another topic, the anti-semitism. You know, considering that the Bible itself could also be about as anti-semitic as this movie in some cases, and how we all know that Gibson is anti-semitic, this film is surprisingly restrained on that topic. I mean yeah, there are the asshole Jewish priests with their frowns and assholish auras that are the cause for Jesus’ suffering. But then there are a couple Jewish priests who decried the “secret meeting” the Jews had when they had Jesus arrested in secret during the night, but they were forced away when they protested. Plus, the man who helped Jesus carry the cross and stop one of the beatings is also a Jew. And even ignoring all that, these people were like that in the friggin Bible! This isn’t an anti-semitic movie, no way. I’m still waiting for Gibson to make one of those.
And the actual presence of demons in the movie. Some would argue that they’re out of place, and CG. The hallucinations and demon kids did seem out of place in the movie. But on the other hand, that was probably the intention. After all, Satan is not of that world, and neither are demons. It’s an otherworldly presence that doesn’t belong but none-the-less exists and is something characters have to deal with. When Satan is walking amongst the guards during the flaying scene, none notice him. But they wouldn’t be able to. They don’t recognize the evil presence because they don’t realize that what they are doing is wrong and evil. If they don’t recognize the evil within themselves, how are they to recognize the evil outside of themselves?
Anyway, Gibson pretty much paid for this movie himself, and made this independently. And for an independent film, it looks amazing. The production quality, the set and costume design, the make-up effects (especially on Jim Caviezel, God bless him and his ability to take on hypothermia, actual accidental lashings, and a lightning bolt), they’re all top notch. Jim deserved an Oscar for his performance put on display here, because it is, dare I say, biblical. Not only was he amazingly strong at depicting Jesus in suffering and in pain and crying out in agony and for mercy, not for himself, but for those harming him, but also in the calmer flashback moments, when he is a young carpenter prior to his preaching days, and was more playful and happy. Even the moments when he is briefly giving speeches in flashbacks he carries himself with such certainty and joy at what he’s saying, and happiness in spreading it to others. No one else has played Jesus so strongly and like this, and put themselves through hell quite like this to get the performance right. Gibson also shows Zack Snyder how slowmo is done. It’s emotional, powerful, and there’s nothing else quite like it.
That being said, I didn’t think it was perfect. I had a couple gripes with the film that, surprise surprise, aren’t violence related. The biggest one being with Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene. She acted well enough, but I’m unsure about the portrayal she gave. How she has the same face expression pretty much the entire time, how she seems on the verge of breaking down, but doesn’t quite do it. I was on board with how soon she found out about her son being arrested, and being there from when the Jewish leaders condemned him and onwards. But I thought it went overboard when Pilate’s wife brought her white towels that she then used to clean up Jesus’ blood that was spilled during the sequence where the Roman’s lashed him. I mean, come on, now that’s just overdoing it.
It could be because this film doesn’t just base itself off the text in the Bible, but also in this other book called “14 Stations of the Cross”, which I must admit I haven’t ever read, but I believe it enlarges the role of Jesus’ mother in the story. Either way, that was the one section of the movie that felt overdone.
“No, his mother hasn’t seen or done enough to make herself sad or to show she cares for and loves her son, lets make her wipe up all of his blood! No wait, that’s not enough, let’s make her rub herself all over it. No, wait, not enough, make her lick it all up! Yes, there we go, perfection! Cut!”
No it didn’t go that far, just in case you were wondering.
Plus there’s also that one lingering draw back shot of her holding Jesus’ dead body and staring at the camera. I mean, for crying out loud, you’re not exactly helping my case here by breaking the fourth wall like Leonardo DiCaprio did at the end of The Revenant and giving that whole “Why?” expression.
Aside from that nitpick, I still think this is a solid film that even non-religious people would enjoy if they think they have the stomach for it and are willing to give it a chance.
Ah, but I’m not done yet. There’s a critic that needs to be addressed here. No, not you Chris Jaramillo from After Lobby, you’re not that famous. I’m talking about the Nostalgia Critic Doug Walker, with his duo review of this film with Cinema Snob Brad Jones.
And look, if you’re a religious person and this film gave you a spiritual experience, fair enough, nobody should take that away from you. But the same way I respect the experience you had, respect the experience I had of needlessly over the top excess which tons of Bible scholars pointed out as inaccurate; and instead suggest other films that talked more about Jesus’ message of love rather than a snuff film of guilt.
Judge not lest you yourself be judged. As movie critics, we open ourselves up for judgement. I’ll respect your opinion if your opinion isn’t founded on the basis of petty bullshit that can be torn apart objectively. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have to respect it, no more than you should respect the opinion of someone who states that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a bad film because they claim that the first human-like beings weren’t monkeys but like men and women we see today because creationism is the only 1 and true belief and all other forms of science are bullshit, and so is the movie. No, some opinions should not be respected. For the record, there are a ton of other bible scholars who do hold the film as accurate. Just saying.
A part of me wanted to hold off on posting this review until the middle of Hanukkah for the sake of just rubbing the anti-semitism jokes in a little harder, but I’ll resist the urge.