The film deals with the life of Jesus, but unlike other cinematic interpretations of the Gospels, Gibson focuses on the passion, a word often associated with love but originally used to describe Christ's sufferings. But love is the ultimate point. This is no white-washed politically correct version of the Gospels with Jesus cast as a hippy philosopher, but one that wholeheartedly accepts his divinity and role as savior of all mankind, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
Gibson dispenses with the usual opening titles, instead devoting the first frames of film to a quote from Isaiah. We then see Jesus (James Caviezel) praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God the Father to let this burden pass from his shoulders, but vowing to follow through on the Father's commands. Bathed in an eerie pale blue light (the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is superb), Jesus is alone except for Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), presented here as a female androgen, beautiful, yet barren of spirit. Jesus' meditation is interrupted by Roman soldiers who come to arrest him. Accused by the Sanhedrin of blasphemy, Jesus is passed from Pontius Pilate to King Herod and back to Pilate, who sentences Jesus to death in order to satisfy the Jewish religious leaders.
Here is where most of the controversy originates, but charges that the film is anti-Semitic are ill-founded. Jesus was, after all, a Jew, as were his apostles and many of those who protested his crucifixion. More importantly, Jesus lays down his life of his own accord. His death, like his resurrection, was prophesied in the Old Testament.
The remainder of the film is devoted to Jesus' suffering, and it is presented in graphic, often disturbing detail. Yes, the film is bloody, and very violent, but Gibson somehow avoids being gratuitous. By these wounds we are healed is the message, and the film hopes to communicate the extent of Jesus' suffering on our behalf.
Although the film does not dwell on Jesus' teachings, several flashbacks give us a glimpse of the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper, as well as Jesus' life as a carpenter. One of the most affecting flashbacks occurs during the long march to Golgotha. His cross too heavy to bear, Jesus drops to his knees and his mother rushes to his side. A flashback shows Mary (a luminous Maia Morgenstern) doing the same when a youthful Jesus stumbles and falls.
Although this is only Gibson's third film as a director (the second was 1995's Oscar winning Braveheart), he shows himself to be a master film-maker, capable of creating inspired and inspiring imagery, notably a heavenly view of the crucifixion in which a single teardrop forms and drops near the foot of the cross causing the earth to tremble. Gibson ends his film with a brief but beautiful depiction of the resurrection, a scene that brought applause from the audience I saw it with.
One way to determine whether a creative work qualifies as art is to observe the reaction it triggers in those who experience it. No one who sees The Passion of the Christ is likely to be indifferent to it. You may praise it or condemn it, be inspired or enraged by its violence. It is a movie, but it is the result of Gibson's desire to express his beliefs and proclaim them to the world. It's an act of faith. A work of art.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2004 Brian W. Fairbanks