← Back to Reviews

The Passion of the Christ

by Yoda
posted on 2/26/04
It's not unusual for mainstream movie critics to turn their collective back on a film which the public admires, but most are able to give coherent, reasonable explanations for their disapproval, even if most of them might strike the average cinemagoer as snobby. But when it comes to The Passion of the Christ, I can't help but be struck by how very many of them have managed to completely miss the point.

The film, you see, is tremendously violent. Now, any film critic worth reading knows that both great and poor films alike can contain pervasive amounts of brutality; see Saving Private Ryan and Leprechaun 4: In Space for an example from each end of the spectrum. Critics are definitively split as to which group the film leans towards.

Those of them who disapprove are almost unanimously concerned with degree. Why does it have to be so violent? Why didn't it focus more on Christ's message of love and forgiveness? Did the beatings really need to be as long as they did?

The answer is obvious: the happy, cheery, everyone-has-combed-hair story of Jesus has been told before. No previous film has focused itself so thoroughly on the level of pain and abuse Christ endured. Director Mel Gibson is magnifying a part of the story of Jesus that many of us would rather turn our backs to. The film is being decried as disturbing and excessive, but so was the event it's recreating. Such complaints are ultimately not with the film, but with being asked to stare Christ's suffering in the face.

It's not supposed to be easy. While watching the crucifixition take place, I nearly found myself asking the same sorts of questions as the film's detractors: can't the camera just cut away? We know what happens. Do we really need to see it?

Yes, we do. And it is not without irony that a film about Christ's sacrifice is being met with the same kind of controversy and mixture of love and hate that Christ Himself was met with.

The claims of anti-Semitism are ultimately hollow, as well. Such accusations are based solely around the fact that it is Jews who call for Christ's death. But this ignores the simple and obvious truth that virtually all of the film's "good guys" are Jewish, as well. Most of the main characters are Jewish, and as such Jews are on both sides of the issue throughout the film. Calling such an alignment anti-Semitic would be akin to watching a movie about the Civil War and complaining that it made the Americans the bad guys. What else was the film supposed to depict, I wonder?

Perhaps the film's critics are too busy detailing what they would have done differently to judge the film on what it intends to be. But what is the point of going to the movies if you can't see something apart from what you yourself would have made? One of the things that makes Roger Ebert the most recognized movie critic in the world is his insistence that films be reviewed primarily on what they aim to achieve. And by that measure, Passion excels.

It is only slightly encouraging that most critics, regardless of their overall rating, offer high marks for the film's technical aspects. Indeed, if there was any doubt as to Gibson's skill as a director, The Passion of the Christ should lay it to rest. Despite a slight over-fondness for slow motion, Gibson submerges us in an ancient world. The film's first priority is realism, and it achieves it in each and every aspect, from the acting, to the tremendous sets and locations, and (above all else) the positively brilliant decision to shoot the film in Aramaic and Latin. Had the story been shot in any modern language, it would have been drained of its immersive qualities.

It is fitting that a film about Christ would mirror Christ in so many ways: controversy and admiration, love and hate, devisiveness and unification. Jim Caviezel -- who plays Jesus -- said it best in his response to a question about the ruckus around the film: "Very little has changed in 2,000 years." These parallels are a testament to human nature, as well as to Mel Gibson's vision, and the power and realism of The Passion of the Christ.