It’s very difficult to grade The Passion of the Christ (2004, R) as a movie. Lots of folks will do that, and I suppose that’s fine, but to do so misses a lot of what is actually going on. The Passion isn’t a movie. It’s an icon on film. It isn’t meant to be watched. It’s meant to be meditated upon. The crowd who engendered most of the controversy about The Passion didn’t understand this, which is why they were comfortable classifying it as anti-Semitic or as a snuff film. For purposes of this review, I’m going to treat of the subject as best I can on both sides of this equation.
Mel Gibson hasn’t done much directing, but what he has done has been wildly unappreciated, I think. I group him and Clint Eastwood together for this reason. They both make good movies and people always seem shocked when they find out who was behind the camera. Sure, Gibson’s resume isn’t as long or distinguished as Eastwood’s, but the point still stands. Looking at The Passion, even his roughest critics have to concede the massive scope of what he was trying to do. Just consider the patience and steadiness that was required to film a story told entirely with sub-titles based on Latin and Aramaic translations. Throw in the period setting, the scrutiny of Gibson’s personal life by both believer and non-believer, and so forth, and one can immediately appreciate that this was a project far beyond what an average director could manage.
From a casting standpoint, I’m probably going to anger some people by saying that Caviezel’s portrayal of Christ is the best I’ve seen. Oftentimes, other movies tend to let the character of Christ lag a bit. He drifts off into breathy, hyper-serene quotes from the Gospels or overly deliberate, almost floating, movements across the screen. Or, conversely, He is overly banalized in attempts to dumb down His divinity. Not so with The Passion. Caviezel’s Jesus has an emotion and genuineness that runs uninterrupted through the whole production, but it never detracts from His nobility. It simply isn’t possible for me to praise his performance enough.
The remainder of the cast is also excellent, with most of the accolades tending to be directed at Maia Morganstern as the Blessed Mother. I’m going to wander a bit afield from this. Without detracting from Ms. Morganstern’s work, I am compelled to talk about the minor characters who really bring the power of the movie to the forefront. After all, it’s tough to tell a story about the salvation of the human race without those humans who so badly need saving. These are the individuals that make the story so powerful, whether it’s Mattia Sbragia as Caiaphas, Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate, or the truly magnificent work that Jarreth Merz did with Simon of Cyrene. When it comes to channeling power through an artistic medium, the scenes with Simon hit like a sledgehammer. Even characters only seen for a few seconds are ably handled so that they can demonstrate how Christ affects the people he meets. Notice Malchus or the African guard at Herod’s palace. They don’t even have any lines, but they have a palpable impact on their scenes.
Having discussed the more filmish part, let’s move on to the reason so many people didn’t “get” The Passion. “It’s just two hours of a guy being tortured to death!” When viewing it as simply a movie, this is an easy criticism to make, I suppose. Granted, this kind of analysis is superficial and perhaps even malicious. The point of the movie, as illustrated at the very beginning with the passages from Isaiah, is the horror of sin and its consequences and the depth of love to suffer for the sins of others. One cannot appreciate The Passion without understanding why it is brutal. This is what sin looks like. It’s also what love looks like. Without acknowledging the WHY of the graphic violence, it might look like a well-done presentation of a man unjustly executed in the worst manner possible. None of this is all that surprising, though, given the large numbers of movies that do portray violence in a graphic manner just for shock value and little more.
Make no mistake. It is very, very graphic. This is not a movie for the very young. I let my oldest watch it for the first time when he was 13. This is not to discourage people from watching it or eventually allowing their children to do so. It’s to safeguard the meditative aspect of the movie. Gibson was very blunt that he wanted the violence to be as rough as possible. Needless to say, he succeeded. This is an especially good thing for Catholics who might find it an oxymoron that depictions of so much cruelty could be in a film proclaiming itself Catholic. It will hopefully shock them back to a number of very pointed realities ranging from the true nature of their sins to the true nature of the Mass. Gibson’s juxtaposing of flashbacks with the ongoing events of Christ’s torments to provide illustrations of all these things that every Catholic should know are masterful and teachable moments for non-Catholics as well who might be confused.
These are all things that distinguish The Passion of the Christ from more “epic” presentations of the Gospels, such as Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told. While the latter works were certainly bigger in terms of their size, story, cast, and so forth, they are primarily there to provide a narrative of events in dramatic fashion. The Passion distills the essence of Our Lord’s mission into an icon, written as a motion picture, for our contemplation.