Movie Review: The Passion Of The Christ

Long ago, when I first heard about Mel Gibson’s movie — then simply called “The Passion” — I can’t say that I was all that interested in seeing it. I mean a movie about Jesus that was in Aramaic & Latin? At the time I was hearing that the film wasn’t even going to have subtitles! So I can’t say that I was actually looking forward to the movie and that must have been true for most people since Mel Gibson had an incredibly difficult time even finding a distributor for the film.

So what changed? How did a movie that seemed destined to fail at the box office before being shunted off the “foreign films” section at Blockbuster end up making more than 100 million dollars in its first 5 days on screen? Well, interestingly enough, Gibson owes a lot of his success to the Anti-Defamation League’s absolutely hysterical bleating about anti-Semitism in the film. The louder the ADL shrieked, the more time Gibson got to go on TV and defend his movie and the more prominent conservatives and church leaders Gibson was able to persuade see the film so they could judge for themselves. And not only did the reviewers say the movie wasn’t anti-semitic, they said this was a magnificent film that for the most part attempted to stay true to the Scriptures. In a time when Christians are used to being mocked by movies like “Dogma” & “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I think a lot of people are grateful to find a flick that takes Christianity seriously. So you have a film that doesn’t sneer at Christians, that’s getting great reviews and that is tremendously controversial because of the anti-Semitism charges. No wonder it has done so well at the box office.

Personally, I wanted to see if the movie lived up to the hype, so I caught the film in a packed theater here in Charlotte this week-end. And what did I think about the movie?

Well, first off, although some people may disagree with this characterization, I think “The Passion Of The Christ” must be understood as a movie made by a Christian for other Christians. By that, I mean that this movie focuses on the last 12 hours of Christ’s life with very little backstory. So if you don’t already understand what’s happening — and I’d say even “buy into” what’s happening — you’re not going to be seeing the same movie as someone who does.

For example, many people have pointed out — quite correctly — that this is a horrifically violent movie. In fact, I’d compare it to movies like “Kill Bill: Vol 1,” “House of a Thousand Corpses,” “Dead-Alive,” & “Saving Private Ryan” when it comes to the amount of blood and gore you’re going to see. However, I would also note that there is a difference between the violence in say “Kill Bill: Vol 1” & “Saving Private Ryan”. In one movie, you’re treated to gratuitous bloodletting that serves no other purpose than to titillate. In the other, you’re seeing violence with meaning. In “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielburg is trying to get across that in a real war, somebody doesn’t just grab their chest and go “Argh ya got me” and then fall over dead. They take nightmarish wounds, they have arms blown off, they’re blasted into chunks. That’s why some people might not have a problem taking a kid to see “Saving Private Ryan” although they’d never consider taking that same child to see “House of a Thousand Corpses”.

In this case, savage beatings and scourgings that would be little more than depraved violence in another context, are moving because they’re being inflicted on Jesus. The message is, “This horror, this terrible agony that you can barely endure watching on the screen, was what Jesus endured for your sake, so you could be saved.” Personally, I choked up several times watching the movie — it was that powerful.

As far as anti-Semitism goes, there was none in the movie. That’s not to say that all Jews are portrayed as “good guys” in the movie, because they’re not. But the portrayal of the Philistines as “bad guys” who pressured a reluctant Pontius Pilate into crucifying Jesus seemed to me to be entirely consistent with what I was taught in Sunday School. According to the Bible, the Pharisees and the Jewish mob were not mere bystanders watching the Romans persecute Christ. To the contrary, they demanded Christ’s death and they got it. So to be honest, I’d have to say that the people who are crying “anti-Semitism” seem to have a problem with the Bible itself, not Mel Gibson.

On top of that, as I mentioned, not all Jews are portrayed negatively in the film. There are Pharisees who protest that Jesus is being treated unfairly, random Jews who speak up for Jesus, Veronica wipes Christ’s face, and Simon who helped Jesus carry the cross comes across quite well to filmgoers. In fact, you could even make the case that the Romans, many of whom were so sadistic that they reminded me more of orcs from JR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy than human beings, were depicted far more negatively than the Jews.

Moreover, for those who are concerned about this movie negatively impacting people’s perceptions of Jews, Christ’s message in the Bible and in Gibson’s film is not one of anger, but one of forgiveness for all mankind. One can have no doubt that the same Jesus who told Peter to drop his weapon and then healed the ear of a wounded Roman soldier who had come to capture him and take him to his death would disapprove of anti-Semitism in the strongest of terms. Furthermore, how could anyone believe that the same Jesus Christ who cried, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do” from the cross would sanction persecuting Jews? Of course, he wouldn’t.

However, we do need to keep things in perspective. Jews have in the past been persecuted because of “Passion plays” and since the ADL has spent months trying to make this movie sound like some sort of anti-Jewish propaganda flick (I hope the publicity they received was worth the enormous hit their credibility is taking), I can understand why some Jews would be concerned about this film. But personally, I don’t think Jews have anything to worry about. I just don’t see anyone walking out of this movie hating Jews who didn’t hate them going in.

Well, that covers the controversy around the movie, but what about the movie itself? I have very few quibbles about what was done on the screen. Satan was a bit of an…odd looking character, but I suppose that beats a giant CGI creation with horns and cloven hooves. I’d also say Gibson may have gone just a wee bit overboard on the sadism of the Romans that I mentioned before and with the wounds inflicted on Christ. By the time Jesus was crucified, I’m not sure there was a square inch of his body that wasn’t covered with some sort of cut, bruise, or abrasion. Of course, I’m not an expert on flogging or the severity of beatings that the Romans gave under those circumstances, but still a touch, just a touch, less gore would have been better in my opinion.

But those are relatively minor issues when measured against the riveting, heart rending film that Gibson has brought to life and the screen. From start to finish, you cannot tear your eyes away despite the fact that you know what’s coming for the most part. To see the pain of Peter after he denies Christ, Judas paying the price for his betrayal, and Mary witnessing the horrors done to her son, is just…I don’t know exactly how to express it…but it has an effect that’s deeply personal and hard to explain. In any case, this is an unforgettable movie and I’d say it’s a must see film for any Christian. I would call it a must see film for everyone, but for reasons I’ve addressed earlier in the review, I don’t know if the movie will have the same impact on people who are not Christians. Judging by a lot of the reviews I’ve seen, I’d have to guess that it doesn’t. So keep that in mind, but my review is thumbs, way, way, up on this one.

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