Witnessing Mel Gibson’s "Passion"

Lucas Morel

March 1, 2004

With an opening five-day gross of over $125 million, “The Passion of the Christ” has found a highly receptive audience in America. Having just seen the movie and read too many commentaries that cover the spectrum of praise and blame, I am mindful of the need to avoid the cardinal sin of reviewing: namely, critiquing a work in light of the reviewer’s hopes or fears instead of the aims and achievements of the work itself.

Clearly, Gibson did not set out to produce a movie about the life of Jesus, though he incorporates many flashbacks that sketch Jesus’ mission of mercy to the world. His focus is the passion or “suffering” of the man he and many multitudes (including this reviewer) consider “the Christ,” which should not be forgotten when one evaluates the movie.

Considering that Jesus is the most famous person in history, two important questions arise about Gibson’s presentation of him: first, what is the message of his movie, and second, are the means he used to communicate this message appropriate? In short, who is Jesus and does Gibson succeed in his portrayal of him?

With all the focus on Gibson’s depiction of the “passion” of Jesus, it is easy to overlook the rest of the movie title, which gives us Gibson’s answer: Jesus is “the Christ,” a Greek word for “messiah,” which means “anointed” of God. Contrary to those who expected the messiah to come as a political liberator, the Jesus of the Gospels (and Gibson’s movie) rules a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). As the Christ, Jesus was the savior that sinful man most needed in order to be reconciled to God.

Of course, one cannot talk about Gibson’s Jesus for long without commenting on his use of graphic imagery to convey “the passion of the Christ.” From Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to his punishment and crucifixion, the viewer sees Jesus on the receiving end of physical and spiritual torments like none other on the silver screen.

No doubt about it, the Jesus depicted for most of the movie is a despised and lacerated mass of humanity. I found the scourging less difficult to watch than the result of his prolonged torture. Gibson does not literally show every beating that Jesus suffers in his movie, but hearing the sounds during the punishment and seeing what a human body looks like after a prolonged whipping make for a gruesome experience. The scourging is so realistic and unsparing that when it is over, this viewer felt a perverse relief in thinking that the crucifixion could not possibly be worse.

A lot of blood is spilled in this movie, but then that is Gibson’s point. As Hebrews 9:22 puts it, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” We never lose sight of Jesus’ blood because Gibson wants us never to forget what was necessary for rebellious people to be reconciled to a just but forgiving God. Jesus’ blood is spilled recklessly and sadistically by his tormentors, but it is also cherished by certain characters in the film—a detail some reviewers found implausible but one that reinforces Gibson’s message.

Some who applaud Gibson’s intentions still ask if the gore was necessary. Well, certainly not for its own sake. History records too many individuals who were tortured and killed in as grisly a manner as Jesus. If Gibson meant merely to shock, the violent scenes and their aftermath would be gratuitous. However, he presents the passion or suffering of Jesus Christ as a cinematic meditation upon God coming to earth in the form of a man. As Philippians 2:8 says: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

This is no light reflection; but then again, the suffering and death of Jesus was no light matter. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Viewers of this movie will never listen to Handel’s “Messiah” the same way again. Gibson begins the movie with this verse about God’s suffering servant, which sums up the “passion” that follows.

For Gibson, to dwell on Jesus’ suffering is literally to never lose sight of the burden Christ carried for us all. There are times in the movie when one feels Jesus is literally carrying us along with him as he bears his cross to the site of his crucifixion. In this way, Gibson seems to drop all of mankind’s sin physically onto Jesus—not merely at the moment of his death, but at the moment Jesus decides to follow through with his heavenly Father’s plan, which begins with the agony of Jesus’ prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. Here the physical torment yet to come is anticipated and exacerbated by the psychological anguish of Christ as he prays to his beloved Father.

Which is why I did not mind in the least, as some critics did, Gibson’s introduction of Satan into the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke 22:43 says, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him,” but makes no mention of the devil. However, given the focus on the physical that dominates the on-screen narrative, the depiction of Satan as Jesus’ antagonist from the outset of the movie, with all of its cosmic proportions, offers the greatest dramatic tension of the movie. “Not everyone can carry the weight of the world,” or so the song by R.E.M. goes. Well, Gibson’s devil whispers to Jesus that he is not up to the task, for no mere human is up to it, and taunts him by asking, “Who is your father?”

This anticipates the almost desperate cry of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This quote from Psalm 22, familiar to the Jews present at the crucifixion as well as the early Christian church, suggests the paradox of God’s acceptance and rejection of Christ as the bearer of the sin of the world. He accepts Jesus’ sinless death for sinful man, but in doing so must reject Christ as he takes upon himself the punishment for man. So we do well to recall the whole of Psalm 22, which not only predicts the suffering of the messiah but also the ultimate triumph of hope over despair.

“Film, I think, is visceral,” Gibson has commented. “It has the power to draw you in and have you experience something on an emotional level that you may not be able logically to explain.” Like the southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, whose short stories sought to reveal the divine mystery hidden in the particulars of concrete existence, Mel Gibson hopes “The Passion of the Christ” will leave you “with a set of images or an experience or a feeling that may make you want to look further. That’s all; the film is just a jumping-off point.”

Indeed, the graphic images are sure to leave a lasting impression, but are they for good or ill? Put differently, does Gibson’s movie succeed as a movie? According to the original Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which established guidelines for the emerging “talkies,” motion pictures should be judged by the standards of art because they depict “human thought, emotion, and experience in terms of an appeal to the soul through the senses.” While “The Passion of the Christ” could be considered an assault on the senses, its spiritual message still comes through. It was not the movie I would have made about Jesus Christ, but for the reasons mentioned above, I still found “The Passion of the Christ” compelling and profound.

That said, this movie is not for everyone. Children under 16 or anyone easily troubled by images of brutality would be better off renting my favorite, Franco Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” which debuted on television in April 1977. Starring Robert Powell as Jesus, it boasts an all-star cast that holds their own, including Rod Steiger as Pilate, Anthony Quinn as Caiaphas the high priest, Olivia Hussey as Mary, Ernest Borgnine as a Roman centurion, and Michael York as John the Baptist. This picturesque miniseries, which would be rated PG today, does not sanitize the mocking, scourging, or crucifixion of Jesus, so elementary school kids should have an adult around to shield them from a few troubling scenes.

Others have commented that the emphasis upon Jesus’ physical suffering rather than his spiritual teaching makes this movie more Catholic in its sensibilities than Protestant. But for Mel Gibson, that is its glory: for him, the medium is the message, especially when the medium is a divine messenger. As for the alleged anti-Semitism of “The Passion of the Christ,” Gibson depicts enough instances of Jewish sympathy with the battered Jesus, from the mundane to the poignant, that the viewer never forgets that Jesus himself is a Jew—a fact so obvious as to escape notice because of the singular nature of Jesus and his mission. At one point, Gibson has a Roman tormentor call Jesus a Jew in a derogatory fashion. Intended as an insult, the most explicit anti-Semitism of the movie is expressed by a Gentile, not a Jew. So much for this monumental red herring masquerading as a critique of the movie.

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” These words from the Gospel of Luke speak of Jesus, but they came to mind as I considered the many questions and controversies surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I can recall no movie that has disclosed the thoughts of so many hearts as this one has.

Gibson said he wanted his film to get folks “to be introspective and to seek further.” Time will tell if the movie leads to a revival among church-goers or a “new birth” in those presented with Jesus’ message for the first time. At the end of the day, Gibson does not want us to watch a movie as much as to witness an event, the world-historic event, and then answer the question Jesus posed to his own disciples: “Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27, 29)

Lucas E. Morel is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.