“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Those words from the Apostles’ Creed are what Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion of the Christ, is all about. Especially the suffering. As such, it is an appalling and difficult film for many Christians to endure, and it must make unbelievers and those of other faiths very uncomfortable indeed. For the violence portrayed in this film is done toward a man whom Christians cannot but see as utterly innocent of any crime whatever, and whom unbelievers must just as surely view as innocent of any crime worth punishing. For what is the problem with a man claiming to be God if there is no God anyway, or if we are all gods, or if God is merely a distant presence who started the world up and subsequently left it to go its own way? No one deserves the kind of punishment meted out to this puzzling but quite obviously benevolent soul.
That, of course, is exactly the point Gibson is making. Moreover, and equally importantly, he makes it perfectly clear exactly who is responsible for this suffering. We are. All of us. Every human being who ever lived, Gibson’s film maintains, is responsible for this suffering. Jesus Christ (portrayed impressively by Jim Caviezel) tells his disciples at the beginning of the film, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that they cannot go where he is about to go. He alone, we know, will step forward to pay the price for sin. He alone will suffer for the world’s rejection of their Creator and of the Savior he sent. He alone qualifies, for he alone is without sin.
This is, however, by no means an ethereal story, in the hands of the passionate director of Braveheart and guiding force behind The Patriot. In dramatizing the last day of the earthly life of Jesus as a man, Gibson typically includes another major character in each important sequence, to establish a point of view for the audience. Often this is Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Maia Morgenstern’s depiction of her is duly sensitive, sophisticated, and compelling. The audience easily shares her sympathy for her son and her horror at what is done to him. Another character often included is Satan, evocatively portrayed by Rosalinda Celentano. The androgynous, seedy, rotting Adversary continues to tempt and taunt Jesus throughout the film.
These two females provide an evident, and perhaps too obvious, contrast of responses to the reality of the Christ. In doing so, they bring the matter back to the viewer, to the choice of how each of us will respond to the life and temporary death of Jesus. This makes the film much more than a simple theater of cruelty.
It is, in fact, the central point of the film. Audience members interviewed about this film have noted that the brutality toward Jesus rather stunned them, and most critics have felt compelled to stress their discomfort with the amount of violence in the film. Roger Ebert exemplified this opinion well in his Chicago Sun-Times review of the picture, characterizing The Passion of the Christ as the most violent film he had ever seen.
With all due respect to a daily critic’s occasional need to resort to hyperbole, that is simply a ridiculous statement. I have seen plenty of films more violent than this one, and I’m certain that Ebert has also.
What I have not seen, however, is a motion picture in which the violence is shown so intimately and is so sympathetic toward the victim of the brutality.
Nor, of course, have I ever seen a film in which cruelty of this severity is inflicted on an individual who claims to be the only truly innocent person who ever walked the earth, and indeed one who openly stated that he was sent from God to teach us what our Creator expected of us not only in our actions but in the inmost recesses of our hearts, and who set out to practice exactly what he preached (which was clearly impossible for a mere human being, which, of course, he himself argued that he was not, being both man and God), and whose life and statements all indicate that he was exactly who and what he said he was. Nor have I seen a portrait of such incredible violence done to one who claimed, quite plausibly given the assumptions behind the character so depicted, that the suffering he would undergo was a direct result of the viewer’s own obstinacy and selfishness.
No, that is something I have not seen before; and that, I think, is what so profoundly disturbs both audiences and critics about The Passion of the Christ. We are implicated in the violence. We are not just viewers of this brutality; we are the very cause of it. Gibson makes this point cinematically by having the bloody, scourged, innocent Son of God often tumble toward the camera, lurching toward the viewer, bringing his agony directly to us.
Yes, the film is violent, terribly so. Pilate has Jesus caned, followed by an appalling scourging (which the script is careful to establish went far beyond the bounds of what the procurator intended). The scourging ends only when a Roman officer scolds the soldiers for their excessive brutality. The soldiers then take Jesus indoors and fashion a crown of thorns for him, which they crush down on his head forcefully, a moment of utterly astonishing cruelty and sadism which vividly and powerfully recreates the event the Gospels recount. The soldiers then continue whipping him while he sits in the dungeon, enjoying themselves immensely.
As Jesus subsequently stands with Pilate before the people, his body is covered with ghastly welts and open wounds inflicted by the vicious beatings. Blood drips from all over him. His condition is truly horrifying to see, and upon seeing him so mistreated, we cannot but feel some small portion of his misery. And Gibson refuses to cut away from him while others debate his fate, forcing us to confront the facts before us.
Nonetheless, rather less of the film is taken up with the violence and brutality toward the Christ than many critics are suggesting. During the atrocious flogging by the Roman guards, for example, the director cuts away from Jesus to Mary, and he follows her through the courtyard and concentrates on her reactions and experiences while we hear the lashes striking home in the background. He certainly leaves the scene of the beating not a moment too soon for most audience members, but he could, after all, have stayed to show the entire thing. Yet he did not. Moreover, during the scenes of torment he cuts away several times to flashbacks that connect aspects of Christ’s suffering to moments of his life that once again draw the viewer to consider his own unrighteousness and consequent complicity in the suffering.
The same effect is created by the many shots in which Jesus is seen from the point of view of the mob. The viewer is part of that crowd, as responsible as they are. This aspect of the visualization, by the way, should be a more than sufficient response to those who have claimed that the film blames a particular group of people for the death of the Christ. It clearly establishes, in both dialogue and visuals, that we are all responsible for Christ’s suffering and death.
The treatment of Simon the Cyrene also contributes to this effect. Simon goes from initially being concerned about his own reputation, as we would be and indeed almost always are, imploring the crowd to remember that he is innocent of any crime and is being forced to carry the cross. Soon, however, he becomes the only reasonably effective protector of Jesus, demanding that the guards stop whipping their prisoner or Simon will refuse to carry the cross any farther. They assent, to get the journey over with as quickly as possible. We would like to think that we would do the same.
All of these elements interrupt the viewer’s witnessing of the violence toward Jesus, and all contribute to the film’s effect of placing the responsibility for this suffering squarely on each member of the audience.
In addition, Jesus asks God the Father more than once to forgive his tormentors. If he can endure this unimaginable suffering and still not call down fire from Heaven, can we not at least be strong enough to watch it in a movie? The notion that we are too weak even to see a recreation of what Jesus managed actually to endure, and which he underwent without enmity toward his tormentors, is in fact utterly grotesque and fundamentally insulting in the lack of fortitude it assumes of us.
Hence, one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering about certain critics’ likely motives in so “warning” potential audiences without sufficiently stressing the reason for this violence. Certainly they cannot wish to spare people the very experience of complicity in Christ’s suffering that Gibson takes such pains to establish, can they? For that is the likely effect of their warnings–that some people will avoid the film as too intense. The Passion of the Christ is forceful indeed, and that power makes the film undeniably difficult to endure, but such intensity in films is precisely what these very same critics are usually most likely to praise.
The only potentially useful argument remaining against the aesthetic of this film, then, is that the violence simply does not fit the story. I should argue quite the contrary. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is entirely effective and perfectly appropriate. I shall never read or hear the Biblical passages regarding the scourging of Jesus without recalling these images which vividly show how truly horrendous it must have been.
As Gibson’s dramatization makes clear, Pilate felt forced to make the scourging as dreadful as possible, because he wanted to spare the man’s life while still satisfying the blood lust of the enormous, unruly mob of locals within his very gates who were baying for this enigmatic prophet’s hide. This is a highly plausible interpretation of the scripture text. That the Roman soldiers who inflict the punishment go far beyond Pilate’s orders in an orgy of sadistic joy is a consequence of the madness that has been set loose in the City of Peace, and it, too, is a reasonable inference from the scriptural account.
Certainly the treatment of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ is almost unbearably brutal to watch, as it surely was in reality, but Gibson does not allow the depiction of it ever to decay to the level of mere spectacle. The joy that the Christ’s tormentors take in inflicting pain on him is not something any reasonable human being can share, and is in fact a further indictment of the viewer: if we are responsible for his torment, we are guilty of all of it, for none of it was just. Not one bit.
There are, moreover, positive moments in the film. An important one is the portrayal of Jesus astounding willingness to forgive his enemies even on the point of death and after suffering stupendous agony he did not deserve in the slightest. In addition, some of the visuals are startling in their beauty, inspired by medieval paintings redolent of great piety and faith. The overhead shot of Jesus as he expires on the cross is achingly beautiful, surely as close as mere cinema can come to being appropriate to the moment.
There are other hauntingly lovely images. After Jesus dies, a single tear from Heaven, falling to earth, creates the upheaval that rends the temple veil in two. It is a beautiful and moving moment. Gibson then cuts to the temple, which the quake has rendered a jumble. Caiaphas looks horrified, and Gibson refrains from stating whether this is because of the damage to the temple, a fear that he will suffer injury in the earthquake, or a dawning awareness that he has led in the perpetration of a truly incomparable evil. One suspects that all three are true, which makes evident the complexity (and fairness) of Gibson’s representation of Caiaphas.
Finally, Gibson shows Jesus in the tomb, sitting beside the slab on which his burial cloths rest, as the resurrected Lord then rises and walks out of sight. Here the director briefly depicts the events mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed shortly after those that compose the bulk of the film: “On the third day, he rose again from the dead.” The scene is inspiring and something of a relief, but it is quite brief.
Some critics and audience members have wondered why Gibson chose to give so little attention to this part of the story, but I think the answer should be perfectly obvious to anyone who wishes to see it. Certainly there is much more to say about the life of Christ than Gibson’s film manages to express. And we are perfectly free to watch other movies that capture these matters with appropriate reverence and artistry. I should strongly recommend that we all do so, and I rather suspect that Mel Gibson would agree. And frankly, I have found many of these films to be much more enjoyable than the one currently under discussion.
But that kind of thing is not what Mel Gibson set out to create. His film is utterly single-minded and resolute.
It is dreadful. It is difficult to watch. We do not want to see it. We should not want to see it. We cannot want to see it. And that, again, is exactly Gibson’s point. There is a reason that we do not want to see this. We do not want to accept our complicity in this horror. We do not want to accept responsibility for it. We just want to be left alone.
This film is meant to be like the spikes that are so vividly and horrifyingly driven into the Christ’s hands and feet as he is fastened to the cross. As Gibson portrays the scene, blood spurts up horrifyingly from Jesus palms, just as it surely must have done two millennia ago. The Passion of the Christ is as pointed as those spikes. It does one thing. It implicates the viewer in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago, and it does so with undeniable power.
–S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.