Pocket Review, Title The Passion Of The Christ, Studio 20th Century Fox, Rating 1.5,
The Passion of the Christ is a violent, unrelenting cascade of gore and violence against one man, Jesus Christ, and is one of the most offensive films I have personally seen. Many films have depicted Christ, but none in memory steeped his last few days on earth in gratuitous and pornographic violence while de-emphasizing the purpose of the suffering.
That this filmmaker is capable of gratuitous violence should be no surprise; his long list of violent films include the three Road Warrior films, five Lethal Weapon films, Braveheart, Payback, Ransom, among others. The surprise is the the depths of unneccessary violence that he has sunk to in this film, particularly given the subject matter, and the self-professed importance of the subject matter to him.
What makes it particularly offensive is that the story of Jesus is an account of God reaching out to man out of love and compassion, and that story is obscured in this film by the sadistic focus on the final suffering and death of Jesus, without providing any serious context for that suffering. The basic references in this film to the Christian credo, that God sent His Son to earth to die for man’s sins and thereby allow human beings into heaven with Him, are either lacking or obscured via hazy flashbacks only recognizable by those who already know the story. The high level of violence in this film seems not only beside the point, but is quite often extra-Biblical and thereby particularly gratuitous, especially in three of the most violent scenes of the movie.
First, early in the film, just after Jesus has been arrested and is being taken to the residence of the high priest, the film depicts Jesus, bound in chains, being repeatedly struck or beaten or treated roughly. This long and very graphic scene includes Jesus being beaten about the head and body, struck with chains, shoved off a 10 foot drop-off, hauled back up the drop-off using the chains he is bound in, and so on. None of this is in the Gospels, all four of which merely note that, upon arrest Jesus was taken to the residence of the high priest (Matt 26:57, Mark 14:53, Luke 22:54, John 18:13).
The second example is the most graphically violent scene of the movie, the flogging of Jesus by Roman soldiers, and is based on a single verse repeated almost verbatim by 3 of the 4 Gospels, which says that Pilate ‘ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip’ (New Living Translation Bible. Matt 27:26, Mark 15:15, John 19:1. Luke has Pilate suggest a flogging, but makes no mention of him carrying one out). In this scene of the film, Jesus is first flogged about thirty five times with a wooden rod (I did not count, but listened to the Roman supervisor count out the beating in Latin; his voice could be heard most of the time: ‘trigenta duo’ or 32, for example.) After this, the Roman soldiers were so amazed that Jesus wasn’t completely incapacitated, that they started beating him with the lead-tipped whip, the weapon described in the Gospels. After around thirty five of these whippings, after which Jesus had very little flesh left unscarred or bloodied, the Roman officer who ordered the beatings stopped them because he feared they might kill him prematurely, and he was angry that they had exceeded his orders. This interminable scene was exaggerated merely for the sake of gore; the assumption that the soldiers would exceed their orders and beat Jesus to within an inch of his life was the invention of the filmmaker.
The third scene is that of the Via Dolorosa, when Jesus is carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. All of the violence, mockery and gore in this extended scene is not described in the Gospels (it is Catholic tradition), save the mocking offering of bitter wine to Jesus by a Roman soldier. The Gospels are quite brief on this part of the Passion; three of them describe Simon of Cyrene’s carrying the cross for Jesus with no embellishment, and Luke describes great crowds following Jesus, without describing their behavior, and mentions grief-stricken women, whom Jesus addresses.
Could this film be considered an evangelical tool, as the mass buying of tickets to this film by many Christian churches suggest? It seems unlikely that anyone besides the already converted would be able to find the message of Jesus as the gentle, forgiving mediator between God and man in this extraordinarily and unneccessarily gory film.
The fact that Christ suffered the way he did is not the most remarkable part of His story; it is the idea that He is the Son of God who became a man and died to take on the sins of the world that is the heart of the Christian message. There are many millions of human beings who have suffered more physically than Jesus was described to have in the three days between his arrest and his death. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago details some of the various ways that Stalin’s terror machine worked to systematically torture and kill millions, many of whom were beaten, tortured, starved, overworked in severely cold climates, etc. for days, months and sometimes years. The concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany killed 11 million Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, priests and preachers, among others, and in the German satellite slave labor camps many millions more suffered and died, often very painfully and slowly, not quickly in the gas chambers. There are many more examples from other historical times and places. Jesus’s physical suffering as a man was not monumental in and of itself, but was symbolic of the much greater spiritual burden he took on for man’s redemption, and to miss that part of the story is to miss the entire point.
Much has already been said about whether or not this film is anti-Semitic; I did not find it overtly so. Filmgoers will not find themselves being exhorted to go out and attack Jewish ideas, institutions, or people; the film focuses primarily on the suffering of Jesus, both at the hands of the Romans and his fellow Jews. Certainly, though, those who are already inclined to anti-Semitism will find fresh blood here. The film makes no effort to bring out points that would help lower the temperature for those who reflexively and often lethally blame the Jews for Christ’s death. Jesus says in the Gospels that this is God’s will, and that the Jewish leadership was not to blame; he also said they were inspired to say the things they said, precisely in order to fulfill prophecy. Some of these words of Jesus occur during the Passion, but are not included in the film. Also, Roman soldiers were involved in the arrest of Jesus, according to John, but the film depicts only Temple guards and other Jews.
I suspect there are thoughtful Christians out there who view this film as a disappointment, as something that obscured in obsessive gore what they refer reverently to as the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Note: This review was written on March 14, 2004, shortly after the film was released.