Review: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Agnus Dei, by Francisco de Zurbarán.

It is difficult to write about The Passion of the Christ (2004), a film which has evoked so much controversy. Reviews have been, and still are, mixed, often coloured by ideological sympathies. My review too is slanted according to my convictions.

The film focuses on the last twelve hours Christ lived, from His Betrayal to His Crucifixion, as interpreted by Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson is a director tormented by alcohol abuse and marital issues, which weighs heavily on his stance as a traditionalist Roman Catholic. Combined with his other eccentric behaviours and allegations of racism, Gibson has become an outcast in the world of mainstream filmmaking.

As a director, Gibson has shown little concern for historical accuracy and authentic portrayal of other cultures. Braveheart turned the story of William Wallace into a farce, and scrubbed away all the nuances of the Scottish struggles to create a simple-minded action flick. Gibson kept the adrenaline pumping in Apocalypto (2006), but missed an opportunity to give the viewer a true glimpse of the pre-Columbian cultures, and instead only succeeded in ending his career as a director for a decade.

The Passion of the Christ was strongly criticized for its extreme violence, and for alleged racism, both in the negative portrayals of the Jewish priestly elite and the casting choices. A “Catholic-Jewish scholarly group convened by the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Department of Inter-religious Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League” condemned a leaked script of the film for its adherence to the story of Jewish Deicide — as it commonly called.

Still, this Deicide narrative, the excessive violence, the western actors portraying those who are Good and the foreign actors portraying those who are Evil, it all does clearly point to what the movie manages to accomplish. There was no honest attempt to recreate the Jerusalem of the first century. Instead of Greek, which was the lingua franca of that part of the Roman Empire, the movie opts for the Italianate tones of Ecclesiastical Latin. Gibson acknowledges his debt to Anne Catherine Emmerich, a stigmatist who wrote down her ecstatic visions of the life of Christ. The Passion of the Christ is not an adaptation of the Gospel, but of the post-Biblical Passion narratives. It is a Passion Play transported to cinema.

The violence of The Passion of the Christ is grounded in the detailed realism of late medieval art and the devotions that grew from it, such as the Five Holy Wounds. It is Latin Catholicism at its most carnal. Gibson shocks, he pushes further and further, hitting raw nerves. It is a bleak contemplation of the Via Dolorosa. The aforementioned use of Ecclesiastical Latin drenches the film in the Romanitas in which Gibson was raised. It is, however, not the sum of Christianity. Easter is absent, safe for a vague hint of resurrection. It is Good Friday, and Sunday is still two days away.

As an adaptation of Passion Plays, The Passion of the Christ succeeds. And that is why it remains a part of my personal film collection, while Braveheart and Apocalypto are excluded with disgust.