National Catholic Reporter
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Posted Thursday February 26, 2004 at 12:36 p.m. CST

A Movie Review

'The Passion' should be about more than pain

By Joseph Cunneen

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" got so much advance publicity that seeing it was bound to be a letdown. His policy of not inviting regular reviewers to previews until two days before it opened made me suspicious, especially since he had arranged advance showings for Christian conservatives who regard the movie as an opportunity to evangelize the unchurched. Yet I also know intelligent Catholics who managed to see it and were deeply moved, and I am sure that many more will use the film as an occasion to reflect seriously on the significance of the Passion for their own lives.

James Caviezel as Jesus suggests a genuine compassion during occasional flashbacks, but for most of the movie he is simply a bleeding punching bag, one eye shut, his flesh flayed.
This doesn't mean that it's a good movie. Don't bring children; it's far too violent. There are too many shots of cynical Jewish priests; too many Roman soldiers exult in the endless beatings of Jesus on his way to Calvary. Not that Gibson's motives for making the movie were anti-Semitic. There's no reason to doubt his sincerity (often the enemy of artistic expression); he put his own money into the production, and the inspiration for the movie most likely was a personal realization that he had not fully appreciated the immensity of Christ's sacrifice.

Ironically, the Jewish organizations that expressed their fears about the movie in advance helped build the publicity that is fueling its commercial success. They would have done far better to send every parish in the country a copy of Raymond Brown's A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, hoping preachers would draw on it during Lent. The movie's central problems derive from the director's unreconstructed pre-Vatican II Catholicism, leading him to ignore contemporary Catholic biblical critics, who could have rescued him from a naively literal understanding of scripture. They might also have helped him see the Gospels as written more than a generation after the events described, when there was already a polemic between the Jewish and Christian communities, and Christians were anxious not to provoke the Roman authorities. Sadly, Gibson simply doesn't realize how difficult it is to repeat the New Testament texts of the Passion without reviving the ancient indictment of the Jews.

The movie nevertheless has much to admire. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel imitates the paintings of Caravaggio, with combinations of shadow and light that create striking tableaus. Francesco Frigeri's sets, constructed on the Cinecittà Studios lot, convince us that we are in ancient Jerusalem. The stone cliff of Calvary, dominated by its three crosses, is a fitting conclusion to Jesus' endless journey, punctuated by many agonizing falls shown in slow motion. Actor Hristo Naumov Shopov suggests a Pilate who is deeply divided about the judgment he is asked to deliver. Afraid of both Rome and the mob, he is both cynical and deeply troubled when he asks, "What is truth?" Although many will admire John Debney's musical score, supported by a chorus, to me it only undermined Gibson's strenuous efforts at realism. James Caviezel as Jesus suggests a genuine compassion during occasional flashbacks, but for most of the movie he is simply a bleeding punching bag, one eye shut, his flesh flayed. All the technical resources employed to achieve the movie's effects, however, lack the power of Mark's single line, "They led him away and crucified him."

All the technical resources employed to achieve the movie's effects lack the power of Mark's single line, "They led him away and crucified him."
Despite Gibson's literalism, he makes some strange additions. When Mary (Maia Morgenstern), a beautifully poignant observer, is given some towels by Pilate's wife, she immediately uses them to clean off the bloodstained floor of the courtyard. A flashback from one of Jesus' falls recalls him falling as a little boy and being comforted by his mother. While the frequent use of such flashbacks is unsettling, they provide the only hints we get that Jesus preached a Gospel of love, or why people would have been drawn to this charismatic figure who predicted his later suffering. I half welcomed the dialogue in Aramaic, hoping that audiences would get accustomed to movies with subtitles, but its ultimate effect was to reduce the significance of Jesus' words, making him only a mangled body.

Oblate Fr. Ronald Rolheiser reminds us that it is a misunderstanding of Jesus' Passion to think of it as the pain of the physical sufferings he endured on his way to death. It should be understood rather as "a certain submissive helplessness he had to undergo in counter-distinction to his power and activity. The Passion of Jesus refers to the helplessness he had to endure during the last hours of his life, a helplessness extremely fruitful for him and the rest of us." This is an insight in sharp contrast to Gibson's preoccupation with the horror inflicted on Jesus' body, an emphasis in keeping with a film career that has always been steeped in violence.

A one-word review of Gibson's "Passion" might simply be "chutzpah." Carl Dreyer ("The Passion of Joan of Arc") never got the backing needed to make his film on Jesus; Robert Bresson would have considered such a project wildly inflated; and even Pier Pasolini's "The Gospel according to St. Matthew," though it captures the energy of Christ and his concern for the poor, fails to communicate a sense of the transcendent. Isn't it high time to recognize the limits of a medium like film, which by its nature is oriented to realism, and stop making Jesus films?

The only successful use of the Passion in cinema that I know is a sequence near the end of Eric Rohmer's "Perceval," after the central character, who has been presented as a well-intentioned fool, is told by a friar-confessor that his mother has died. Chrétien de Troyes ended "Perceval" by simply stating that it was Good Friday. The movie, however, shifts gears dramatically: Perceval enters a chapel where a kind of liturgy is performed while he undergoes a symbolic (but telling) reenactment of Jesus' Passion. It would seem that filmmakers do better when they merely hint at analogies to the Jesus story in the lives of their heroes and heroines, leaving us to reflect that, since the Redemption has already taken place, it is up to us to imitate Jesus by going through the Passion ourselves.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR's regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is:


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