movie The Passion of the Christ has opened a dialogue not only on the Passion,
but how we talk about it. Several years before he died, the eminent New Testament
scholar Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S., wrote a brief Catholic Update article,
called "The Death of Jesus and Anti-Semitism." Brown
was author of the landmark 2-volume commentary, The Death of the Messiah (Doubleday
1994). Another prominent theologian, Jesuit Daniel Harrington, wrote a Scripture
From Scratch in 1999 called "Who
Killed Jesus?" Both articles
are linked above. Finally, Catholic News Service has provided ongoing coverage.
A review from that service follows.
Review: The Passion of the Christ
Pare, David DiCerto and Anne Navarro
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- "The Passion of the Christ"
(Newmarket) is an uncompromising, interpretive dramatization
of the final 12 hours of Jesus' earthly life. Unflinching
in its brutality and penetrating in its iconography of God's
supreme love for humanity, the film will mean different
things to people of diverse backgrounds. Co-writer, producer
and director Mel Gibson has undoubtedly created one of the
most anticipated and controversial films of recent times.
Like other films on Christ's life, "The Passion"
does not simply translate a single Gospel narrative onto
the screen. Rather it is a composite of the Passion narratives
in the four Gospels embroidered with nonscriptural traditions
as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker.
The result is a deeply personal work of devotional art --
a moving Stations of the Cross, so to speak.
However, by choosing to narrow his focus almost exclusively
to the passion of Christ, Gibson has, perhaps, muted Christ's
teachings, making it difficult for viewers unfamiliar with
the New Testament and the era's historical milieu to contextualize
the circumstances leading up to Jesus' arrest. And though,
for Christians, the Passion is the central event in the
history of salvation, the "how" of Christ's death
is lingered on at the expense of the "why?"
The film employs a visceral, undiluted realism in its retelling
of the Passion, eschewing Sunday school delicacy in favor
of in-your-face rawness that is much too intense for children.
That notwithstanding, the movie is an artistic achievement
in terms of its textured cinematography, haunting atmospherics,
lyrical editing, detailed production design and soulful
score. It loses nothing by using the languages of the time,
Aramaic and Latin, as the actors' expressions transcend
words, saying as much if not more than the English subtitles.
The film opens with a distraught Jesus (Jim Caviezel) facing
down evil, personified as an androgynous being (played by
Rosalinda Celentano), in the mist shrouded garden of Gethsemane
and progresses to his death on the cross, followed by a
fleeting, but poetically economic, resurrection coda. Flashbacks
of his public ministry and home life in Nazareth with his
mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern), pepper the action, filling
in some of the narrative blanks.
Each flashback in the film is a welcome respite from the
near-incessant bloodletting, but more importantly for how
it conveys Jesus' core message of God's boundless love for
humanity, a love that does not spare his son death on the
cross so that we might have eternal life. More of these
flashbacks would have been helpful in fleshing out the life
and teachings of Jesus.
Concerning the issue of anti-Semitism, the Jewish people
are at no time blamed collectively for Jesus' death; rather,
Christ himself freely embraces his destiny, stating clearly
"No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down
of myself" (John 10:18). By extension, Gibson's film
suggests that all humanity shares culpability for the crucifixion,
a theological stance established by the movie's opening
quotation from the prophet Isaiah which explains that Christ
was "crushed for our transgressions."
Catholics viewing the film should recall the teachings of
the Second Vatican Council's decree, "Nostra Aetate,"
which affirms that, "though Jewish authorities and
those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ,
neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews
today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his
Overall, the film presents Jews in much the same way as
any other group -- a mix of vice and virtue, good and bad.
Yet while the larger Jewish community is shown to hold diverse
opinions concerning Christ's fate -- exemplified by the
cacophony of taunts and tears along the Via Dolorosa --
it fails to reflect the wider political nuances of first-century
Judea. The scene of the stock frenzied mob uniformly calling
for Christ's crucifixion in Pilate's courtyard is problematic,
though once Christ begins his laborious way of the cross
Jewish individuals emerge from the crowd to extend kindness
-- including Veronica wiping his face and Simon of Cyrene
helping carry the cross, as a chorus of weeping women lament
from the sidelines.
the most visually distinctive representatives of Jewish
authority -- the high priest Caiphas (Matia Sbragia) and
those in the Sanhedrin aligned with him -- do come across
as almost monolithically malevolent. Caiphas is portrayed
as adamant and unmerciful and his influence on Pilate is
exaggerated. Conversely, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov)
is almost gentle with Jesus, even offering his prisoner
a drink. This overly sympathetic portrayal of the procurator
as a vacillating, conflicted and world-weary backwater bureaucrat,
averse to unnecessary roughness and easily coerced by both
his Jewish subjects and his conscience-burdened wife, does
not mesh with the Pilate of history remembered by the ancient
historians as a ruthless and inflexible brute responsible
for ordering the execution of hundreds of Jewish rabble-rousers
while the members of the Sanhedrin are painted in villainous
shades, the film is abundantly clear that it is the Romans
who are Christ's executioners (a fact corroborated by both
the Nicene Creed and the writings of Tacitus and Josephus).
The Roman soldiers are unimaginably -- even gleefully--
sadistic in flaying Jesus to within an inch of his life.
"The Passion" is exceedingly graphic in its portrayal
of the barbarities of Roman justice. According to Gibson,
much of the visual grisliness of Christ's suffering sprung
from his own personal meditations on the passion. As depicted,
the violence, while explicit and extreme, does not seem
an end in itself. It is not the kind of violence made to
look exciting, glamorized or without consequences. It attempts
to convey the depths of salvific divine love. Nonetheless,
viewers' justifiable reaction is to be repelled by such
unremitting inhumanity. In the end, such savagery may be
self-defeating in trying to capture the imagination of the
In contrast to Jesus' physical agony is the emotional desolation
seen in the figure of the Virgin Mary. When Mary utters,
"When, how, where, will you choose to be delivered
from this?" the viewer is pierced by the depth of Mary's
understanding of Christ's divinity and her sublime acceptance
of seeing her son suffer. It tears at one's heart to see
Mary struggling to get close to Jesus as he walks through
the winding, narrow streets carrying the cross. Seeing him
suddenly fall, she is transported, along with the viewers,
to Christ's childhood, to a time when she was able to scoop
him up when he stumbled. When she finally reaches Jesus,
and he is on the ground, crushed by the weight of the cross,
it is he who comforts her with his words, "See, mother,
I make all things new." Morgenstern's portrayal of
Mary is beautifully rendered, never more so than in the
Pieta-like tableau when Christ's body is laid in her arms.
The juxtaposition of the wounded and bleeding body of Christ
on the cross with scenes of the Last Supper compellingly
underscores how the Eucharist is truly the body and blood
of Christ. Other indelible images include a derided Jesus
faltering under the weight of the cross intercut with his
earlier triumphant entry into Jerusalem and a single raindrop
-- a tear from heaven -- heralding Christ's death. The power
of the cross is also keenly conveyed. Jesus does not recoil
from either the horrific scourging at the hands of the Roman
soldiers or from carrying the burdensome cross. Instead,
he declares his "heart is ready" and embraces
the cross as if comforting a fallen sinner. These are truly
moving and emotional points in the film.
Cinematically, there are flaws as well as triumphs in Gibson's
film, such as a recurring tendency to slip into the horror-genre
conventions, including a scene of a guilt-wracked Judas
being taunted by little boys whose faces turn into those
of grotesque, macabre ghouls. And close-ups of Christ's
scarred and mutilated body are truly horrible.
For those coming to the film without a faith perspective
it may have little resonance. But for Christians, "The
Passion of the Christ" is likely to arouse not only
passionate opinions, but hopefully a deeper understanding
of the drama of salvation and the magnitude of God's love
and forgiveness. It is not about what men did to God, but
what God endured for humanity.
Because of gory scenes of scourging, torture and crucifixion,
a suicide and some frightening images, the USCCB Office
for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults.
The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R --