The Passion of the Christ: First Impressions

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The Passion of the Christ (DVD & Blu-ray)

Written for the National Catholic Register

By Steven D. Greydanus

As I contemplate Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the sequence I keep coming back to, again and again, is the scourging at the pillar.

One reason, certainly, is that it is the most horrifying sequence in the film, more agonizing even than the crucifixion itself, or the carrying of the cross. But there are other reasons as well.

The sequence is also an outstanding example of Gibson’s original vision of telling the story in the languages of the day, without subtitles. As the Roman centurions flog Jesus, their brutal, laughing mockery and derisive taunts go on for long minutes — and the Latin is left untranslated. We don’t know what they’re saying, and we don’t need to know. Subtitles would be an unnecessary distraction.

At other points throughout the film, Gibson ultimately found it necessary to use subtitles; still, some of the most effective scenes remain the ones for which he was able to avoid them. As necessary as they may be in some scenes, especially on a first viewing, when the film becomes available on DVD everyone who buys it should watch it at least once with the subtitles turned off.

That the story was filmed in Latin and Aramaic at all is worthy of note. Put aside linguistic quibbles about what first-century Latin actually sounded like, or whether Jews and Romans wouldn’t have used Greek rather than Latin to converse with one another. The larger point is that, for the first time since the silent era, a cinematic Jesus is unencumbered by British-accented (or worse, American-accented) English, or by a European romance language, etc.

The scourging at the pillar also stands out for the way it cuts through the smoke of confusion and misinformation coming from both sides of the controversy surrounding the film. Watching this scene, two things become transparently clear.

First, notwithstanding at-times exaggerated claims of historical accuracy and fidelity to the gospels from some of the film’s defenders, The Passion of the Christ is not an attempt to depict the sufferings of Christ exactly as described in the New Testament. Rather, while following the basic outline of the passion narratives, the film is an imaginative, at times poetic reflection on the meaning of the gospel story in light of sacred tradition and Catholic theology.

Consider the following incident: As Jesus is being flogged, Claudia, the wife of Pilate, approaches the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene bearing folded linens, which she gives to them. After Jesus is taken away, the two Marys go down on the flagstones and begin mopping up the blood of Jesus which has been spilled around the pillar.

This incident, found nowhere in the gospels; comes from the visionary writings of Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, the 19th-century stigmatic and mystic whose Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ significantly influenced the screenplay for The Passion of the Christ. The scenario is strikingly evocative of Catholic piety regarding Jesus’ precious blood, but doesn’t reflect a historiographical concern with sticking to the gospel accounts.

Not all of the film’s glosses on the gospel accounts come from Emmerich. The scourging at the pillar is also the occasion of one of Gibson’s own most singular, unnerving imaginative flourishes. A satanic figure haunts the film, watchful and inscrutable. We first see it in the garden of Gethsemane, where its attempts to dissuade Jesus from his mission are a nihilistic litany of negation: "No man can bear this burden… No one. Ever. No. Never."

At certain points this androgynous figure is depicted in opposition to the Virgin Mary — but never more arrestingly so than before the pillar, where there is a kind of anti-Marian vision that I will not describe, except to say that it is so bizarre and grotesque, yet ultimately meaningless, that it seems to come straight from hell.

The other thing the scourging scene makes clear is the hollowness of activist complaints about the film’s supposed antisemitism. The depiction of the Jewish mob may be unflattering, but it pales to insignificance beside the unmitigated barbarism of the Roman brute squad. We also see the high priest Caiaphas watching the scourging — not sadistically reveling in the spectacle of Jesus’ sufferings, but clearly troubled, finding it painful to watch.

Significantly, this humanizing touch in Caiaphas’s characterization comes neither from the gospels, nor from sources such as Sr. Emmerich, but is original to the film. In fact, Sr. Emmerich’s account includes a strikingly different account of the Jewish onlookers during the scourging: She depicts Jewish leaders paying the Roman soldiers and plying them with drink to induce them to even more brutality. Gibson’s film not only omits this unsavory flourish, but goes in the opposite direction, giving a humanizing detail not found in the gospels.

For all this, though, the single most overwhelming aspect of the scourging at the pillar remains its sheer savagery. No previous Jesus film has ever approached this level of brutal violence — in part because no previous film has ever focused so closely on the passion particularly.

Certainly, Jesus’ passion and death was horrific and violent; and there is a long tradition, especially in the West, of devout meditation on the specifics of Jesus’ sufferings (the sorrowful mysteries, the stations of the cross, etc.).

Yet when the film shows the soldiers stretching Jesus prone to nail him to the cross, then flipping the cross over to crush him under it before raising it upright, some viewers, especially those less used to cinematic violence, may wonder whether this goes too far. (Actually, following the source from which he borrowed the scene, Gibson depicts the flipped cross miraculously hovering several inches above the ground so as not to crush Jesus to the earth.)

Some, indeed, may not wish to see the film at all — and may even feel guilty for feeling that way, as if having reservations about this film were somehow unchristian. That would be a mistake. Movies, like everything human, are a matter of Christian liberty; no one is obligated to see, or like, any film in the world. The Passion of the Christ is an artistic expression of the faith, not the faith itself.

Yet it is also a preeminently important cinematic expression of the faith — probably one of the most important religious films of all time. It tells only a part of the gospel story, as the passion narratives themselves are only a part of the gospels; but that part is the very crux: that Christ died for us.

Tags: Bible Films, Life of Christ & Jesus Movies

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I read a review you wrote in the National Catholic Register about Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. I thoroughly enjoy reading the Register and from time to time I will brouse through your movie reviews to see what you have to say about the content of recent films, opinions I usually not only agree with but trust.

However, your recent review of Apocalypto was way off the mark. First of all the gore of Mel Gibson’s films are only to make them more realistic, and if you think that is too much, then you don’t belong watching a movie that can actually acurately show the suffering that people go through. The violence of the ancient Mayans can make your stomach turn just reading about it, and all Gibson wanted to do was accurately portray it. It would do you good to read up more about the ancient Mayans and you would discover that his film may not have even done justice itself to the kind of suffering ancient tribes went through at the hands of their hostile enemies.

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Mail: Re: Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ

In your assessment of Apocalypto you made these statements:

Even in The Passion of the Christ, although enthusiastic commentators have suggested that the real brutality of Jesus’ passion exceeded that of the film, that Gibson actually toned down the violence in his depiction, realistically this is very likely an inversion of the truth. Certainly Jesus’ redemptive suffering exceeded what any film could depict, but in terms of actual physical violence the real scourging at the pillar could hardly have been as extreme as the film version.

I am taking issue with the above comments for the following reasons. Gibson clearly states that his depiction of Christ’s suffering is based on the approved visions of Mother Mary of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich. Having read substantial excerpts from the works of these mystics I would agree with his premise. They had very detailed images presented to them by God in order to give to humanity a clear picture of the physical and spiritual events in the life of Jesus Christ.

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Mail: Re: The Passion of the Christ: First Impressions

In your article “The Passion of the Christ: First Impressions,” you call the film “a preeminently important cinematic expression of the faith — probably one of the most important religious films of all time.” Yet the movie is not rated in your website. It seems a glaring omission. I believe it should be included and rated as an A+ movie, spiritual value +4 and entertainment value 4 stars.

I wrote three different articles on The Passion of the Christ from different perspectives. At that point, an additional “review” seemed superfluous.

Ratings can be useful, but in the end appreciation isn’t about numbers (letter grades, stars, etc.). C. S. Lewis didn’t need a rating to write about the greatness of The Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.

Furthermore, in the case of a controversial film like The Passion of the Christ ratings can actually obscure what the critic has to say. Readers glance at the rating to get the “bottom line,” and then praise or censure the critic for his conclusions without really engaging how he articulates and defends those conclusions.

Sometimes, I would rather oblige readers to do the hard work of actually looking at what I have to say, rather than just agreeing or disagreeing with a number. (Cf. also my pieces on The Last Temptation of Christ, The Magdalene Sisters and Luther all written as articles and published without ratings.)

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