Brutal, violent and horrific, this is climactic cinema but not a faithful retelling of the gospel. The title, opening scene in Gethsemane, and closing image — hand with gaping nail hole — each betray the fascinated fixation of Mel Gibson’s deeply passionate and highly profitable film, The Passion of the Christ.
The Stations of the Cross are not the whole story of Jesus Christ.
It is the passion of Christ — the brutal suffering — that holds focus, not the life and ministry, not the resurrection, not the mission or the disciples or the church. The movie portrays but one element of the gospel, styled for generations who’ve grown up on Buffy and CSI. This is loose biblical storytelling of the crucifixion for horror movie buffs.
Horror artefacts abound, from full-moon to demonically morphing children’s faces to personified evil and gut-churningly explicit violence.
More qualified reviewers than I have written much, Fr Richard Leonard being one of the best of these (see www.catholic.org.au/filmreviews). But, even to a lay person who viewed the movie quickly, inaccuracies are too prevalent, perpetuating various myths and distorting Christian theology. Nails driven through the palms are anatomically problematic and so likely historically incorrect. Mary Magdalene as the woman caught in adultery perpetuates a common but unfortunate misconnection.
A distinctly female figure for personified evil, replete with serpent in the garden, and counterpoint to Mary the Mother along the way to the cross, continues the link between fall and female. The polarisation of female caricatures — virgin Mary, whore Magdalene, evil tempter/reaper, sensitive wife of Pilate — and the dearth of diversity raise issues of sexism. This is a bigger issue to my mind than any anti-Semitism in the movie.
The Passion is a visually stunning movie, not just from the dripping violence but also the rich cinematography. Gibson plays with various popular contemporary genres, with parallels to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, video clips from Rage, and Gibson’s own Braveheart and Payback. There are loving touches that move the heart, visceral moments of fear and agony, mood-filled scenes and great camera angles.
But the primary problem for Christians is the almost-exclusive focus on Christ’s agony and suffering. Other aspects of the gospel are only seen in flashback, as if they only have meaning in the context of the cross, and not the other way around. Preaching the beatitudes, healing, compassion, foot-washing, palm-strewn entry, last supper — each of these is shaped by Christ’s suffering in the movie. But each of these also shapes the crucifixion in Christian theology, adding layers of meaning. It is this dialogue between the whole life and death of Jesus that is missing; the gospel is the whole story of Jesus Christ. The Passion of the Christ is not accurate to any of the gospels, with biblical material embellished with an action-director’s eye and license
The notoriously disturbing scourging scene lasts more than ten minutes, with escalating violence and explicit images of flayed skin and unspeakable agony. This is not to down-play the agony, but focusing nearly ten per cent of the movie on what is at most four words in most gospel translations indicates the focus and fixation, and hence distortion.
Watch this movie, read The Da Vinci Code, but return again to our scriptures and traditions to test what you hear and see.
I told my wife — sensitive and prone to nightmares — there’s no need to see the movie out of any sense of devotion to our faith. Gibson’s personal faith aside, this is brutal cinema not faith-full personal or corporate devotion.
Rohan Pryor enjoys fine cinema through the Croydon Film Society (https://croydonfilms.org.au), and studied Theology and the Cinema under Fr Richard Leonard SJ through the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.