Reappraising The Passion Of The Christ

Reappraisals is an opportunity to reevaluate a subject given added time and perspective. Have shifting personal and societal perspectives also altered the way certain works should be perceived? Has it allowed us clarity on an aspect that may have been looked past at first glance? 

As another Easter holiday approaches, film watchers will have plenty of titles to choose from to fulfill their ‘seasonal needs’. But beyond images of bunnies and chocolates, Easter is of course rooted in the Christian faith and the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Into this niche genre, there have been many films but only one has been able to truly grip us (for better or for worse) all while generating much-heated discussion: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Undoubtedly one of the most controversial and violently graphic films made this century, The Passion of The Christ has rightfully earned its accolades and criticisms. Unlike many movie adaptations of the Gospel, director Mel Gibson chose to focus exclusively on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus including his tortuous crucifixion. In a further deviation from the ‘standard Bible flick,’ it is not so much the teachings of Christ that are spotlighted but rather the titular passion: his death.

Depicted in gruesome, explicit and just plain graphic detail the torture and crucifixion are horrendously recreated. The violence in this film is obscene to the point where some viewers had to leave theatres due to nausea. For this reason, The Passion has been derided by many as relying too much on brutality and obscuring whatever message it was going for. But we must ask then, what exactly is the message this film is going for? As critic Roger Ebert wrote:

“What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of. That his film is superficial in terms of the surrounding message — that we get only a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus — is, I suppose, not the point. This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it.”

There are plenty of films to watch or texts to read to gain an understanding of Christian doctrine, and The Passion of The Christ is not one of them. Instead, the focus on this barbaric form of Roman execution brings with it another level of humanity to the Christ figure. Whether one believes or not the site of this man being agonizingly murdered becomes quite a moving experience, even if the graphic detail becomes quite excessive. Yet this was exactly what a crucifixion was: excessive.

In choosing to present as accurately as possible this method of death, Christian followers and others may begin to understand the immense love the Bible says Jesus had for humanity. But even for the nonfollowers just looking at this man’s abhorrent demise in this bloodfest may or may not lead to a feeling of great emotional catharsis.

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Despite these justifiable critiques of its violence and other common allegations of anti-Semitism, The Passion of The Christ is a commendable work of film, deserving of a respect for its audacity and points of originality. Spoken in the languages of Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic the attempts at historical authenticity (including the crucifixion) again set it apart from other Bible movies.

There are not images of an idealized and clean cut Jesus and his disciples, but a dirty, poor and gruff people. Judas and Pontius Pilate do not break out into song a la Andrew Lloyd Webber or have lavish costumes like in the epic films of the 1950s, no they are shown in a harsh but important reality.

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Ultimately The Passion of The Christ is an unquestionably controversial film. Objections at its hideous depiction of violence or its ‘unconventional’ narrative retelling of Jesus are all valid arguments, yet through all of this it has done what any noteworthy film should do and that is generate discussion. Mel Gibson may have gone overboard for some yet he also created a recreation of this central Christian event in a manner never seen before or since. One may not like this film or be able to withstand its imagery, yet it seems unfair to say that this film hasn’t earned our respect.

Mel Gibson may have gone overboard for some yet he also created a recreation of this central Christian event in a manner never seen before or since. One may not like this film or be able to withstand its imagery, yet it seems unfair to say that this film hasn’t earned our respect.

It is emotionally moving (positively or negatively depending on who you ask), it is outrageously audacious and quite unlike anything ever produced in religious cinema. Like other controversial films, The Passion of The Christ offers its viewers a lesson that only each individual can attempt to understand; this isn’t a movie for mass appeal or escapism but an engaging work that challenges us in many ways. Those against it are right in their concerns, but for those able to stomach the violence and other elements outside of the idealized portrayal of Jesus, this film will indeed serve as a powerful experience.

But in the end liking or disliking it becomes irrelevant for as a movie outing it deserves its due appreciation or at the very least a reappraisal; does it inspire? Possibly. Does it revolt? Possibly. Does it leave an impression? Definitely. An important work of film The Passion of the Christ should be viewed at least once and then interpreted individually, and whether one lies in the camp of for or against one thing that remains constant is Gibson’s ability to create a movie that is a truly unforgettable filmmaking accomplishment.


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