Christianity is a fascinating religion. A religion that contradicts itself between the Old Testament fire and brimstone religion to the more prosaic turn the other cheek variety of the New Testament. The story of Christ is an essential dichotomy - a tale that deals with a man of peace and love who is tortured and killed in the most brutal manner. Many people believe that the obsession with the more, shall we say, gory aspects of the story is a Catholic Trait. However, there are plenty of aspects of the Church of England religion that have images of death and decay adorning their walls. A religion that has as its central message that death has been conquered and that peace and love is the way forward, certainly has always seemed to have an interesting obsession with death and violence.
Which I find particularly interesting considering the furore that erupted when The Passion of the Christ was first released. Criticisms about the over the top violence came from all areas of the media, both Christian and Secular. However, when it was released in the cinema I saw it out in the Middle East, where I was living at the time. Making it out there uncut, it was most interesting to compare their media's somewhat more enlightened attitude towards the film. However, it is also true that when I saw the film out there, there were at least twenty children in the screening - some as young as 5 or 6. Five years on, can the film be approached with more balance?
The answer is, judging by attitudes to the Blu-ray release, an emphatic No! It is still the violence that dominates reviews that people still talk about. And in many ways, the film has only itself to blame for that - as we will see later.
But for now, lets start at the very beginning. I am sure you don't need a summary of the plot, but for those who haven't seen it some explanation of the approach the film takes may be pertinent.
Theologically, the Passion (from the Greek verb pascho, meaning “to suffer”) refers to the last week or so of Jesus' life. It starts just before The Last Supper, and takes in the events in Gethsemane, the trial, and the eventual Crucifixion of Christ (I do apologise if that has spoilt the ending). This period has been dealt with before in cinema, most notably and movingly (in this reviewers mind at least) in Norman Jewison's excellent ”Jesus Christ Superstar!”. However, despite naming his film after this central period in the Gospels, Gibson does not tell the complete story in chronological order. Instead, he concentrates on only the last 24 hours of Jesus' life - from the Garden of Gethsemane onwards. There are very brief flashbacks of earlier events like The Last Supper, but these are notably sparse. This has the effect of rather marginalising the apostles and concentrating more on Jesus and his suffering.
And boy does this Jesus suffer! When he is scourged, you can feel and see every mark, the blood welling to the surface of the skin. Metal hooks pierce and tear flesh, leaving a body that is barely recognisable. Throughout all of this, Gibson's Jesus seems almost to invite the suffering - at one stage the beating stops and then he struggles to his feet, encouraging his tormentors to continue. The crucifixion too is unflinching in its portrayal - the hand clenching as the nail enters, blood welling realistically around the point. This is certainly brutal stuff, and arguably some of the most violent scenes committed to celluloid (although later Gibson went even further in Apocalypto). I have nothing against the portrayal of violence in a film about the passion. After all, we are talking about a brutal death - but the problem is that at times this seems to be the only focus that Gibson has. The very fact that he chooses to concentrate on the last 24 hours of Jesus' life means that the violence becomes the ONLY focus of the film. Yes, The Last Supper is referenced, as is the washing of the feet - but these are brief scenes, equalled in length with various flashbacks of Jesus as a family man. This means that the sacrifice is portrayed intensely, but we get very little sense of the man behind the blood - who Jesus was and what he was trying to achieve. Even scenes where internal conflict is key (such as Judas' suicide) are externalised with violent disturbing images of devil children and rotten animal carcasses. It is almost as if whenever the opportunity is presented to reach the emotional core of the passion, the devastation experienced by all participants, Gibson draws back and concentrates on ugly, disturbing, gory images.
Considering the material presented, Jim Caviezel does a heroic job in his portrayal of Christ. As a devout Roman Catholic himself, Caviezel had a deep belief in the role and really threw himself into it. The suffering that he went through as an actor, although in no way comparable with the suffering of Christ, was still pretty intense. He certainly suffers, but as a portrayal of Christ I have to say that the performance is somewhat lacking. This is not entirely his fault. He is never given the chance to portray the role in happier times in Jesus' life. Thus the potential of seeing such a committed actor essaying the role is somewhat destroyed by the script and the film's focus.
The supporting characters, though, are generally excellent. Pilate is a key figure in this story, and he is perhaps the most well rounded character in Gibson's interpretation. The conflict he reluctantly finds himself in the middle of is extremely well realised and his internal struggle as he attempts to free Christ from his fate is extremely well portrayed. Other characters, however, are rather marginalised in favour of the treatment Christ receives. Judas' story, in particular, is treated perfunctorily - with Gibson seemingly uninterested in the conflict of the character and the regret he feels.
The film, then, can only be qualified as a success. Both in terms of the portrayal of the last 24 hours of Jesus' life, and also in terms of money made. Many people felt that a violent study of Christ's death, entirely in ancient Aramaic, could never be a success - but Gibson proved them wrong. However, for this reviewer my reaction to the film is somewhat difficult to quantify. I find the aim of the film is rather muddled. The focus of the film, to me, is far too much on the violence and not enough on the central message. The film does not move me, or make me think about my own, personal, conflicted religious beliefs. I can recognise how superbly the film is directed, edited, and produced - but it just leaves me cold. There are other religious movies that I will break out around Christmas or Easter and watch for personal reasons. But The Passion of the Christ will never be one of these. To me, however well made the film is, it has the central focus point all wrong. We know Jesus suffered, and I do not object to seeing it - but this story of suffering needs contextualising. And unfortunately, this film (to my mind at least) does not do this.
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