Sacred Cows: The Power and the Gory – “The Passion of The Christ”

Sacred Cows is a companion series to “Poor Taste”.  In these columns I will take a big, steaming dump on movies which are either critically or commercially considered successful.

Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ (2004) starring Jim Caviezel. Directed by Mel Gibson

Plot Shot: The last hours in the life of Jesus Christ are chronicled in a brutal, unflinching manner. The most controversial movie in recent memory and a controversial review ensues…

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Overview: This is definitely the hardest movie I have ever had to review but I do feel that I need to review it because many online sites have refused to do so. While I understand their apprehension to stir up a religious debate which is akin to sticking your head in a fire-ant hill I feel it is still our duty to review this movie. If you are going to call yourself a movie reviewer do your damned job.

Now before I delve into the review let me first say that religious feelings definitely play a factor in the perception of this movie. Different people of different faiths are going to see a vastly different movie. For these reasons I feel I should give you a tiny insight to my own religious leanings.  Don’t worry I am not going to preach. For the first say half of my life I was a devout Roman Catholic, I was baptized, received Communion and was Confirmed. Around the time I was 17 due to personal reasons I drifted from the Church and became something of an Agnostic  I no longer consider myself a Catholic and am not sure what I believe in. That being said, this movie received a pretty major backlash mostly due to accusations that dealt with anti-Semitism and the movie glorifying violence and/or just being a brutal gorefest. All shall be addressed within.

The Passion follows the last days on Earth of Jesus of Nazareth.  When we first meet him he is in the Garden of Gethsemane experiencing a moment of weakness, questioning God about his destiny. Soon he is betrayed by Judas Iscariot and being dragged away in chains. The old order of Jews or Pharisees want him punished for blasphemy but the Romans would not permit them to sentence the man to death. They beat Jesus and take him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who acts as the police of the city. He believes Jesus has committed no crime and should be freed but upon protest of the Jews decides to let their King Herod judge him. Herod dismisses Jesus as a lunatic and suddenly Jesus is brought back to Pilate who agrees to punish Jesus severely but decrees that he will be released upon completion of said punishment.

The Roman soldiers mercilessly beat, whip and tear at the flesh of Jesus for what seems like hours, it is truly the most disturbing thing I have ever seen on the big screen. The shocking results of the near fatal beating are not enough to quench the bloodthirsty mob which demands that Pilate crucify Jesus. Pilate while resistant is eventually forced to take such action lest his city be thrust into violence and his life be taken by Caesar for not keeping the peace. From there on the story is about the same as you have heard.

The movie is brutal, scary and sickening at points. I felt weak from watching such violence on screen, I am not sure if part of me is still somewhat of a believer but I was squeamish and felt awfully sad during the entire beating of Jesus. It is definitely the most graphic use of violence I have ever seen but you know what, it had to be this way. Jesus was tortured, beaten, nailed to a cross and all so it had to be shown if this is the subject matter. Whether it is considered a true story or a fictional account it is still a tough thing to watch a human being be tortured so viciously.  If he’s your chosen deity  it’s akin to watching a loved one suffer and die.

As for the anti-Semitism, I am not Jewish but I have Jewish family members and friends so I would like to consider myself someone who is sensitive to their opinions and views. I truly did not see a hint of anti-Semitism, the aristocratic Jews wanted Jesus dead yes, but there are also Jews who help Jesus and Jesus himself is a Jewish carpenter. The Romans come off a brutal, drunken barbarians (except Pilate and Claudia Procles). One of the more helpful and sympathetic characters is a man named Simon of Cyrene who was forced by the Romans to assist Jesus in carrying the cross. Simon was a Jew but not a follower of Jesus but his heart is changed during the journey and he confronts the Romans and forces them to stop beating Jesus.

I think that if anything is considered anti-Semitic it is the fact that the leaders of the temple seem to be bloodthirsty and call for Jesus’ death but that is the way it is in the Gospels so it is not the fault of the movie but of the source material. Also I am not saying that this movie or even The Bible itself is the truth but if it is than this is the way it happened and the Jews that condemned Jesus are not typical of all Jews, just a small sect of them that made a heinous decision. I doubt that anyone with a level head will come out of the movie calling Jews, “Christ Killers”. The only people that will watch this movie and come out wanting to do violence to Jews are people with already established beefs with Jewish people like those neo-Nazi skinhead morons.

What may help going into the movie besides mentally preparing yourself to see brutality is at least a tertiary knowledge of the last days of Christ. From what I could remember from Bible study the movie was fairly accurate. It was written in the Bible that Jesus’ death was brought upon by a meeting of the Pharisees or a high council of the Jews led by Caiaphus, the high priest. In that meeting Caiaphus said that Jesus was gaining followers and converting people and if they let him alone then all men would forsake them and the Romans would claim lordship over their lands and their people. He spoke to the others and said “It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish”. The movie follows this logic and the rest of the story unfolds pretty much as I remember it.

So was it a good movie, well I really don’t know, I think in the end I feel like I just saw a portion of a movie. The movie doesn’t focus on the love of Christ but the horrific way he died. It would have been better served if the movie spent more time establishing the character of exactly who Jesus was and why he was so dangerous to the establishment. All we see is him praying for a couple minutes, then 2 hours of him getting brutalized and a couple flashbacks of him during the Last Supper. For Catholics, Christians and other members of religious persuasions that believe in Jesus as the son of God the movie will be a powerful reminder of how he suffered for the sins of man. It is because of their feelings and their education about Jesus that they will be able to understand who Jesus was and what a travesty his death was. People from other faiths may not have an understanding of why Jesus was so important so why should they care about seeing 2 hours of bloodshed no matter how graphic it is.  If you don’t have an established character, why should anyone care about him?

Direction: The look of the film itself is beautiful, the locations look authentic and not like some studio backlot. As in “Braveheart” another Mel Gibson directed flick the brutality is very realistic and very graphic. The actors all performed well but there really wasn’t much dialogue in the movie, the centerpiece was the violence and abuse that Jesus endured. One thing I was really utterly confused about was the role of Satan in the flick, in scenes he is a werewolf-like character and in others he is holding a freaky looking baby. I am sure these were Gibson’s vision and they mean something but I don’t know what they are supposed to mean.

To DVD or not to DVD: Honestly I would not really want to see this movie again and I wouldn’t really want to see any special features based on this movie. Honestly what would a commentary be like for this movie, how about deleted scenes? It really wouldn’t be too appropriate to have documentaries on special effects and stuff of the sort. I wouldn’t buy it on DVD but I am sure it will be a hit.

Final Thoughts: This movie is about religion and unfortunately people take this a bit too far, I took a look over at IMDB.com and was surprised to see religious debates taking place on their message boards. It is really ridiculous when people will attack others for their ignorance when they are just reviewing a film based on it being just that, a film. Honestly no one, priest, Pope or person knows with 100% certainty that the events in the movie or The Bible for that matter are accurate. They may believe something, but belief and knowledge are not the same. In the Bible Jesus himself says that doubt is okay and normal. However fanatically religious people tend to overreact and think that since they believe something to be true it must have been that way.

My priest when I was a child told us that the Bible was written by man and man is prone to embellishments and mistakes and not to take the literal word as the absolute truth but it’s teachings and lessons and guidelines. It is okay for the movie to spurn a religious debate but not at the expense of human decency, we must all remember that different people are of different faiths and we must respect their beliefs.  Whatever you believe remember that someone may not agree and that is all right, your beliefs are yours and how would you like anyone telling you that you are wrong? The teachings of the Bible and Jesus even to someone who doesn’t believe should be known to be a story of love, and that is what we should do. Instead of condemning the people with different beliefs we should love and respect them, that is the lesson that Jesus left with. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, the story of him can be an uplifting one, this movie failed to uplift or tell a story that needed to be explicitly seen.

Final Score: 4 out of 10

Afterglow: A line that was considered anti-Semitic was not removed from the movie but a subtitle was not given for the line spoken with the actor’s back to the camera. The line is a direct quote from the Bible in which Pontius Pilate washes his hands and proclaims that he will be free of the blood of an innocent man and the crowd responds “Let his blood be on us, and on our children”.  Again, this has drawn ire of people, saying the line is Anti-Semetic, however it does appear in the Bible.  So while Gibson may have made broad, Anit-Semetic comments in his personal life, this is not one of his making.

The Pharisees was only one of the major sects of Jews at the time of the Messiah, the other was the Sadducees who didn’t participate in the crucifixion.

Before someone rakes me over the coals for not believing in anything let me define what I would most closely associate with Agnosticism, it is defined as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god”.  I don’t know if God exists and quite frankly I don’t care.  I feel as if I have lived my life virtuously thanks to a strong moral upbringing and some influence of Catholicism.  If my ultimate destination is Hell because I don’t believe in a magic man who loves and cares for all but sentences non-believers to an eternity of torture I’ll take my chances.  I prefer to believe that my good far outweighs my bad and that if I were to die and there is a Heaven I’d be allowed past those pearly gates.

If you want to know exactly how I feel in a lot funnier way than I could ever hope to express it, check out the following clip.

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