“There is nothing less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only be selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

The words “excruciating” and “crucifixion” are related. It’s easy to see why when you read the reviews of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Violence is not a new subject for this actor-turned-storyteller, and here he zooms in on a singular theme: how Christ persevered, in love, restraint, and forgiveness, through the unimaginably harsh physical torment of his last twelve hours.

Having access to the film at last, critics find themselves divided. Some applaud the portrayal of Jesus’ final hours while others are throwing rotten tomatoes.

Nevertheless, these critics agree that watching it is indeed an excruciating experience. For many, seeing Jesus’ physical misery vividly, graphically and relentlessly illustrated only serves to heighten their appreciation of Christ’s love for humankind. For others, Gibson’s hyper-realistic violence is gratuitous, an act of cruelty carried out upon the audience by an agenda-driven, heavy-handed, insensitive director.

I first shared news about the film in my Film Forum column in August of 2002. I’ve reported on the growing controversies, attacks, and defensive maneuvers almost weekly for more than two years. It is a great relief to finally have the work to discuss, and to be done with rumor and speculation.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I find myself with a foot in each of the two critics’ camps. The Passion of the Christ succeeds in that it does just what Mel Gibson set out to do: it focuses us on Christ’s willing, determined march through the destruction of his body. He reminds us that this man never quit loving us, never quit forgiving his enemies, even as they tore him to shreds.

But the question must be asked: Is it appropriate and wise to bring this narrowly focused work into a multiplex, where moviegoers do not know the rest of the story? Is it fair to exhibit this bloody exhibition when viewers do not necessarily know what the hovering dove symbolizes, who Judas was before he came to Gethsemane to betray Jesus, who any of these disciples are, or how Jesus’ teachings differed from the teachings of the Sanhedrin?

I believe that this is an ambitious film, even a great film — but a flawed film as well.

The Passion of the Christ is not the Fifth Gospel — even though many of its passionate defenders will treat criticism as blasphemy. No, it is work of art with strengths and weaknesses, for it is made by a human being who has strengths and weaknesses. There is no sacrilege in pointing out the work’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, those Christian film critics raising some questions about the artistry are already being challenged and asked if their priorities are out of line. They should not flinch. If God cares about excellence, would he not want people to pursue excellence in how they tell his story?

This movie review is not an attack on the Gospel, nor is it even a condemnation of this film. I am glad the movie was made. I hope that moviegoers will choose wisely about whether or not to attend. Those who do… well, I hope they make time to contemplate what they’ve seen, and discuss its strengths and weaknesses with others.

Are you with me? If so, let’s proceed.

Violence: Realism Can Be a Virtue… and a Problem

Gibson includes the basic events of Christ’s last hours, and adheres remarkably well to the dialogue and descriptions in the Gospel. Thus, his film is powerful. How could any decent account of the events on Calvary fail to move audiences?

The way the director and star of Braveheart weaves together Christ’s suffering and flashbacks creates interesting juxtapositions. At each stage of Jesus’s torture, we are reminded that he prophesied these very events and that he willingly and courageously gave himself up to suffering. With every new stage in his anguish, we are reminded that these punishments come as a response to his teachings about love and turning the other cheek. Each blow struck by the enemy is the antithesis of the sort of power he endorsed.

But Gibson’s lack of attention to other chapters in Christ’s life does indeed pose challenges to viewers — especially those who do not know the gospel story. We receive only glimpses of the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper. We are given no reference as to how Christ entered the world. Each audience member is left to seek out the missing parts and piece together what it all means.

Will they?

That depends. It is possible that the anxiety and exhaustion they experience viewing the film will give some of them an aversion to exploring Christ’s life on a deeper level. Others may be inspired to investigate.

In The Passion, the path from the garden of Gethsemane to the cross is such a marathon of bloodshed — Jesus is beaten and bloodied even before he’s out of the garden — that I found myself a bit dizzy from the violence only an hour into the film. It became harder and harder to focus on what the director was trying to reveal concerning Christ’s teachings and his love.

This is the problem when art makes realism too high a priority.

When a filmmaker becomes too focused on clinical, bodily details, it is harder for him to keep his audience thinking about the themes of the story. The more Gibson emphasizes the way in which Jesus’s body is pulled apart, the more viewers are reacting and enduring instead of contemplating and seeking deeper, richer understanding.

Any decent human being portrayed in physical agony will draw an audience’s sympathies. If you see a film of a total stranger trapped in a burning building, you are drawn to rigid attention, hoping to see him escape. This film is not just about any Average Joe. It is about the Christ. We should be thinking about what makes this suffering different. Gibson does help us think about this to some extent, but it is this viewer’s opinion that he disrupts our ability to do so with his insistence on delivering every grisly physical detail. I wanted to know more about this suffering figure. I wanted to see more about what made him distinct.

But this movie is more interested in the particularities of violence than in the particularities of the one who suffered it.

Seeing so much brutality, my emotional responses went numb. Eventually, I found myself merely watching, wondering what kind of “body cast” actor Jim Caveziel was wearing in order to create the illusion that barbed whips were ripping chunks out of his flesh. Endless cracks of the whips, the wearying mockery and maniacal laughter of the tormentors (which is so exaggerated that I quit believing they were human), and the numerous sequences that show Jesus collapsing in every imaginable way… these things went beyond “showing us what he suffered” and became more of an endurance test. Contemplation was replaced by skepticism: “How long will Gibson drag this out?” If you answer that by saying, “Well, this is what it was like!”, my response is, “We have no way of knowing that.” The Bible  says that he was scourged. (Matthew 27:26, “But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”) There is no indication that every inch of his body was torn open so that he nearly died at the post.

Some have argued that this is Gibson the artist employing “artistic hyperbole” as an expression of how far Christ would have gone for us, an expression of how all of the world’s sins throughout time were delivered upon him. It is indeed a case where Gibson uses artistic license. But I believe that he makes our apprehension of Christ’s pain more mundane by merely focusing on the relentlessness of the blows. A subtle stroke, an expression on the face of an observer, the sound of a cry heard from far away… these things can hold far more power than giving us gory close-ups. Moreover, they show us the extent to which one man’s pain is felt by those around him, and expand the range of what can be communicated in that moment.

Restraint is more powerful than indulgence.

I experience Christ’s physical agony more poignantly in the words of the song “Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded” than I do in watching a realistic recreation of the actual beating, just as unseen monsters are more troubling than those that are dragged out into the daylight.

The problem with Gibson’s approach can be summed up in the example of the dead donkey.

When Judas is at his wits’ end, we see behind him the corpse of a dead and decaying donkey. The donkey is somewhat out of focus, but we can still see something writhing there in the cavities of is disintegrating flesh. This… just this… makes an impression. We recoil. We can practically smell the death. It is a brilliant suggestion that affects the whole picture. But Gibson is not the sort of filmmaker who can restrain himself and trust the audience to get the subtlety of that moment. No, he moves in for a few long close-ups of that decomposing corpse, so that the maggots can be seen clear as day, driving even the most distracted or hard-hearted viewer to squirm.

This also is his approach to Christ’s physical suffering. His tendency towards excessive force interferes with his attempts at visual poetry. The realism of the portrayal is indeed impressive, but it comes at the cost of thoughtful storytelling.

Flannery O’Connor said that for deaf audiences, a storyteller must shout. Contemporary audiences may indeed be somewhat deaf to the story of Christ. But I would add that if you shout too loud and too much, you’ll only further cripple your audience and bring your credibility into question.

Moreover… there is more to examine here than violence.

A Film That Gives Us True (And Jewish) Heroes

In Gibson’s version of the story, the bloodthirsty Roman soldiers abuse Jesus and his faithful Jewish followers — they use the word “Jew” as an expletive. If this film were, as many are describing it, an attack on the Jewish people, why then would it draw us into sympathy for a persecuted Jew, his Jewish mother, their Jewish companions? I am no scholar on anti-Semitism, so maybe I’m missing something. But this seems fairly obvious to me.

The Romans — shown here as persecuting an entire people — are clearly portrayed as monsters. No one in their right mind would admire or feel any sympathy for these beastly soldiers. Gibson is clearly repulsed by them. I do not sense him aligning himself with these hateful people.

I do feel, though, that in showing the reactions to Christ, he is showing us his own sense of guilt and culpability in disappointing, denying, and wounding Christ. I believe any honest viewer will feel a twinge of conscience when they think about how they fall short of the glory of God.

It is true that Jewish religious leaders are portrayed as calling for Christ’s crucifixion, but that is not cause for anti-Semitism. That is a warning about how power — especially religious power — can lead to the abuse of that power. This is true in any religion, even Christianity.

Several prominent Jewish characters are shown having deep sympathy for Christ.

In fact, Simon of Cyrene, one of the few supporting characters given any sort of personality or character, has an even more inspiring role here than the gospels describe. During the long march to Golgotha, he develops a wordless, intimate bond with the Savior that becomes one of the film’s most resonant and beautiful highlights.

Let’s not forget that Jesus himself was Jewish. And his mother. And his beloved disciple John, who receives Jesus’ final tangible gift… Jesus’ own responsibility as Mary’s son.

Superior Contributions From Cast and Crew

Aside from the film’s firm Scriptural foundation, Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is The Passion’s greatest strength. His mastery of light and darkness and careful framing of panoramic pain captures some of the most breathtaking religious imagery ever filmed. Experienced in smaller doses, I would find any section of this film deeply moving on that basis alone.

It helps that Deschanel has such talented actors performing within his frame. Jim Cavieziel’s commitment to showing us a convincing Jesus Christ is unnerving in its intensity. Not only does he speak Christ’s words in Aramaic as though he grew up with the language, giving us the feeling of time travel back to the real events, but his physical manifestation of Christ’s internal turmoil is as compelling as the blows his body suffers. Acting his way through layers of makeup and special effects, he communicates Jesus’ immeasurable restraint. We can see in him, and in the amazement and dismay of his followers, that Christ is holding back, refusing to indulge his heavenly influence to save himself. This Jesus speaks volumes through the silent gazes he shares with his faithful, especially Mary.

Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern is a strong, believable, sympathetic Mary. The intuitive mother/son bond between her and Christ plays more intensely than I have ever imagined it. In one moment, when Christ pauses, exhausted from carrying the cross and yet having only just begun, he turns to her and groans, “See, Mother… I make all things new.” It is a moment loaded with irony and anguish. And yet he speaks the truth — his endurance of the crucifixion, through death to resurrection, will transform the abuse, making it possible for his followers to suffer persecution while never losing grasp of their faith and their hope. The prophecies foretold that these things would happen and the film reminds us of that. Thus, with everything pointing to Jesus, he fulfills his promise, overturning our understanding of life and death, and showing us the victory.

In one of Gibson’s few truly inventive choices, Mary’s grief, suffering, and love are mocked by the most sinister Satan audiences have ever seen, an androgynous figure who can only mock and lie, a warped mirror that distorts everything good, including, in one horrifying instance, traditional images of Mary cradling the Christ child. Actress Rosalinda Celentano brings to life a truly alien presence, something that does not belong in a world God has made, something that exists solely to destroy.

Hristo Naumov Shopov’s performance as Pilate is also worthy of note. The Pilate of the script by Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald does not demonstrate the cruelty that history attributes to this figure. But Shopov gives us the Pilate of the Gospels, a man anxious to be rid of any matters concerning the Jewish law and the brusque, manipulative religious leaders. After all, being a Jew-hater himself, he considers their arguments unworthy of his attention. However, his fear of their strength requires him to get involved. Pilate’s prejudice, arrogance, and cruelty are indeed reprehensible. Thus, his hesitancy to condemn Jesus and his sense that there is something special about this man, gives a fascinating complexity to the scenes of interrogation and judgment.

The rest of the characters are disappointingly flat. There’s nothing memorable about Peter, who merely gapes, denies, and cowers. John remains misty-eyed and solemn. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? That is not what Gibson is interested in, but alas, audience members unfamiliar with the gospel will have little reason to care about these nondescript men.

Mary Magdalene, presented as the woman caught in adultery (a tradition in Christian art, but not a detail of Scripture), remains marginal, notable only for the way Monica Belucci’s beauty stands out in a crowd of despairing onlookers. We catch a glimpse of Jesus coming to her rescue as the religious leaders prepare to stone her, but the scene gives us no details about why they were doing this or what Jesus said that resolved the matter.

There is one monumentally disappointing detail in Gibson’s finished product. It is painful to imagine what might have happened had the music been written by a great composer. When Gibson showed early versions of the film before the soundtrack was finished, he reportedly ‘borrowed’ tracks from The Last Temptation of Christ‘s soundtrack music by Peter Gabriel. While Last Temptation was condemned as a blasphemous film by most Christian moviegoers, its soundtrack is a masterpiece, a highly original fusion of differing styles, ancient and contemporary, from several different nations. Now that we have Gibson’s final cut, we discover that composer John Debney (who scored Elf and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) turned in something that sounds like nothing short of musical plagiarism. Those familiar with Gabriel’s album Passion, the stand-alone symphony that grew out that 1989 soundtrack, may find themselves frequently distracted. I certainly was. The themes and flourishes here are so similar that some will swear it’s exactly the same music. It would have been fair to credit Gabriel’s influence.

Should You See the Movie?

In the end, while I believe there is greatness in The Passion of the Christ, there are too many heavy-handed choices and/or too many misguided elements for me to call it a masterpiece.

Further, it is hard to know whether or not to recommend the film. To whom do I recommend it?

Believers? These vivid images are clearly Gibson’s version of the Passion. Most Christians would say they have a picture of Christ that has come to them through their own encounters with the text. Some may wish to preserve the version they have imagined while reading the gospels rather than allow these blunt, bloody images to burn indelibly into their minds and replace those intimate, personal images.

Others may want to steer clear — teenagers and adults alike — because it is entirely possible to understand and appreciate Christ’s sacrifice without having to swallow a blow-by-blow account of the destruction of his body. Just as you do not need to see slow-motion video of JFK’s head being blown to pieces by a bullet in order to understand what his death meant to the nation, you do not need to see how different kinds of whips tear into Jesus’s torso in order to grasp the profundity of his sacrifice.

If your own child were brutally tortured and murdered, would you want a detailed recreation shown to your community to shake them up? Or would you prefer that they meditate on your child’s glory in order that their love might deepen?

One Christian critic has already said it is “entirely necessary” for us to see what Christ had to endure. So, what about those many millions who have not had the chance to see it? Is their faith any less strong? Are they deprived in some way? To make such a claim, a person would have to believe that the Scriptures are insufficient. The Great Commission does not include a charge to make sure that people throughout the world hear in graphic detail every kind of torture Jesus may have suffered.

Another has suggested that those who avoid the film because of its violence share the cowardice of the disciples who fled the scene. That is a preposterous claim. Avoiding the film may, for some, be the braver choice, if you want to guard your own personal imaginings of Christ’s sufferings, and if you find yourself weakened or injured by violent imagery. Such a charge is like saying that those who refuse to look at images of child pornography are living in denial.

Each viewer will have to decide carefully for himself (or herself). I encourage you not to go to the film out of “Christian peer pressure.” Weigh heavily whether you are prepared, and whether you can maintain a sense of critical discernment to think through what you have seen.

An emotional reaction is not the same thing as being “edified” by a work of art. In order for this work to enrich your spirit, you will need to meditate on it and what it shows us about the One True God.

The Scriptures give us as rich and as rewarding a portrayal of Christ’s Passion as we could hope for. They give a few pages to Christ’s Passion, but they also explore in great detail his birth, his teachings, his relationships, and something to which this film devotes only a few fleeting seconds… his Resurrection.

In the interest of encouraging conversation, here are links to reviews by two other writers I admire and trust. We disagree on some points, but a good debate is healthy.

In Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles. Director – Mel Gibson; writers – Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson; director of photography – Caleb Deschanel; editor – John Wright; music – John Debney; production designer – Francesco Frigeri; producers – Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety. Icon Productions and Newmarket Films. 120 minutes. Rated R. Starring – Jim Caviezel (Jesus), Monica Bellucci (Magdalen), Hristo Naumov Shopov (Pontius Pilate), Maia Morgenstern (Mary), Francesco De Vito (Peter), Luca Lionello (Judas), Mattia Sbragia (Caiphas), Rosalinda Celentano (Satan), Claudia Gerini (Claudia Procles).