Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 19, 2017)
Not that we needed more evidence, but 2004ís The Passion of the Christ proved that I know nothing about Hollywood. Or maybe it didnít establish anything related to the usual studio goings-on, for although it came from megastar Mel Gibson, the flick offered an experience far from what weíd normal expect from Tinseltown.
So what mistake did I make? When I made my box office predictions I ever-so-slightly underestimated how the movie would perform. And by ďever-so-slightlyĒ, I mean ďmissed the boat so badly that I never even got within 500 miles of the pierĒ.
I felt sure that Passion would make no more than maybe $20 million in the US. I saw it as a case similar to that of another controversial religious epic, 1988ís The Last Temptation of Christ. That film only raked in $8 million back then, so why would Passion do much better 16 years later?
The big difference between the two revolved around the origins of their controversies. In 1988, Christians protested Temptation for its depiction of a flawed Christ and became particularly outraged by its insinuations. In 2004, the Jewish community got upset because of the allegations that Gibson would portray them negatively/stereotypically and also advance the concept that the Jews killed Christ.
Those latter ideas didnít seem to bother the devout Christians in the US, and since this country includes many more of them than Jews or other religions, Passion prospered at the box office. The Christian community embraced Passion in an absolutely unprecedented manner. Churches would buy out entire screenings, and all of this helped take the movie to an amazing $370 million gross in the US.
The (pun-intended) passion the Christians felt for the flick made it a prime topic for discussion, and this turned it into a ďmust-seeĒ flick for people of all denominations and beliefs. Passionís status and notoriety meant that folks felt compelled to watch it to discover the cause of all the fuss.
Is it possible to view Passion solely as a film without any other concepts to color oneís opinions? Probably not, but Iíll try.
I usually write my own plot synopses but thought Iíd just toss out the one from the press release this time, as it sums up the basic story well: ďThe depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) opens with his betrayal by Judas (Luca Lionello), his condemnation by the Pharisees, and his appearance before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). Pilate defers to King Herod (Luca de Dominicis), but Herod returns Jesus.Ē
ďPilate then asks the crowd to choose between Jesus and Barrabas (Pedro Sarubbi). The crowd chooses Barrabas. Pilate washes his hands of the matter, and Jesus is forced to carry the cross through the streets of Golgotha where Roman soldiers crucify him.Ē
ďAlthough Jesus briefly fears that God, his Father, has abandoned him, he regains his faith, proclaiming ĎInto Thy hands I commend my spirití. At the moment of death, nature itself overturns.Ē
If nothing else, one must admire Gibsonís decision to tell the story in the manner he chose. Whether or not one agrees with his decisions, he made the movie he desired, consequences be damned. Thatís rare, especially for someone as popular and successful as Gibson was at the time of this filmís creation.
Does Passion have anything to offer to those without a strong belief in Jesus? Maybe, but I canít say that it did a lot for me.
Going in, I knew two things: the people who saw Passion felt it demonstrated a lot of graphic violence, and also they thought it presented a harrowing tale. Perhaps because I expected something absolutely extreme, I didnít think the violence seemed as horrifying as anticipated.
Really, only one scene becomes tough to take: the extended one in which the Romans initially flay Jesus. This segment indeed can be difficult to watch, as it goes on forever and really shows some unpleasant shots.
Otherwise, the movie doesnít depict a great deal of violence, at least not graphic material. Prior to the flogging, the authorities beat up Jesus, and his walk to crucifixion demonstrates occasional unpleasantness, but not to the gory degree expected.
Even when the Romans pound nails into his hands, the camera cuts away and doesnít depict graphic material. Itís still unpleasant, and I donít want to convey that itís not tough to watch, but itís not the intensely disgusting presentation many indicated.
Iíve heard Passion referred to as pornographic in its display of violence, and also heard it called the equivalent of a snuff film. Both comments seem off base to me, mostly because they confer a level of realism that I donít see in Passion.
This isnít a documentary-format take on Jesusís travails. Gibson makes the movie quite stylized, which somewhat defeats the purpose. I thought he wanted to give us a feel for what it was really like, but the frequent use of lavish slow-motion and other cinematic techniques doesnít deliver a feeling of realism.
Indeed, those elements convey the impression that Gibson really revels in the violence. As tough as it can be to watch the initial whipping sequence, Gibsonís self-conscious use of varied camera speeds takes away from the impact and becomes a distraction.
These choices also lead me to feel that Gibson almost glorifies the violence. I donít believe he intended this, but the camera lingers on the gore almost lovingly, in slow, languid shots. I suppose this reinforces the pain, but it also revels in the agony.
One huge criticism of Passion connects to its depiction of the periodís Jewish folks. Though apparently the vast majority of historical evidence doesnít support that their involvement led to the persecution of Christ, Gibson clearly disagrees. He strongly pins the blame on the Jews and presents them as narrow-minded and bloodthirsty.
By contrast, Gibson lets many of the Romans off the hook. In particular, Pilate gets portrayed as gentle and caring. He attempts to block the Jewish attacks and keep Christ alive but canít resist the public condemnation. Passion tosses out a token Jewish character who protests, but he remains a minor obstacle against the overwhelming tide of discrimination
Why does Gibson choose to do this? God only knows, as these moments are totally unnecessary to tell the tale at hand.
I guess Gibson feels these element are important - whether they match the truth or not - but all they do is detract from the potential power of the tale. Gibson creates controversy where it doesnít need to exist and turns off many people who otherwise may have taken to the movie.
I donít think Gibson cared about anyone other than fellow true believers, though, so he likely didnít worry about the folks who disliked these choices. Truth be told, Passion literally preaches to the choir.
The filmís enormous box office success and notoriety led a broader population to see it, but I donít think it was meant for them. Passion intends to reinforce the faith of the believers but not sway anyone on the fence.
Clearly it succeeded in that, for the devout Christians went nuts for Passion, but I donít think it musters the same impact for others. Part of the problem comes from its lack of context, as the movie largely assumes a strong familiarity with the material and doesnít do much to provide the viewer with background or detail.
Granted, most viewers will know some basics, but for those who lack greater comprehension of the situations and characters, the movie may seem a bit confusing at times.
That probably wonít be too much of a problem due to the basic simplicity of the story. Judas sells out Jesus, the mob captures him, then they kill him - thatís it.
Such a tale didnít exactly lend itself to much interpretation, and Gibson didnít want that anyway. Whatever the case may be, some greater exposition would have been nice for those of us without intense familiarity with the situations, but the general point emerges acceptably well.
Much of the fuss about Passion relates to the power and impact that comes from the depiction of the persecution. For a while, I agreed with this, though I didnít think the movie packed a punch due to its main character.
Instead, it moves me for more general reasons, even though the film never takes advantage of the facets of Jesusí history and personality. I feel for him because I see a person unjustly tortured but the fact it is Jesus doesnít add to that concern. Passion fails to deliver an impression of what made Christ special and why this particular act was more reprehensible than it would be for anyone in a similar situation.
That area depicts the essential difference between Passion and Last Temptation, a much better movie. The latter gives us a feel for Jesus as a person, and we understand his philosophies and his sacrifice.
Passion presents Jesus as a symbol and nothing more. He doesnít make choices; instead, he receives punishment but does not offer a character who seems to have any control over his fate.
Thatís an essential distinction. The Christ of Last Temptation actively chooses to resist evil and to reconfirm his faith by his decision to sacrifice himself for the good of mankind. The Jesus of Passion feels like little more than a victim.
Yeah, early in the film he stomps on a snake to depict his rejection of sin and temptation, but thatís it. Otherwise, folks act on him and he simply goes along with it.
This makes the Jesus of Passion a passive and unmoving character. I feel the impact of Christís decision in the Scorsese flick, but I donít get that from Passion. It lacks the context of Temptation to remind us why Jesus did would he did, as it shows the punishment without the involvement of other elements.
For me, Passion loses power as it proceeds, especially because much of the second half just shows Jesus as he walks toward his fate. He falls down a lot, which then prompts many shots of concerned onlookers.
And that is about it. The occasional moving element occurs, such as the first time Jesus collapses. Mary (Maia Morgenstern) observes this and flashes back to a childhood incident in which a young Jesus tripped.
Passion needs more shots that humanize Jesus and remind us that despite his holy status, he was still a person with a life and loved ones that he would leave behind upon his sacrifice.
Last Temptation aptly depicts those elements, but The Passion of the Christ fails to do so. The film seems curiously unmoving, and not because of my lack of religious fervor.
I donít believe in squishy space monkeys but I still cried at ET. Passion clearly had a lot of potential, but Iíve seen it done better elsewhere.