Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 8, 2004)
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, 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 Christ-centric epic with controversy in advance, 1988ís The Last Temptation of Christ. It only raked in $8 million back then, so why would Passion do much better?
The big difference that I ignored revolved around the origins of the controversies. In 1988, Christians protested the movie 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 very negatively and stereotypically and also advance the concept that the Jews killed Christ.
Those 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. (Hey, my box office prediction was close; the movie only earned 18 and a half times what I figured!)
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. Pilate 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. Although 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.
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 was tough to take: the extended one in which the Romans initially flayed Jesus. This segment indeed became difficult to watch, as it went on forever and really showed some unpleasant shots.
Otherwise, the movie didnít depict a great deal of violence, at least not graphic material. Prior to the flogging, those involved beat up Jesus, and his walk to crucifixion demonstrated occasional unpleasantness, but not to the gory degree expected. Even when the Romans pound nails into his hands, the camera cut away and didnít 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 seemed off-base to me, mostly because they confer a level of realism that I didnít see in Passion. This wasnít a documentary-format take on his travails. Gibson made the movie quite stylized, which somewhat defeated 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 didnít deliver a feeling of realism.
Indeed, those elements conveyed the impression that Gibson really reveled in the violence. As tough as it could be to watch the initial whipping sequence, Gibsonís self-conscious use of varied camera speeds took away from the impact and became a distraction. These also led me to feel that he almost glorified the violence. I donít believe that was his intention, but the camera lingered on the gore almost lovingly, in slow, languid shots. I suppose this reinforced the pain, but it also reveled in the agony.
One huge criticism of Passion connected to its depiction of the Jewish folks of the period. 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. Pilate particularly 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 did Gibson choose to do this? God only knows. Itís totally unnecessary to tell the tale at hand. I guess Gibson felt this element was important whether it matched the truth or not, but all it did was detract from the potential power of the tale. It created controversy where it didnít need to be and turned 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 for whom the negative depiction of the Jews led to disaffection toward the film. Truth be told, Passion literally preaches to the choir. The filmís enormous initial success due to the way the church groups embraced it led a broader population to see it, but I donít think it was meant for them. Passion intended 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 mustered the same effect for others. Part of the problem came from its lack of context. The movie largely assumed a strong familiarity with the material and didnít 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 emerged acceptably well.
Much of the fuss about Passion related to the power and impact that came 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 moved me for more general reasons. The film never took advantage of the facets of Jesusí history and personality. I felt for him because I saw a person unjustly tortured but the fact it was Jesus didnít add to that concern; Passion failed 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 depicted the essential difference between Passion and Last Temptation, a much better movie. The latter gave us a feel for Jesus as a person, and we understood his philosophies and his sacrifice. Passion presented Jesus as a symbol and nothing more. He didnít make choices; he received punishment but was not a character who seemed to have any control over his fate.
Thatís an essential distinction. The Christ of Last Temptation actively chose to resist evil and to reconfirm his faith by his decision to sacrifice himself for the good of mankind. The Jesus of Passion, on the other hand, felt like little more than a victim. Yeah, early in the film he stomped on a snake to depict his rejection of sin and temptation, but that was it. Otherwise, folks acted on him and he simply went along with it, though he didnít seem to have much choice in the matter.
This made the Jesus of Passion a passive and unmoving character. I felt the impact of Christís decision in the Scorsese flick, but I didnít 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 lost power as it proceeded. Much of the second half just showed Jesus as he walked toward his fate. He fell down a lot, which then prompted many shots of concerned onlookers. And that was about it. The occasional moving element occurred, such as the first time Jesus collapsed. Mary (Maia Morgenstern) observed this and flashed back to a childhood incident in which a young Jesus tripped. Passion needed more shots that humanized Jesus and reminded 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 depicted those elements, but The Passion of the Christ failed to do so. The film seemed 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.