The Passion of the Christ
A Reflection by Mr. Stallbaumer
Spoiler Warning: We know the story, but in offering this review I found it difficult to avoid mentioning several specific points about how the story is told.
Should I See It? Should My Kids/Students See It?
In terms of cinematography, casting, setting, editing, etc., it is a brilliant, masterful storytelling. I am so familiar with other movies of Jesus that this one provided many original, unique and thought-provoking elements. It is beautiful, powerful, glorious, painful, dreadful, inventive and faithful (to scripture and tradition). Half of me is appreciative of the work and builds my faith in the power of the love of Christ and the importance of the lives we live. And, half of me wishes this movie were never made.
It is the most powerful film I have ever seen, and it is the most violent...by far. One does not see this film to be entertained or even educated. One attends to gain understanding and appreciation for the love of Christ. We know the story, and this movie invites us to see it as it was... and to enter more deeply into the truth, the power and the grace of Christ's victory on the cross...and the price paid.
I respond to the question, "Should I see it?" or, "Should my child see it?" with my own questions: Do you want to, need to or feel compelled to see it? Your response is your answer. If you do not feel you need to see this movie, then you don't need to see it. It is not necessary to see this film to know Christ and the victory he won over sin and death. But you must know Christ, and you must know what he truly suffered. To those who choose to see it, you will gain much from this powerful and faithful rendering. And what you will gain will be uniquely yours. I devoted one class period discussing this film to each group I teach (seventh and eighth grade). I believe most of these students (ages 12-14) know whether or not they want to see the film. As a parent, I would greatly respect and consider what they say, but I would absolutely see it with them. If there is hesitation or uncertainty, I would recommend waiting...especially until the video version is released. When you have more control over the film with a remote, less audio/visual impact, no public audience, etc...the viewing experience will be tempered. It is unsuitable for young viewers. Gibson himself says no one under 13 should see it. See the ScreenIt review (above) to assist you.
Language and Subtitling--This film is presented in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. After five minutes I rarely noticed (or needed) the subtitling. However, a young person's familiarity with the Passion Narrative and reading ability should be considered. I felt the original languages offered authenticity and power to the storytelling. It helps one familiar with the Passion to experience it in a new way. There are times when the subtitling is needed, helpful, and necessary, but I saw it as authentic and never cumbersome.
Classroom Use/Application--Thus far, I have made great use in simply discussing the film in Catholic school and religious ed. settings, without showing a single scene. I will show the Agony in the Garden scene to junior/senior high students when it is available, but I would not show any more of it to a junior high class. It is rated R, and should be rated NC-17 for violence. I could see some powerful uses for it in a high school or adult scripture study or formational setting, however. I recall one curse word--from Peter--but that is scripturally accurate in his denial of Jesus. (Matthew 26:74..."At that he began to curse and to swear, 'I do not know the man.'") There is no nudity or drug use, of course, but many historians suggest that one goal of crucifixion was to totally humiliate, and Christ probably was naked after he was stripped of his garments and nailed to the cross.
While such unique elements as character development, authentic languages, metaphor, reality of violence, etc. would be most benefical in an educational setting, I personally feel I get a lot more mileage out of discussing the film unseen, or showing a film such as "Jesus of Nazareth," a better movie for young viewers (and older, I suspect) in that it portrays the entire life of Christ, from the Infancy Narratives to the Resurrection and beyond. In fact, an informational, catechetical version was produced. Although at six hours and 22 minutes in length, it is best watched in sections.
The Violence-- "This film is the most violent I have ever seen. It will probably be the most violent you have ever seen. This is not a criticism but an observation; the film is unsuitable for younger viewers, but works powerfully for those who can endure it." The words are Roger Ebert's, and I can only echo them. He gave the film his highest rating. We may be a society desensitized to violence, but never has there been a movie where such ferocity is directed so intensely and dramatically toward one individual for two solid hours, especially toward someone we care so much about.
Early early on, Jesus' right eye is swollen (nearly) shut and he is thrown over a cliff (still in chains) before he even reaches the palace of Caiaphas following the Agony in the Garden. (The cliff-throwing is not scriptural here, but it is attempted in Luke 4, early in his ministry. There it was unsuccessful. Here Judas watches in torment.) For me, viewing the scourging scenes (to his back and his front) was a journey from shock and horror to an eventual dazed numbness. In presenting such a horrific scourging, and a Jesus battered into disfigurement, Gibson intensifies the rest of the Way (of the Cross): We don't want to see this Jesus even have to move a limb, let alone walk, carry, fall, etc. And he will.
In this film, we are often jarred, surprised and angered. I was taken aback by the random, unexpected and relentless assaults upon Jesus throughout the entire film--the hate, spitting, shoving, continual fists to the face, relentless flogging along the Way. I would say they occurred at unexpected times, but they happened most all the time. It seemed so unnecessary, but that is--of course--part of this storytelling. As Catholics, we tend to know what to expect in our Passion readings and Stations of the Cross devotions. I was unprepared for the unexpected. This made it all the more too real.
In viewing this film, one strives to fathom how anyone, including the fully human Jesus, could absorb this brutality. From a technical standpoint, I found it incredible that the human body could possibly contain any more blood than was spent during the scourging scenes. The lance in the side (at almost the two-hour point) suggested otherwise, as a Roman soldier is showered by it. Jesus' blood spills or spatters on anyone, everyone and everything close to him, or at least those who did not flee. There is a 30-foot-plus path of blood as he is dragged from the pillar!. He falls twice more than the traditional three times, by my count--each time being more severe: A back-breaking fall over the cross, a fall down stone steps, a fall crushing his skull (and thorns) between cross and earth. The actor separated his shoulder during one of the falls depicted in the film. The actor also suffered hypothermia during the winter filming in Italy, was struck by lightning twice (in a flashback Sermon on the Mount scene and on the cross), and was accidentally flogged twice. Gibson employs slow motion so often that I wondered if the film could have been a half hour shorter. When he cuts away from a particular moment of violence, we are relieved...momentarily. (Running time is two hours and six minutes.) In most of this movie, Jesus is unbelievably scarred unlike any traditional film or painting has ever rendered.
The Unique and Well Done-- I celebrate many elements of this storytelling. Gibson was able to present and develop characters, mainly because the story centers on Christ's last twelve hours. Simon, Mary Magdalene, Veronica, the two crucified with Jesus and others are given more screentime. Simon of Cyrene's portrayal in this film is powerful to behold. Gibson symbolizes evil through a hooded Satan character, serpents, "devil children," surprises, and other elements we have not seen in movies of Jesus before. They are powerful and unique in this telling. One is particularly poignant between Jesus and Mary. It gets the only laugh in the movie, and made me wish for a "prequel." Yet, this movie is not about the life of Jesus, but the reason for the life of Jesus.
There are several moments in the film that inspired and strengthened me, in particular. In describing them to students, I have called them "Rocky moments." I explain that even though the endless sequels have made the Rocky franchise silly, it was very original in the beginning and took the Oscar in 1976. People were cheering the screen as if it were a real fight. In these moments in this film--and you will know them when you see them--one feels Jesus will surely collapse. Yet he gets up, stands up, holds firm, embraces and lifts high his cross. His resolve to make his Father's will his own and never look back is absolutely incredible.
When I say this film presents the Passion incredibly, I mean the very essence of the word. I felt it could not be believed that one person could endure this. Yet one did. Jesus did this willingly, and this movie made that clearer to me than any production before it. If this were a movie about any other protaganist of any other story, I would have been less affected. Yet, this is Jesus, and he willed this. I feel this is the greatest accomplishment of this storytelling.
Mel Gibson and the Controversies--Much has also been made of the producer, his faith, his statements, etc. In my mind, to call him a "Traditional Catholic" serves one purpose--to divide. He has said that he disagrees with Vatican II. So he does. I always learned that the word catholic means "universal." I may disagree with some of Gibson's positions regarding our Church, but I welcome his production if for no other reason than the number of people who are seeing it, discussing it, and coming to know the Christ. If I choose to support him and his production it is not because I liked him in Lethal Weapon or what Mass he chooses to attend. It is interesting to note how the messianic themes of suffering, sacrifice, salvation, etc. flow through many of his films ("Braveheart," "The Patriot," etc.) Many call this film a "Catholic version" of the events. I feel it is, since we stand on two pillars...scripture and tradition (with emphasis on the Stations). I commend him in making this film when major studios rejected it, many groups and individuals of many religious backgrounds (including our own) condemn it.
Every movie of Jesus is controversial. Just as it was in his own time. Much has been made of anti-Semitism in this film. Perhaps only a Jewish person can respond to this. However, I can only offer my own position. After much study, and having seen the film, I have personally concluded that there is no basis whatsoever for this claim. Some of the screenplay that is not "word-for-word" from the gospels has been said to be anit-Semetic. I never sensed this prejudice, even as I was aware of it and looking for it. The mob's cry "His blood be on us and on our children!" is found in Matthew, and was omitted from this movie (although it was in the original screening). According to imdb.com, it is Mel Gibson's own hands that hammer the nails in Christ's hands, hoping to symbolically dispel any notion of hatred toward any individual or group charged in Jesus' death. Yes, there were some Jewish leaders who sought to hand Jesus over to death. To understand Christ's sacrifice is to see how all sinners share responsibility. No proper reading of the gospels implicates all Jews of that day, and certainly no Jewish person today or since. As Christians, we share and celebrate our Jewish ancestory. If anyone is made to look evil, sinister (and even silly and obsessed), it is the soldiers of Rome. I am personally surprised so much attention has been given to the very little that is in the gospels regarding this. I am reading the Acts of the Apostles with my eighth grade students at this writing, and words of Peter and Stephen to some of the Jews are striking in comparison. Yet I explain that this is not a condemnation of an entire race, religion, creed, etc. The "heroes" of this story were Jewish , as well.
Summary-- If you are unsure about seeing this film then don't, at least not right now. The gospels lack any vivid, detailed, horrendous description of Christ's suffering, as they compare to this film. Yet this production is perhaps as authentic as any to the actual events of the Passion of Christ, based solely on our knowledge of Roman crucifixion. It is not necessary that you see this cinematic interpretation of the final twelve hours of Christ's life. It is necessary that we know the story, through family discussion, reading of scripture, meditation upon the Stations, etc.
Read a letter to the editor entitled, "Deal with Feelings," which appeared in the Topeka Capital Journal on March 26, '04 by parishioner Dennis Schafers, R.N., counseling site supervisor of Catholic Charities of Topeka.
Thank you for writing this. I couldn't possibly think of another thing to add. I can't say it was a movie I 'enjoyed' but I was certainly moved by it. --Mrs Gutierrez
Mike, I would suggest reading Isaiah 52: 13-15 and 53:1-12 before they view the movie. I saw it Friday and I could barely talk afterward. I thought the movie was violent, inspiring, encouraging, emotional, and I am glad I saw it. --Mrs. Coker
I just read your review. What a great job of explaining all aspects of the film! I know I do not want to see the film, but if my daughter decides to see it when on video I think I will be more prepared to discuss it intelligently! Thanks. --Mrs. Scheopner
For some reason, I was not very emotionally affected by the movie being too distracted by the violence (to be honest, I've seen worse) and actually think that earlier versions (such as Zefferelli's version and even the end of Ben Hur which was actually being broadcast when I got home from the Passion) had more impact on me. I absolutely do not recommend this to children. There's some great technical stuff and symbolism. Mary's the best thing in the movie, in my view. I particularly loved the "flashback" (and those are terrific throughout the movie) where she is being the quintessential "Jewish mother." I did find the very end from Christ's death to the resurrection exceptionally well done, especially the scene in the temple which has been damaged, but the final shot is awesome. I'd say adults should see it and judge for themselves how well Gibson has done. If nothing else it sends you to the source as you think "I don't remember that in the Gospels." I went home and re-read the crucifixion passages in all four gospels. And for me, that was the best part of seeing the movie. Just my opinion. --Mrs. Proctor
I was browsing around on the internet looking at some old Topeka sites and checked out the MPHM site to see what new changes had been made, and I saw your reflection on the movie. We have been planning on seeing it tomorrow night. I'm glad I saw your essay on it when I did so I have some things to think about and look for when we see it. It was very well written. Saturday morning at 6am I'm heading down to Belize for a spring break service trip that is sponsored by Campus Ministry here at Rockhurst. We're going to be building a house for a family down there and working at a clinic/nursery for children with HIV. I'll be coming back the following Saturday. I'm really looking forward to it, it should be a great experience. --Andy Eck, student at Rockhurst
You answered all questions I came away with. I find it so wonderful that we are all discussing the gift of Jesus. Thank you for this very informative review. --Mrs. Kenagy
It was very powerful. It helped me understand more clearly what our Lord id to save us from our sins. --Jesse, seventh grader
This movie is good to see to show the last twelve hours of Jesus' life. It is good whether you are a Catholic or not. This movie is meant for a mature audience (13+). You will take something from this film. --Kate, eighth grader
It gave me a completely different look on how much Jesus actually went through. --Melissa, eighth grader