Some recent reviews of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ have suggested that the film’s opening imagery – a full moon shrouded in menacing clouds – draws upon nothing more than horror movie cliché. A clichéd image it may be but is the focus of this film, the last 12 hours of Christ’s mortal life, not the most prevalent and powerful horror story in Western theology? Maybe or maybe not yet The Passion of the Christ is a film that arguably places its precedence on the horror of Jesus’ death (and the way in which he died), over all other things.
The violence that Gibson confronts us with is terrible in the worst way that violence can be; it’s inflicted by those who revel in administering it. The film shows the soldiers who beat, cane and flagellate Jesus as slavering devils who cheer and growl with delight, completely detached from any conscience or moral confusion. Whether or not you are a Christian or hold any religious beliefs whatsoever the manner in which this film portrays the systematic destruction of Jesus makes it a very powerful and affecting experience indeed.
Of course these concerns are ones that have always dominated Gibson’s work as a director. His debut, The Man Without A Face (1993), was the first instance of his ‘persecuted man’ figure; a virtuous individual who is derided and scorned by those around him. Braveheart (1995) continued this theme with a real historical person (though rewriting the history around him somewhat) and showcased Gibson’s approach to violence, particularly medieval violence that would go on to reach its zenith with Passion.
There are moments in The Passion however that, if anything, detract from this brutal realism Gibson is reaching for. The supernatural flourishes that show Satan writhing in Hell or grabbing at Judas in The Garden of Gethsemane feel misjudged and out of place in a film that does its utmost to humanise Christ. The reality of Jesus’ death collides with these CG elements of the movie and produces an unstable, queasy tone. The one instance of digital tinkering that does work is when Jesus has just died on the cross; the film cuts to an overhead shot of Golgotha whereby a raindrop seems to fall through the lens of the camera and descend to the ground. As the drop strikes the dirt an almighty earthquake erupts, signalling God’s rage at what has been done. It is a silent and very subtle moment that communicates far more effectively the vision in the Bible, and the presence of God.
Accusations of the film being anti-Semitic, I felt, were undeserved. The Jews who condemn Jesus to death are, like the soldiers who beat and torture him, unknowing of what they do. Gibson may seem to demonise these men but in the end they are shown as repentant fools who weep for what they have done; see the guard who kneels down in penitence beneath a dead Jesus. In any case the director counters those groups with Jews who stand by Jesus, who help him bear the weight of his cross or quench his thirst with cups of water. For every sect of characters in The Passion (Jews, Egyptians, Romans, Disciples) there are those wish an end to Jesus and those who wish to aid him.
The Passion of the Christ will continue to draw diverse criticism, purely by virtue of its subject matter. Its controversial imagery may alienate some audiences because it drowns out the spirituality and reverence of the story. Others may find its limited scope too subjective and dismissive. Regardless of your stance the film does undeniably command attention. The question is whether that attention is formed out of religious devotion or morbid curiosity.