The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004) is a depiction of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, as told by Director Mel Gibson. Whether or not this film is an historical account of the final hours of Jesus Christ, which contains enough emotion by itself, The Passion of the Christ evokes even stronger emotional responses from the audience. By manipulating the viewing experience through clever cinematography, the depiction of extreme violence, and the use of ancient, long forgotten languages, Mel Gibson cleverly presents a masterpiece of near biblical proportion, even if the historic accuracy is a tad bit skewed. Although the story purports to tell the true story of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion, some dialogue and visual elements of the film are nowhere to be found in the four Gospels of the New Testament (Fuller, 2006). While embellishing some parts of the gospel story through creative license from the director, The Passion of the Christ evokes deep emotional responses to events that are construed to be true simply because of the graphic element added to evoke those responses from the viewers. Through the use of cinematographic manipulation of the audience, The Passion of the Christ seems to blur the line between a factual biography and a fictional representation of the most important person in Christianity, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The storytelling in The Passion of the Christ is very straightforward, faithfully telling the story of Christ’s passion, death, and for a couple brief moments at the end, his resurrection. The narrative of the film is anything but linear as it is carried out in a simultaneous fashion with events occurring at the same time or seamlessly overlapping into one intense emotion that captures our attention and holds it for the duration of the film. The entire film is a montage of scenes, interpolated with common elements that carry over from scene to scene slowly piecing together the tragedy that is about to unfold. One example of this continuous montage occurs when Judas betrays Jesus in the garden and Peter is attacking the soldiers while John runs to Mary to inform her that they have seized Jesus. Although these two scenes are linear to the eye, one happening right after the other, they actually overlap, occurring at the same time, and deepen the emotional experience of watching Jesus being taken into custody and then beaten. The montage nature of the film cuts the individual stories into their own segments providing a non-linear progression while keeping the viewers emotional experience under the director’s control.
The plot is revealed in chronological order, for the most part, with timely flashbacks to Jesus’ earlier life although it may not seem to relate to the current storyline. The best flashback occurs as the high priests are bringing Jesus into town and Mary Magdelene informs the soldier that the priests have captured Jesus. She expresses her concern and a priest explains the situation is a Jewish temple issue rather than a Roman law issue and he hurries away. As the crowd passes in front of Jesus he makes eye contact with a woodworker on the other side of the crowd. As he hears the hammer of the woodworker, the flashback begins. We are all suddenly transported back to a day when Jesus is working on a tall table for a ‘rich man’. The flashback shows the down to earth nature of a younger Jesus along with the intimate connection between a mother and her son. As Mary and Jesus hug at the end of the scene we are brought back to present time in the story, with Jesus standing in the crowd where he once again makes eye contact with his mother. That scene, where they make eye contact, would not have the emotional draw that it does had we not seen the flashback to that happier time. Mel Gibson’s choice to present these scenes, along with their flashbacks, was an excellent way to introduce the emotional element that cannot be ignored when considering the events that lead to the end of the story. By laying down the emotional foundation throughout the entire film with the proper presentation of flashbacks and happier times, Gibson allows the other visual and sound elements of the film to present the graphic and violent moments leading up to the death of Jesus. With help from the cinematographer, the editor of this film, Steve Mirkovich, makes extensive use of visual elements to draw the audience into the story, even when parts of the story seem to drift away from authentic Gospel accounts of the Passion. One such drift occurs at the very beginning of the film as Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. As Satan uses every tactic at his disposal to distract Jesus while he prays, Jesus stands and crushes the serpent underneath the heel of his foot. This is not an account from any of the four Gospels, but rather a reference which foretells the prophecy of Satan failing in the future against the coming Messiah. “I will put your enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Genesis 3:15 NABRE). The story includes this account from Genesis, and is based in part on visions by two Catholic mystics that have no proven basis in the theological context presented (Thigpen, 2004). However, as with other biblical accounts of the Passion, Christ in this story is dealing with his own internal conflict knowing what has to be done, as well as how it has to be done. The graphic visuals of blood, and the price Christ paid with his blood bring that reality to light for the viewer. In the scene of the scourging, it cannot get any more real for the viewer. Christ is standing at the pillar when the first soldier, and then the other soldier, strike him with sticks. As Christ is beaten and welts appear on his back and legs, he falls to his knees and the audience cannot help but cringe at the pain endured by Jesus at the pillar. But just as we think that Jesus cannot take any more, he looks at his mother and stands once again. While he grimaces in excruciating pain, the soldiers pick up the whips with sharp metal pieces on them and begin striking him all over again. The sounds of Jesus being struck, the tearing of his flesh, and his gasps while being struck, along with the intensely graphic nature of this scene leave no doubt of the suffering that Christ endured at the pillar. The way in which the story is presented on screen allows the viewer to relate to the pain, suffering, and turmoil that Christ felt as he faced the final hours of his life on Earth.
Actor Jim Caviezel offers a stunning impersonation of Jesus Christ through a realistic style and the use of the ancient Aramaic dialogue. His portrayal of Christ contributes greatly to the story, as we watch the physical torture endured by Christ during his Passion. Caviezel was able to truly convey the torture at the pillar because the actors playing the Roman soldiers accidentally hit him with the whip at least once while filming the scene (Drake, 2004). While many of the actors in the movie play their part convincingly, none are as convincing as Caviezel himself other than Maia Morgenstern who plays his mother Mary. Each scene that revolves around Mary conveys the emotion and horror that is unfolding as each minute passes, and her character watches her son’s turmoil knowing full well he could stop it at any time. As Mary watches the scourging, she is horrified at the pain he is willing to endure and gasps with him at each beating. Her eyes implore him to stop everything and save his own life, often covering her own face to hide the events taking place in front of her. As the beating comes to an end the expression on her face changes. It is clear that she knows the gravity of the situation as she immediately prepares to gather the blood of her son. Gibson keeps the historical significance of the story intact by depicting the scene of the two Mary’s collecting Jesus’ blood, although historical accuracy falls by the wayside. In Jewish tradition, life is in the blood therefore the blood of Jesus had to be collected, but there is no historical or biblical reference that Mary collected the blood of her son after the scourging. Even with these historical anomalies, Morgenstern offers a very strong portrayal of the virgin mother of Christ and carries Gibson’s interpretation of Mary out well.
The cinematography of this movie proves to be more important than all of the other elements than the story itself. If not for the cinematography, The Passion of the Christ may not have become the blockbuster hit it became, because of the graphic use of violence and blood to depict the level of pain and suffering experienced by Jesus Christ. It was obvious from the first scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, that Mel Gibson trusted the cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, to capture the vivid scenes he was directing and produce the visual elements needed to carry the film from that first moment until the final scenes of the resurrected Christ. The scene with Satan in Gethsemane seems to contradict Scripture (Thigpen, 2004), but Gibson uses clever editing and cinematography to manipulate the audience into believing this event actually occurred. The movie is shot using intense natural lighting that captures the vivid colors of each frame, which ends up being the color of Christ’s blood in many cases. As the two Mary’s attempt to collect the blood of Jesus, Pontius Pilate’s wife approaches with white cloths offering them to Mary. Although this depiction is one of the less accurate scenes from a historical perspective, as there is no account in Scripture of Pilate’s wife performing this act, it adds to the emotional intrigue that exists from the first moments in the film to the very end. The colors are not saturated, and all of the camera angles and distances enhance the scene by providing framing that keeps the viewers focus on the developing story and intensifies the emotions of each scene. This works exceptionally well, given the fact that some of the scenes, as well as the dialogue, may not be historically accurate.
Through the careful use of continuity editing, The Passion of the Christ unfolds as a journey through the Stations of the Cross. The transitions from scene to scene build on the emotions as the violence and graphic detail become stronger and stronger on the screen. Appropriate flashbacks are used when Christ reflects on his life as it pertains to the elements within the current scene, and slow motion is used to capture intense scenes so they last longer than a fleeting moment. There are no elements left to the imagination or implying that something else is happening behind the scenes. After the horror of the scourging, Christ is led toward Mount Calvary along the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of the Suffering, within the city of Jerusalem. As Jesus embraces his cross, we see the crowd building. People scream at him, spit on him, and guards whip him. As he falls with his cross in slow motion, the ferocity of the soldiers is kept at the forefront as if we needed another reminder how brutal it was for Christ. Other than the graphic visual of blood, some of the most intense scenes are when Mary makes eye contact with her son. These scenes build to a climax where even Mary herself has a flashback of a childhood Jesus falling in the street. In both the flashback and the current scene, she rushes to Jesus in the street and reminds him that she is there. As he stands with his cross again he tells her he will make all things new again. The emotion is so intense, no visuals are needed to feel the pain of Christ and the heartbreak of his mother. Viewers watch in horror as the story of Christ and his Passion unfolds before their eyes, even if they are covering them with their hands to escape the carnage on the screen. Although the non-biblical elements, like the scene where Pilate’s wife brings white linens to the two Marys (Thigpen, 2004), may be noticeable to those who know the story already (Willis, 2004), the editing of this film is done in a way that those moments are soon forgotten in a vast rhythm of emotional imagery.
As expected with a film like this there is extensive dialogue, even though the dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin. The sub-titles offer little to no distraction, and actually help the viewer understand some of the more emotional scenes by requiring the viewer to read the dialogue and process it rather than hearing it in their own language. The use of orchestra music during intense, emotional scenes adds to the overall experience of the film, and the sudden silence and attention grabbing sounds during slow-motion scenes amplify the reality of the images appearing on screen. When Judas is paid his thirty pieces of silver and the priests throw the bag of coins toward him, we are captivated by the sound of coins falling to the floor as the scene wraps up in slow motion.
Each scene, whether historically accurate or not, is executed flawlessly by Gibson and his technical competence is proven to be solid when pertaining to telling the story of Christ’s Passion. His use of blood, extensively, to emphasize the sacrifice made by Jesus is just one of the many non-traditional storytelling techniques used in the film. If Mel Gibson’s intention was telling the story of the Passion by pointing out the extreme pain, suffering, and sacrifice of Christ, then he succeeded beyond measure in a way that no other film about the Passion has done.
The impact of The Passion of the Christ is yet to be known, and only time will tell if it becomes a definitive popular reflection of the final hours of Jesus Christ. Critics claim that the film makes several anti-Semitic statements (Fuller, 2006), and the historical accuracy of some scenes has been called into question (Thigpen, 2004), but the overall integrity of the movie is very strong. Although The Passion of the Christ falls into the drama genre and many people already know the story of Christ’s Passion, it could also be considered an historical account, or biography, of the life of Jesus Christ.
Analysis of The Passion of the Christ shows that although several scenes are not completely accurate to the historical and biblical accounts of the life of Christ, the storyline is solid and supported by exceptional acting, vivid cinematography, clever editing, and stylish directing. The manipulation of the audience through the visual elements of period settings and subtle effects is emphasized along with the use of extreme scenes of blood and violence. Whether or not this film is a completely historical account of the final hours of Jesus Christ, which contains enough emotion by itself, The Passion of the Christ evokes deep emotional responses to events that are construed to be true simply because of the graphic element added to evoke those responses from the viewers. Historical inaccuracies and non-biblical accounts may detract from the overall authenticity of the film leading some to believe that The Passion of the Christ is merely a fictional representation of the most important person in Christianity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Gibson’s genius depiction of Christ in the final hours of his life presents the audience with a clear message, using creative license that is far from blurred, that this was the most significant sacrifice in the history of mankind, and that is the story Gibson was trying to convey.
Drake, T. (2004). ‘The Movie Was Torture – But Worth It’: An Interview with actor Jim Caviezel. BeliefNet. Retrieved from http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/2004/02/The-Movie-Was-Torture-But-Worth-It.aspx
Fuller, C. (2006). Gibson’s “Passion” in the Light of Pasolini’s “Gospel”. Society of Biblical Literature Forum. Retrieved from http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=508
Gibson, M. (Director). (2004). The Passion of the Christ [Film]. Los Angeles: Icon Productions.
Thigpen, P. (2004). How Faithful to the Gospel is The Passion of the Christ? Retrieved from http://www.paulthigpen.com/theology/passion-gospel.html
Willis, B. (2004). The Passion of the Christ. Christian Spotlight on Entertainment. Retrieved from http://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2004/thepassionofthechrist.html