Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

     I have to admit, even though Easter is approaching, I wasn’t sure if I should talk about “The Passion of the Christ” today—not because I don’t want to, but because I have no idea what to say. It’s easy for anyone who has studied film like I am right now to take a movie, even “The Passion of the Christ”, and look at the way that it is made and either praise it or tear it apart. But I know that today, I can’t do that, because this film is so much more than just a film. And forget Mel Gibson—I know that he’s shown in the last couple years that he isn’t perfect, even after Christ got to him around the time this movie was made, but I’m not judging this film based on what I know of him. For a believer, this is a tough film to review. And I’ll get into why today.

      “The Passion of the Christ” isn’t a film about the life of Jesus. It’s about the death of Jesus. There are flashbacks here and there that show Jesus as a child, working as a carpenter, or teaching the Sermon on the Mount, but primarily, it details the passion, the crucifixion of the Christ. And this is one of the reasons why this film is so controversial—it may very well be one of the most violent films ever made. I’ve even heard of some viewers who have called director Gibson a sadist because of it. The film opens with Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and within minutes of the film, Roman guards have arrested Jesus and already beating him brutally. He goes on trial before Pontius Pilate, who in the film is portrayed as almost a paranoid ruler who wants to free Jesus but is too afraid of the people revolting to release him. However, even though Pilate finds no fault in Jesus, he punishes Jesus in exchange for letting murderer Barabbas go. Jesus is whipped brutally (this, to me, is the most graphic scene in the film—Jesus is whipped with sticks and hooks on basically every part of his body) and then handed back over to Pilate, who under pressure sends Jesus to be crucified.

     And thus, the second half of the film details the crucifixion of Jesus. Simon, “a certain man from Cyrene… passing by on his way in from the country” (Mark 15:21), is forced to help Jesus carry his cross up to the hill of Golgotha, and the journey is excruciating. Jesus falls several times, and Simon is more and more compelled. Whoever this bloodied man is, he is showing no anger. He literally embraces his cross at one point, and even one of the two other men that will die next to Jesus laughs at him for it. But once all three men have been nailed to the cross (which is another graphic sequence in the film—Jesus even has his right arm dislocated as the Roman guards are stretching out his hand to nail in the hole), the criminal on Jesus’ left says to the doubtful one on his right:

DISMAS: We deserve this, Gesmas, but he does not. I have sinned, and my punishment is just. (to Jesus) You would be justified in condemning me. I only ask that You remember me, Lord, when You enter Your kingdom.

JESUS: Amen, I tell you, on this day, you shall be with me in paradise.

     This scene is paraphrased from Scripture (Luke 23:40-43), as are many scenes and dialogue in the film. But another criticism that many have for “The Passion of the Christ” is that it supposedly portrays the Passion of Jesus inaccurately at some points. And I believe this to some extent—there are instances where Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, the other screenwriter, take a little too much dramatic license in the wording of the film’s dialogue and plot. For example, in the scenes with characters like Barabbas and Pilate who aren’t described in detail too much in the Gospels, the actors and writers try to give them more depth as characters. This makes sense for giving the film more depth dramatically, but some of the material isn’t exactly Biblical.

     And besides, if you’re looking for a film that details who Jesus was as a man (a term I use very loosely), you won’t get a whole lot from “The Passion of the Christ”. I remember years ago right after the film was released, Mel Gibson did an interview with Diane Sawyer and told her that he felt the crucifixion was the most important part of Jesus’ life. And in a way, that’s true—Jesus came to Earth in order to die for and with our sins. The film even opens not with the main title, but with Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed.” The whole film is to show what Jesus went through to save us all from spending eternity separated from our Creator God. And the film not only portrays that in words directly from Scripture, but there are images that Gibson uses that subtly hint at other Scripture passages. For instance, Satan in the film (who is portrayed as an actual man, pale but wrapped in a black cloak—even carrying a deformed child in one scene, which to me could be the Antichrist but I don’t know for sure) haunts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as He prays. Satan slowly turns a snake to go to Jesus as He is praying what He said in Luke 22:42, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus stands up, resisting Satan’s temptation, and crushes the serpent’s head (hinting at Genesis 3:15).

     But the most powerful image to me is one of the images that does not come from the Gospels. Watching the film recently, this image somehow got to me in a way that it never has before. As Jesus starts carrying his cross, his mother Mary is standing at a distance with John, whom many believe is “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved”, as John 19:26 says. Jesus, weakening more and more because of the pain, both physical and spiritual, falls to the ground. Mary sees this and runs to him. The film cuts between this scene and a flashback of Jesus falling as a small child and Mary running immediately to help him. In the flashback, Mary goes to him and carries small Jesus in her arms, telling him, “I’m here.” She says the same thing as she kneels beside Jesus as he starts getting up. Jesus sees her and in his weakness manages to say:

JESUS: See, Mother, I make all things new.

     The music builds, and He stands back up again, continuing to carry his cross. What a powerful image. Jesus, who has been whipped, beaten, and bloodied, is telling his mother, “This is why I’m here. I am carrying this cross to restore the relationship that my Father can have with his people.” And for that, I am grateful. My sins are such a burden to me, I couldn’t possibly imagine someone carrying all my sins times several billion to take on the sins of the world. And when I, as a Christian, see this portrayal of Jesus being whipped and nailed to a cross, I realize that I should have been in this man’s place. For all its imperfections, “The Passion of the Christ” drives this idea home.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will continually thank God for sending his one and only Son to die an excruciating death for your sins. And if you’re reading this having not confessed your sins to Jesus, I strongly encourage you to do so. Jesus took your sins with Him on the cross, and He’s waiting for you to come back to Him. He died for you—and He rose again! That is the whole point of Easter. In the film, the stone that covers Jesus’ burial tomb is rolled away, and Jesus stands up, holes in his hands, and walks out. Because Jesus rose from the dead after dying for us, we have a chance to be redeemed and live forever in Heaven someday. I hope to see you there.

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