Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ
The Passion of the Christ is unlike any other movie I have ever seen. It focuses on the central figure of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ, and the central event of Christianity, Jesus’ death and resurrection. With the exception of a few flashback scenes (all beautifully and powerfully incorporated – see below), the movie only portrays the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life. Thus, there is no character development in the traditional moviemaking sense. We see glimpses of Jesus’ character in the way that He responds (or does not respond) to the events that unfold before Him (and that eventually lead to His death), but by the time the movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, He has already made His mark on the world. His actions, His teachings, and His miracles had already touched many, and one could proclaim Him a great figure of history based solely on His life to that point. But it was His death and resurrection that would transform and save humankind.
Many Christians observe communion as a sacrament to commemorate the broken body and shed blood of Jesus that enable our justification before God and the forgiveness of our sins. In doing so, I believe that most of us – myself included – give thanks for Jesus’ laying down of His life but do not often think about the extent of His suffering prior to His death. The Passion of the Christ brings the viewer face to face with that suffering in unrelenting fashion from beginning to end. From the initial blows outside the garden to the cruel lashes by the Roman soldiers (many of them shown, in sometimes gruesome detail) to the continued beatings on the Via Dolorosa, truly this was Jesus as the Lamb of God, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. While I believe Jesus suffered just a much (if not more) emotionally and spiritually from being forsaken by God the Father on the Cross, our human response to His physical suffering is more visceral. To the non-Christian, the movie’s portrayal of Jesus’ suffering is probably a pointless exercise in gratuitous violence. To the believer, the realism of the suffering gives new meaning to the oft-quoted “By His stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5) and evokes an even deeper appreciation of the depth of His sacrifice. No longer can we glibly sing, “lead me to Calvary” ….
As mentioned above, we do see glimpses of Jesus’ life through several well-placed flashback scenes. Most powerful of these are the ones involving Mary, mother of Jesus, interacting with Him as mother and son. There is a heart-wrenching flashback when Mary remembers Jesus as a little boy, helping Him up after He had fallen. She had probably done this many times throughout His childhood, in the way that all mothers instinctively protect and comfort their sons. But now she can know longer protect Him from the hands and whips of the Roman soldiers, and we empathize with her helplessness. Of all people, Mary knew who Jesus was, so we resonate with her fervent plea to Jesus after he had endured the lashes of the soldiers: “When, where, how will You choose to be delivered of this?” Later, Jesus responds to her after being beaten again, “Mother, see how I make all things new?” Here, we are reminded of an earlier flashback to Jesus as a carpenter’s son, carefully working on a table and proudly displaying the finished product to Mary. In the present, while He is suffering, the phrase “make all things new” makes no sense, but we know from the book of Acts that Mary lived to see her son resurrected, bringing new light to those and many other words of Jesus.
One other powerful flashback is Jesus’ remembrance of the adoring shouts of the crowd as He entered Jerusalem on a donkey just one week before, to the cries of “Hosanna!” In the present, the crowd is still shouting, but only for His harm, viciously and without mercy. In this we see an unflinching depiction of two aspects of human nature, how fickle we are (quickly moving from love to hate) and how easily misled we are (especially as one of a crowd). Because of human nature, we can also relate to the guilt (if not the actions) of both Peter and Judas for their parts in the passion play. For Peter, thankfully, godly sorrow brought repentance and, ultimately, restoration before the risen Lord.
Much has been made about the ending of the movie and its brief depiction of the risen Lord. From a moviemaking point of view, I can understand why Mel Gibson might have chosen not to film the resurrection scenes: in moving from the physical to the supernatural, he would have risked the visceral connection of the viewers to the experiences of Christ. The title of the movie, after all, refers to the passion (i.e., suffering) of Christ, not necessarily His supernatural victory over death. Yet, another part of me wishes that Gibson, as skilled a filmmaker as he is, had at least attempted to film the resurrection scenes, because after portraying the grief of Jesus and all those around Him in such painstaking and realistic detail, there would have been a tremendous emotional payoff in watching Jesus and His followers (especially Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Peter) rejoice in His resurrection, with the accompanying realization by Jesus’ followers of the wisdom of God’s plans. Christians know how the story ends, though, and in a sense the emotional payoff is there whether the scenes are depicted on film or reside in our imaginations. In the end, the power of the film is its ability to draw us into the experiences of Christ in those last few hours of His life, helping us to understand how great a victory it truly was on the other side of the grave.