The Passion of the Christ

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 12:57 PM

Arguably one of the most discussed movies in years, if not decades, I had somewhat mixed feelings going to see the Passion of the Christ. For the most part, I wanted to see it, but the violence did concern me - would it be violent just for the sake of violence?

By the sound of some reviews, such as the two in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one would think that it gloried in what the one review called “NC-17 level” violence. Now, crucifixion is a horribly violent act, the question was if the movie portrayed the violence in a way intended to provide insight or simply to be violent. If you believed the P-D critics, the latter option is the case (of course, one should always be wary of what the Post-Dispatch says, but that's another story).

After seeing the movie, I am glad to say that I can call the Post-Dispatch view of the movie completely off base. I can truthfully say that the violence, whilst very graphic and agonizing, was not violence for the sake of violence. Instead, it seems truly to have been arranged by Gibson in an attempt to make the viewer experience a very small bit of the suffering involved (obviously only a small bit since one is sitting comfortably in a theater). Sometimes that kind of thing is necessary - especially in the case of Gospel portrayals, dozens of which have provided a sanitized version of events that simply do not lend themselves to appreciating the magnitude of what is going on.

This movie is stunningly powerful. It was physically exhausting to watch, and, as I said, agonizing, but for a purpose: it pulls the audience through the experience of the crucifixion in a way that I do not believe any passion play or “Jesus movie” has ever accomplished. While virtually nothing in the movie is “new” to anyone familiar with the Gospels (and that's a good thing in a case like this), it allows you to experience the narrative of Christ's suffering and death in a whole new light.

From Jesus' praying in Gethsemane at the beginning, to Pilot's conflicting motives and desires, to the actual torture and crucifixion, the Passion is really an experience that immerses you in itself. The beauty of the film is that it makes one reflect on the familiar because seeing it in realistic detail makes it seem new again.

There were a few moments that were especially poignant, I thought. Exquisitely drawn out from the Gospel of John was Jesus' confrontation with Pilot. The way it was done didn't excuse Pilot in anyway, but showed the conflict within him as he fought to figure out what to do before finally taking the easy way out by washing his hands of the matter. When the film cuts back to Pilot during the earthquake after Jesus' death he appears to be reflecting on what has just happened - maybe not completely understanding it, but at least realizing some of it.

Also, as Jesus is carrying the cross, the scene between him and Mary was a hard one to watch. As he falls again from the weight of the cross after the brutal scourging, she rushes through the guards to try to help him. Yes, I know that isn't in the Bible, but certainly it seems like something that could have reasonably happened. He looks up at her and says “Behold, mother, I am making all things new” (that's from Revelation 21:5) - it communicates so perfectly exactly what Jesus was doing, and that, even in the middle of some of the worst torture that could be inflicted on anyone He still had His desire to make us new on his mind.

I think the choice to film in Aramaic and Latin was also wise, despite the fact that the decision essentially requires most people to read subtitles, rather than just watching the film. While the manuscripts of the New Testament available to us are in Greek, translating the words back to Aramaic adds to the environment of the film. The sound - the character - of the Semitic language being spoken lends itself to the effort to create an authentic environment for the film.

The movie is also rich in great symbolism that allows anyone looking for it to experience an even more in-depth narrative. Gibson did a stunning job of tying Jesus' life and Bible prophecy into other parts of the Bible. Early on, the reference to Genesis 3:15 is perfect for the scene before Jesus begins the sacrifice that will ultimately lead to the crushing of Satan forever. During Jesus' torture, the devil appears again, this time with a baby, presumably the anti-Christ. Even as Jesus is winning the battle, Satan is “previewing” his (well, in this case, her) last plan to take as many souls as possible. Finally, toward the end of the film, right after Jesus dies, the “tear of God” is a unique and dramatic interlude before the earthquake rends the curtain in the temple, ending the separation between God and man.

Finally, I thought the brief scene of the resurrected Jesus was extremely powerful. When the scene fades in, after the camera pans over to Jesus, you have the excitement of the resurrection, but also the expression that what he just went through was excruciating. Its one last reminder, just incase the rest of the movie wasn't able to drill it in enough, that Jesus' sacrifice wasn't easy, it came at a terrible cost. This was a case of less being more, I know some people thought more of the resurrection should have been shown, but I think that would have shifted the viewer's focus completely to the joy of the resurrection and have diluted the picture's message. Everyone likes to think about the resurrection, the crucifixion is much less comfortable but no less important to remember.

I've spent a number of hours since seeing the film trying to write this and I find it is almost impossible to really put the experience into words. The Passion of the Christ is a unique and breathtaking rendering of the Gospels. No, it may not cover every part of the Gospels, but what it does include it includes in a way that seems faithful in every way to the Gospels.

This is one movie that truly uses every resource the medium of film offers to provide a better understanding of God's sacrifice for us. On Wednesday night at the Lenten service, one of the hymns was What Wondrous Love is This, a hymn that I always find especially moving.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

Seeing the Passion the week before, I couldn't help but really dwell on the words “dreadful curse.” Again, even though I knew the kind of things Jesus went through, the experience of actually witnessing what it might have been like only amplified the words to that great hymn.

The Passion, in my opinion, accomplishes its goals perfectly. It is one of the most masterfully produced films I have ever seen (if not the most), and the only one that truly shows the extent of suffering Jesus was willing to go through for me and for you.

RATING: *****

Tags: Faith

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