By John H. Foote
Fifteen years ago, Mel Gibson’s extraordinary, though troubling, Biblical film roared to massive financial success around the globe, bringing in more than 800 million dollars at the box office, and generally strong reviews. I first screened the film with press on a chilly morning and emerged from the cinema galvanized, stunned, sickened and altered in some small way. Gibson had made it clear his film was not about the life of Jesus Christ, but the last 12 hours as he marched slowly, agonizingly to his death. So, we knew we were not seeing a happy film, that much was clear.
The film was hugely controversial, dividing audiences and critics, though the box office was stormed. There was almost a need for all to see the film to experience exactly what Christ experienced the last 12 hours of his life. Religious leaders were equally divided, some praising the films striking authenticity, others calling the gratuitous just short of porn.
Already an Academy Award winner for his historical epic Braveheart (1995), Gibson watched with almost disbelief as his film about Scottish warrior William Wallace walked away with five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Though I am among those who challenge those wins, there is no doubt about his gifts as a filmmaker, which were on full display in The Passion of the Christ. Truly, Braveheart was outstanding, often gruesomely violent, but a solid film with grand battle scenes and strong characters.
But nothing prepared me for the excruciating images of pain and suffering Gibson portrayed on the screen in The Passion of the Christ. Torture at the time of Christ truly was barbaric, execution equally so as the Romans seemed downright gleeful in finding new and inventive ways to tear the human body apart. The astonishing manner Christ (Jim Cavaziel) stands to what they do to him is often inspirational (more later). Most horrific is the scourging, a long powerful sequence where the Roman soldiers laugh as they whip Jesus with a whip-like instrument with pieces of metal tied into the ends of the rope. It literally rips the flesh off his body. That the Romans laughed as they tortured this poor man was terrifying, that the Jewish elders stood by watching despicable, that his mother watched heartbreaking.
Brought back before Pilate, the leader is stunned by what his men have done to this man, now a pulpy mass of oozing flesh and blood, his robes crimson with soaked blood. Not understanding why, the crowd and the elders call for this man’s death, he gives it to them, though I doubt he knew why.
Thus begins the march to Golgotha, where they will crucify Christ. Carrying his cross through the streets up to the hill, crowds lining the streets, he just keeps moving forward. When he falls, he starts again, when he is beaten, he takes it and continues. Finally, at the top of the hill, he is brutally nailed to the cross, the long nails piercing his flesh, hammered into his body and the thick wood below. Blood stains the dry ground all around the cross, the angry crown of thorns cuts deep into Christ’ flesh, streams of blood trickle down his anguished face.
And still it is not over.
The cross is stood upright and slamed into the ground. His followers weep, the Romans jeer, except one who seems overwhelmed at the event, he cannot take his eyes off Christ, who calls out to his father to forgive those doing this to him. Crucifixion takes a long-time, the victims slowly suffocate. When it takes too long the Romans break the legs of the victims to hurry death along. As the skies grow dark, the wind lashes those on the hill, a tear falls from the heavens as Christ dies. A Roman plunges his spear deep into the side of Jesus to ensure death, causing an explosion of gathered blood. Dead, they bury him in a crypt, from which he rises days later, finishing the Easter story that has stood the passing of time for more than 2,000 years.
Gibson financed the film, nearly 30 million dollars, ensuring he could make the film entirely the way he wanted. He shot the film using dead languages, Aramaic and Latin, and at one time was not going to use subtitles. The studio who negotiated distribution with Gibson convinced him to use subtitles and allowed the film to go out with the startling violence intact.
When released audiences and critics were stunned by the film; by the raw power of the images, the visceral horror of the torture, by the relentless manner Christ kept moving forward.
I do not believe Christ was the son of God, but I do believe he must have been an extraordinary human being. His teachings? I believe. For his story to have inspired so many cultures he must have been flesh, and that is what I believe, that Christ was a man of flesh and blood, not a glowing entity. Gibson portrays his Christ as such, and actor Jim Cavaziel brings a reverence to the role but is never anything but human.
While most reviews and commentaries about the film were fair, there were some who attacked the film as being anti-Semitic. Rubbish. It was nothing of the kind. History tells us many of the elders of the Jewish faith petitioned Pilate to kill Christ. Again, rubbish, there was nothing anti-Semitic about or in the film.
The film is beautiful to look at, the crisp, pristine images capturing the horrors of crucifixion in startling contradiction. The film opens in beautiful blue lighting in the garden where Christ is betrayed by Judas. Incredibly the beating begins in the garden with the soldiers only too anxious to beat Christ. Where the film is truly brilliant is in the recreation of the path to crucifixion and the actual crucifixion. Intimate details are filmed, the hammering of the nails into his hands and feet, the brutality in how he was treated, both moving, deeply so and horrifying. I felt like I was watching a documentary, as though the cameras had somehow been transported back in time to record this event. Scenes of stunning cruelty are juxtaposed with simply beautiful cinematography, which transport us in time back to one of history’s most remembered events.
Gore Vidal once wrote a book entitled Live from Golgotha, which dealt with a news crew being transported in time to shoot the crucifixion, which is how I felt watching the film. That is how brilliantly Gibson brought to life this horrible event.
It is without question the single most demanding film I have experienced, but the demands on the audience are worth the journey.
Jim Cavaziel is a very noble, human Jesus. His eyes bore into whoever he speaks with, but they are brimming with kindness, with love. He accepts what is happening to him as destiny, but not without fear, as we see with his shaking hands as they prepare to scourge him. Unspeakable horror was brought down on this man before being nailed to that cross, but he just kept moving towards it.
Most of the performances rely on facial expression, especially Christ’s followers. Monica Belluci, with those haunting eyes is superb as Mary, her eyes a window into her soul revealing the pain she feels.
Images are the great strength of the film, and those images are what you will remember.
An astonishing work of art, a film masterpiece, however divisive.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”