If anyone sees The Passion of the Christ as being some sort of evangelical tool, I really wouldn’t want to meet any of their converts. The plot of this film – in a nutshell – is that some mad Judean prophet gets arrested, beaten, scourged and crucified.
It is an anti-Semitic film – the Jews are portrayed as a baying mob, led by an uncaring, politically astute, cadre of priests who are able to easily manipulate the well meaning but ineffectual Pilate.
And while the Roman leadership is portrayed as being weak-willed, indecisive and unable to keep control in the face of the Jewish priests’ manipulation, the Roman soldiers are largely presented as a bunch of ill disciplined, drunken thugs.
If this portrayal has even a passing resemblance to historical accuracy the Romans would have been simply incapable of building an empire.
As for whether the anti-Semitism present in the film derives from Mel Gibson’s beliefs or simply reflects the anti-Semitism inherent in the New Testament stories: I would really like to believe that Gibson doesn’t have an axe to grind here, but there were several scenes that seem to suggest otherwise.
The most obvious of these is during Jesus’ beating – immediately prior to the scourges (which, incidentally, is what the Bible tells us that Jesus used on the traders during his temper tantrum at the temple). During this scene, the camera turns to the audience, giving us a shot of the Roman centurion – looking uncomfortable – in front. Behind him are the priests – calmly watching to ensure the beating meets their standards. And among the priests is Satan.
The only motivation I can see for including this shot in the film is to attempt to align the motives of Satan with those of the priests. Even then it makes no sense – if Jesus really was the messiah, the last thing Satan would want to see would be his torture, execution and subsequent martyrdom.
Adding Satan to this scene in this way undermines both the logic of the film and its presumed message.
And then there’s the violence.
The Passion of the Christ does contain some very brutal imagery, but I have to admit that I found it surprisingly unmoving. Films such as The Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Blood Sucking Freaks are all far more painful to watch that The Passion.
And the reason for this is that, although The Passion has both a greater quantity of on-screen violence, and although this violence is far more explicit than that in many other films, the film itself doesn’t provide the audience with any reason to connect with or care about its central character.
Instead, we are simply given a special effect to marvel at.
In making this film, Mel Gibson, seems to have assumed that the audience is not only familiar with the story but also in agreement with his own assumptions to the extent that he has no need to provide any explanation of what is going on or any indication of why.
The problem with taking this approach is that it causes the film to lack any sort of narrative hook. There is simply nothing in the film – in terms of either plot or character development – to draw the audience into the story. In fact, it’s worse than this because, by forcing the audience to refer to external knowledge in order to understand what is going on, the film makes it impossible to suspend one’s disbelief.
As such, rather than following the story, I found myself picking holes in it.
Judas’ character, for example, was so inconsistent as to become entirely unbelievable. And what was the point of his being harassed by childish demons? Are we expected to believe that Satan wanted to drive Judas to suicide? If so, why?
And while I’m in the subject, am I the only person who finds the child/demon link that pervades the film more than a little disturbing?
And, of course, there is the treatment of Jesus himself. We watch him being beaten to a bloody pulp and are then expected to accept that he was capable of carrying his own cross, if only for a few steps. Quite frankly, given the state he was portrayed as being in, any attempt to lift the cross – or even walk – would have resulted in his falling flat on his face and passing out. Any further beating would have killed him.
And, unfortunately for those that see this film as being some sort of evangelical tool, the existence of these narrative inconsistencies and the fact that you are constantly forced to refer outside of the film to understand what is going on means that your attention becomes drawn to the larger inconsistencies inherent in the Christian story.
Pilate, washing his hands of the affair, for example.
Crucifixion was a Roman punishment inflicted on the enemies of Rome. So, for Jesus to have been crucified, Pilate – far from washing his hands of the affair – would have to have considered Jesus to be a threat to his governorship or a danger to the empire.
If Pilate had decided that he wanted nothing to do with this, he would have handed Jesus back to the Jewish Council of Elders who were fully authorized to sentence him to death by stoning.
And while we’re on the subject of who did what, what about Barabbas?
We are expected to believe that the Romans – a ruthlessly successful military empire – had an annual tradition of letting dangerous criminals loose? Given that this idea gets no mention anywhere outside of the New Testament, I think it’s pretty safe to dismiss it as fiction.
And then we have the behaviour of Satan.
Here’s a character whose motivation is about as straightforward as it gets. Prevent Jesus from becoming a martyr or face ultimate defeat.
So what does he do? Slimes around looking smug.
It’s a pity real villains aren’t as stupid as this.
Overall, The Passion of the Christ is not a powerful film – neither is it a particularly good one. The violence is explicit without being moving and what little narrative there is is so weak that it merely highlights the multiple inconsistencies that exist in the source material.