...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

February 28, 2004

Is It As It Was?

i went with Betty and her sister to see The Passion of the Christ Friday night, but it was sold out. In fact, all the evening shows were sold out the whole weekend. So, the three of us ended up seeing the 10:00 matinee in Glendale on Saturday. Now that i’ve had some time to reflect, here’s what i think.


After an advance screening of The Passion, the Pope is said to have remarked: “It is as it was.” A few days ago, i wrote about my preliminary expectations. If you plan to see the movie but haven’t, i may ruin some of the experience, so you may want to stop reading now. Even though everybody knows how it ends, i think it’s best to view any movie without foreknowledge of how the filmmakers plan to tell the story.

It’s definitely an important movie. Is it a masterpiece, as some have called it? i really don’t think so. If you’re a Christian, it's not a movie that you can walk away from without being affected in some way. But it's missing something. It was well made. i’m glad i saw it. i’ll probably see it again, even though it is very difficult to watch. i didn’t hate it, but at this point, i’m not sure i can say i liked it. Maybe i wasn’t supposed to.

While the movie has its flaws, The Passion is realistic enough to make me almost believe i was there, at the crucifixion, something i have been hearing about and reading about all my life. That’s a powerful thing. There are moments of great emotional intensity. Betty cried throughout the movie, and she was shaking afterwards. As i walked out of the theater, i felt as if things were different, somehow. None of us wanted to talk for a while, but those feelings have worn off by now.

What i Liked

There are a few scenes that i liked very much. One scene in particular was a flashback scene with Jesus after he has built a table. Also, the stoning of Mary Magdelene was very nicely done. There’s no dialogue in that scene and it’s completely in slow motion. i couldn’t tell what was going on until the final shot when Mary’s face came onscreen, then it all made sense. Very powerful.

Gibson’s treatment of Simon the Cyrenian was unusual too. i always pictured him as volunteering to help carry the cross, but i think his initial reluctance makes more sense.

The actors who played Simon Peter and Mary, Jesus’ mother, both gave very fine performances. The lack of makeup on the women in the film also added to the realism.

Satan was played by a woman, but made up to look androgynous. She was scary. The scene with Judas under a bridge made me jump in my seat. i also thought using kids to taunt Judas just before he hangs himself made it more diabolical.

Technically, the movie is very well made. The music, visual effects, and photography are all great. The director of photography, Caleb Deschanel, also did The Right Stuff, The Natural and The Patriot.

Is It As It Was? - Historical Accuracy

Mel Gibson obviously wanted to show us the most historically accurate Jesus film to date. Unfortunately, and as i feared, his commitment to accuracy was not as consistent as i would have liked.


My biggest problem is one that has been talked about a lot in the professional reviews. There is too much blood, too early, in my opinion. i thought about this for a long time. Perhaps if the amount of torture had been realistic, i wouldn’t have been as bothered by it. But, at least during the scourging, i think Gibson overdid it. i don’t think it was realistic.

The scourging scene goes on for an unnecessarily long time. Historically, people died from scourging. It didn’t take a lot of strokes to kill someone, and Jesus was whipped savagely in the movie. Though i’m not an expert on this, i really do think any person would have died from that amount of flogging. There was so much blood on the floor after the scourging scene, it is impossible to believe that Jesus wouldn't have at least passed out, let alone believe that he could carry a heavy cross afterwards. We know that Jesus did not die until he was on the cross for three hours, so i think Gibson overdid the scourging scene.

People died on the cross because it was so hard to breathe while hanging up there. if i’m not mistaken, i believe the Nazis did some awful experiments to confirm this. i remember reading about it a long time ago in a book about the shroud. To breathe while on the cross, a person had to pull themself up by the arms to take each breath. Eventually they got too tired from the pain and torture of each breath and they suffocated.

That’s why the soldiers broke the legs of the thieves. When people took too long to die, they would break their legs to hurry the process, because then the victims wouldn’t be able to use their legs to help push themselves up for each breath. Gibson showed the leg breaking, but chose not to show the crucified men struggling to breathe up to that point.

It’s possible Gibson felt that Jesus had to be practically dead when he was on the cross, since he died without needing his legs broken. But i still feel that, given the severity of that scourging, Jesus would never have made it to Golgotha. We know that He did, and not only that, He was able to survive three hours on the cross.

The alternative to breaking the legs was to lance the victim through the heart, which they did to Jesus. That was one of the scenes when i became emotional during the movie, when the water starts coming out from the side. i always knew that story, but i’d never seen it done on film that way. It was hearbreaking.

Betty had a theory that since Jesus was God, he therefore could take more punishment, but i disagree. The whole point of Jesus’ torture and death was for Him to submit to it as a man. Using His power as God to withstand any torture would have been accepting the Devil’s temptation.

If one accepts that Jesus could have survived that horrible scourging, the amount of blood and the wounds do seem realistic, and i wouldn’t have a problem with Gibson’s choice to show that accurately. i just don’t think the scourging could have been that severe.

Thematically, it’s clear Gibson wanted to shock the audience with the amount of torture in the scourging. His torture represents the sins of mankind. It looks horrible because Gibson wants to impress us with the magnitude of God’s gift to us. That was the director's choice. If Gibson had toned it down to a less shocking level, maybe we wouldn’t get the message.

With that goal in mind, i still wish we could have seen Jesus’ face a little more clearly. It’s so dark with blood, it’s really grotesque and hard to look at by the end of the movie. Maybe i’m just squeamish and maybe that’s what Gibson wanted.

i had a problem with the cross too. Like i said, Jesus should have been carrying the patibulum, not the whole cross. i don’t understand why Gibson would choose to have each thief carry a patibulum and then have Jesus carry the unwieldy cross. That doesn’t make sense to me. Why would the Romans have treated Jesus differently from the two other condemned men?

Still, it didn’t bother me as much as Franco Zefferelli’s cross in Jesus of Nazareth, which was more like a scaffolding than anything else.

Another thing, Gibson put the nails in the palms. In that book on the shroud, i read that the flesh of the hand was not strong enough to hold the weight of a human for longer than a few minutes. In the movie, there’s some rope around the wrists, but i don’t buy that either. The Shroud of Turin shows the nail wounds in the wrists. Even if the Shroud is not authentic, you have to admit that the maker of the Shroud knew a lot about how people were crucified.

Does the brutality of the movie take away from its message? Some critics say it does. But i think many critics are confused about the message. And what is the message of The Passion of the Christ? Read the opening lines to J.S. Bach’s choral masterpiece, the St. Matthew’s Passion.

Come you daughters, help me lament.
See Him!
The bridegroom. See him.
See Him like a lamb.
O guiltless Lamb of God
Slaughtered on the stem of the cross.
See Him!
Behold His patience
Always He was patient,
Although He was despised.
See Him!
Behold our guilt.
All sin hast Thou borne
Else we must needs despair.
See Him, out of love and graciousness,
Himself carrying the wood for the Cross.
Have mercy upon us o Jesus.
If you ask me, that’s the message of Gibson’s Passion, too. It invites us to look, to see Him, not to turn away, but to see clearly what He did for us.

Nowadays, people seem to think that Jesus came simply to tell us to be nice to each other. It’s a pleasant message, and it fits into our overly secular world without ruffling too many feathers. But, it’s not why Jesus came here. Remember, we didn’t need Jesus to tell us to "love our neighbor." That commandment was already in Leviticus. But in our secular world, people have forgotten the real reason Jesus came to earth, which was to suffer, to die, and to rise again.

People complain that there’s not enough teaching in the movie. That might be a bit unfair. To make a movie that emphasized Jesus’ teachings would be to make a different movie. But i will say that it would have been a more pleasant viewing experience if Gibson had balanced the horror with more uplifting scenes.


Is The Passion Anti-Semitic?

Some people, including some professional film critics, have said that The Passion is “clearly" anti-semitic. If that is true, then the Gospels are even more anti-semitic. Gibson’s Passion is less anti-semitic than the Gospels, and remember, the Gospels were all written by practicing Jews.

i don’t think the movie is anti-semitic, though. The bad guy is Caiaphas, for sure. But even other members of the religious hierarchy are shown openly disagreeing with Caiaphas. i don’t remember that being in the New Testament. Anyone who sees this movie, and then extrapolates Caiaphas into a representative of all jews, including today’s . . . perhaps that person should look inside their own heart first.

Would i recommend this movie? Yes and no. i'm not one of those who says "everyone should see this movie." It's not for everyone. i don't see any reason for a non-Christian to see it, other than curiosity. But then a non-Christian might not have the theological background to know why we believe what is onscreen represents a good thing.

Anyone who is dead set against this film or Mel Gibson, probably shouldn't see it. It won't change their mind. But i would recommend it for practicing Christians. At least one viewing, as long as you keep in mind this caveat: it's just a movie, it's one man's interpretation, it's not a substitute for the Gospel.

Posted by annika, Feb. 28, 2004 |
Rubric: Faith & Let's Go To Hollywood


You can check my reaction to The Passion on my Feb 29th essay at



Posted by: Mark on Feb. 29, 2004

The second time I saw the Passion the scene with Simon stood out to me. He says something to the effect of "I am an innocent man forced to carry the cross for a condemned criminal." This is exactly what Jesus was-an innocent man carrying the cross for the condemned." While by no means a historically acurate scene it was a good theological summary of the cross.

Posted by: BE on Feb. 29, 2004

I agree with most of what you said, but I slightly disagree with you on the scourging. While it did seem a bit much, I think that Gibson covered that angle in one of his flashback seens from the sermon on the mount. "No man can take my life. Only I can lay it down" (or something to that effect).

Going into the movie, I knew how brutal the Romans were. They enjoyed seeing a person in pain. You could see it on the faces of the Roman soldiers. They were getting a kick out of it, and didn't really care if they killed him or not.

I agree that using his any power given to him by God would be giving into the temptation of Satan, but at the same time, I don't believe he solely went without it. In the garden he is asking God to give him the strength to endure it, and obviously he did. Was it too much? Probably, but know one knows but God and Jesus. The scene did make it's point though.

One thing that you touched on that I liked was the children tormenting Judas. What I liked about it is the fact that Gibson gave motives for the actions of people that were glossed over, such as Judas hanging himself. While that motive maybe obvious with Judas (the betraying of Jesus), I think for the sake of telling the story adding the children and spirits tormenting a "cursed" Judas helps the movie.

One review that I read talked about how Pilots character was treated, a passive and compassionate leader, when in reality he was a brutal govenor who hated his post and people even more, and put down several rebellions with an iron fist. I think Gibson answered this as well by the dialogue between Pilot and his wife Claudia. Pilot had been told by Caesar that if he has another deals harshly with the Jews again, it will be his blood that is shed next. Pilot being caught in a Catch 22 position (Kill Jesus: rebellion by his followers; Don't kill Jesus: Ciaphas starts a rebellion of his own). Driven by this fact, he comes off as more compassionate when in reality he was being himself, a politician. He was still not a nice guy.

Anyway, you brought up the important part; If you watch the movie, it will change your life. You will never look at the sacrifice of Christ in the same light. Ever. And it is not for everyone. Even if you are a Christian, if you cannot handle violence, but still want to see it, watch it when it comes out on DVD in the privacy of your own home.

Posted by: javaslinger on Feb. 29, 2004

Sorry if the above post did not make sense at times. It is late. I will try to do better in the future, but I hope everyone can get my point.

Posted by: javaslinger on Feb. 29, 2004

Excellent review. I wasn't going to make an effort to go see it, but now I think I will. Thanks.

Posted by: ginger on Mar. 1, 2004

Thanks for such a lengthy and thoughtful review, Annika!

Posted by: Hugo on Mar. 1, 2004

IMO, the chief complaints of the critics (aside from the outrageous anti-semitism charge): Lack of context, pornographic violence, etc., are absurd...This is analogous to questioning the angle of God's arm in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, or wishing that Caravaggio would have arranged the "Taking of Christ" differently.

These are the inspired interpretations of artists...his freedom is absolute in this regard...many have pointed out the hypocrisy of Hollywood before but: It's worth contrasting the establishment reaction to Last Temptation vs. The Passion. Scorsese is free to depict Jesus in any fashion yet Gibson is "controversial".

Posted by: Jason O. on Mar. 1, 2004

Great review. Being a Reformed Protestant, I would be slightly more critical of the Roman Catholic theology in the film, and slightly less critical of the violence, but generally I agree with your review.

Posted by: Chris A. on Mar. 2, 2004

Thanks for the review! I haven't yet seen the film, but want to go to the theatre alone.

Many people have commented on the historical inacuracies of the carrying the whole cross and the nailing through the hands instead of the wrists. Remember this is a movie, not a history book or a documentary. Artists have to make many choices for different reasons. Carrying the whole cross may not have been historical, but it keeps the image of the cross on the screen longer. Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me" and this image reinforces that, among other things. Picturing Jesus with wounds in his hands is as old as religious art itself. The five wounds of Christ are very important in religious art symbolism and sometimes it is appropriate to recognizable symbols.

I am speaking as one who creates religious art for a living. There are so many difficult choices to make in creating any piece of art.

Posted by: Sarah Hempel on Mar. 2, 2004