We've learned a lot in forty years on this Earth. The most important bit of learning is that you can get along with just about anyone as long as you don't discuss religion. So much for what we've learned. The sad thing is that once a story based on reality is committed to screen, it has become the norm to assume that the way it is seen on screen is the way it was. There has been so much information discovered about the time of Jesus in the last fifty years alone that you might think that some of it would be reflected in a story recreating the period. You'd think. Regardless of what we write in review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, we're doomed. It doesn't really matter that we spent close to three years of university time studying first century Christianity and religious history -- a fascinating subject -- and so have a little bit of knowledge with which to judge a historical story. If we find negatives to report, fundamentalists will read the fine print, see a Jewish surname and automatically surmise erroneously. We'll do our best to try and avoid anything resembling a pre-existing conception about this film if the hard core fundamentalists try to do the same about our tribe.
As we've written before, you shouldn't have to read the book to understand the movie. As with any movie we expect certain things. We expect that characters be introduced, developed and (in the case of the major players) that their stories pay off by the end of the film. None of these expectations are met in Gibson's film which, more often than not, had us wondering who the supporting characters seen on screen were and what they had to do with the story that was being told.
As for the story, this is one of the few times you already know most of it. Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus (Jim Caviezel) who some considered to be the Messiah. His mother, Mary (Maya Morgenstern) loved him, and another Mary, Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) was involved in his life. Forget about trying to figure out how that was. Gibson doesn't bother to pick a background story for them, either, nor does he offer any kind of reason why the disciple Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) betrays his Master. That's where the story starts. Either you know your Bible or you're in for a long two hours.
Judas is dispatched early in the film, thanks to some symbolism we didn't understand and a handy rope with which to hang himself. Then, the High Priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) takes center stage in the battle to take down this would be king. Nothing we've seen of Jesus, beginning with prayer in the Garden of Gesthemane, has given any indication of what the man said to so piss off the ruling class. Jesus is taken before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), a wimp of a Roman governor who has already been warned by his loving wife (Claudia Gerini), that the "criminal" before him could be trouble. Pilate passes the case back to the Jewish King Herod, who seems more interested in throwing a good party and the whole mess winds up back in poor Pilate's lap. Right in the middle of the screaming crowd, all paid off by the Temple Guard, are the high priests led by Caiphas screaming "Crucify him!" louder and more clearly than the rest.
Stirring up the crowd is in the gospels. Paying off the crowd is an addition that comes strictly from Gibson's mind. This brings us back to the "seeing it on screen makes it real" theorem and it is the first of two swipes at the Tribe. Well, we tried to keep it in check, but anti-Semitism is rife in the NT if that's what you want to show. There's no need to embellish it, as Gibson has.
Pilate, as depicted, is such a wimp that he listens to the crowd. The man who, historically, murdered with such a ferocity -- even his fellow Romans were so disgusted they recalled him from his post, specifically for crucifying a different messiah and a four thousand or so of his followers -- is a wimp??!! Don't that beat all? Then comes the Scourging, with bits of skin and lots of streams of blood go flying across the big screen. Eventually it all comes down to the crucifixion, just as bloody. Thanks to Gibson's decision to shoot the film in its native languages, we had the safety barrier of subtitles to keep us emotionally distanced. In turn, this kept our stomach settled and our blood from boiling.
While Gibson drops an occasional flashback into his film to introduce some of the story's history, it is done clumsily. Without prior knowledge, the material makes little sense. That's as much a fault of the decision to show only the last 12, give or take, hours of Jesus' life, from betrayal and arrest to a special effects free resurrection. There's too much symbolism flitting through the film that has no meaning to those who haven't been clued in. If you haven't had the proper bible study, the appearance in the proceedings by a certain bald guy makes no sense (it's Satan, btw). As well, limited to only those twelve hours, there is almost nothing of what Jesus preached or of the actions which would have set the priests, or the Romans for that matter, against him.
Regardless of where your religious beliefs lie, parents should think more than twice about taking little kidlets to see The Passion of the Christ. Two hours of gruesome, sadistic, stomach-turning and hard core graphically violent torture detached from any background information is not something to expose kids to, regardless of religion. Kids of a slightly older age may ask "Mommy? Why is Jesus a punching bag?" and then you can explain all the stuff about "dying for your sins," and inflict enough psychological terror on the kid to require a good twenty years of therapy. Or you can blame the Jews which, intended or not, is the message the film delivers as Gibson caps the piece with all the high priests standing at the foot of the cross, looking, ah, regretful.