This might sound weird coming from an agnostic (and more accurately, I think my spirituality leans toward secular Buddhism), but I recently watched one of my favorite movies for the first time in at least a decade, and on Easter weekend, no less: Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. But I think the reason I was drawn to The Passion of the Christ all those years ago (when I was ardently atheist) and now, is that a.) it’s an all-time great film owing to its filmmaking, acting, special effects, and ability to evoke emotion; and b.) even though I don’t believe in Jesus as a reincarnated deity who died for our sins, the basic contours of the story appeal to me. That Jesus was innocent and wrongfully convicted as it were, tortured, mocked and humiliated, and yet, still held no ill will toward his enemies, and kept getting back up as he’s forced to carry the object of his death (the cross for crucifixion). All the while, Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary, the mother of Jesus, follows Jesus, wiping up his blood, coming to him on his journey to death, and while he’s at the cross, and in that way — and this is something I picked up on more on this viewing than the first viewing —I found this story from a secular viewpoint to be the story of a mother’s love for her son. It was so damn beautiful, and Morgenstern gives one of the greatest performances of the 21st century largely through her emotions and face, not much dialogue. And of course, I love my boy Jim Caviezel (from Person of Interest!), who plays Jesus, and also largely gives his unforgettable performance through his face and his one eye (because the other eye was closed shut from the pounding he took). These are two incredible feats of acting, where I was totally bought in to their two “characters,” and their relationship as mother and son.
There’s something innate in me that gravitates toward a story of someone who takes unbelieve punishment … and keeps getting back up in a defiance of the tormenters who relish doling out the punishment. That’s a large part of why I love the Rocky movies. Yes, I just compared Jesus to Rocky and claimed him as an underdog to root for, which in this time period of around C.E. 30, Jesus and his movement, Christianity (which I don’t believe it would’ve gone by that name just yet), were the underdogs!
Yes, this movie is violent and vicious, and dang do I hate the people laughing while they lash Jesus and put the crown of thorns on his head and spit on him, but I feel like that’s all … sort of the point. First, because it goes back to my point about Jesus the underdog and facing all of that and still praying for his enemies. Secondly, I don’t know much about Roman crucifixions, but I can’t imagine they were dainty affairs! It had to be brutal! Scourging (the lashing) was done prior to crucifixion, and then the crucifixion, the conclusion after the torture and beatings, was itself, obviously, brutal.
I find the fact that Jesus faced such brutality and still kept going, still kept his faith, incredibly powerful and unforgettable. And I’m not religious! If I was a follower of Jesus and believed the story about him in the Bible, that he went through all of that for me specifically and mankind broadly, and then later rose up from the dead, to be incredibly moving and powerful. But I know the “torture porn” aspect of it is divisive with the religious for obvious reasons. (Who wants to see their savior flogged in such an unrelenting, camera-not-looking-away way?)
While watching the movie, I found myself getting goosebumps for the all the aforementioned reasons why the film resonates, but I especially got goosebumps toward the end at three key moments: 1.) I believe it’s when the Roman guards are brutally hammering the nails into Jesus, he cries out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” because even as they kill him, Jesus forgives. 2.) When Jesus tells the prisoner something to the effect of, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” because again, even while dying, Jesus was promising hope; and 3.) Nearly at death, Jesus looks skyward and cries out, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” I still haven’t found a good explanation for what he meant by that (the best interpretation I’ve seen is that perhaps it was a reflection of the human part of Jesus as he carried the full burden of the world’s sin, and in that moment, he was “abandoned” by the eternal relationship with God?), but it gave me goosebumps all the same. And whoops, a fourth one: 4.) After Jesus does die, there is an earthquake tearing the temple in two, and it’s like, those who killed Jesus, understood in that moment what they had done. Then, Satan screams out presumably from his position in hell because he lost. Jesus won. The underdog overcame!
The film then ends with Jesus rising up and blinking open his eyes and walking from his tomb.
Now, watching it a second time as an older viewer, I can see why people would claim the film is anti-Semitic, and that’s before Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade in 2006 surfaced, because of the way the Jewish High Priests are depicted as this sort of snarling evil cabal hellbent on pressuring the Roman authorities, most notably Pontius Pilate, into killing Jesus. That’s certainly a blemish on the film, and you can’t separate Gibson’s post-release-of-the-film anti-Semitic tirade from the film itself. For more information on how the Jews did not kill Jesus, read the Anti-Defamation League’s article about it.
I still think, if you’re able to compartmentalize that aspect (I know, I know), The Passion of the Christ is a powerful film, with a powerful message no matter one’s persuasion, and with phenomenal acting and special effects.