By Calvin Trager
February 25, 2004
The Passion of the Christ comes with a lot of baggage -- telling the core
story of an entire religion in a movie will do that. Charges of
anti-Semitism and questions of historical and Biblical accuracy have dogged
the film since director Mel Gibson announced his intentions. Obviously
depicting events and beliefs that have had a profound effect on history over
the past 2000 years or so does potentially hold major implications, but
let's just pretend for a moment that it's just a movie.
Viewers will bring varying contexts, beliefs, and levels of knowledge to the
film, but the object here is to examine The Passion of the Christ as a
stand-alone film while trying as much as possible to not bring preconceived
ideas into the equation. In this respect, The Passion of the Christ has
major problems, and it really begins with the story itself. Though the film
contains intense moments, it lacks any real dramatic arc and narrative
In the film a group of Jewish leaders wants Jesus of Nazareth out of the
picture, so they convince the Romans who rule the area to carry out his
capital punishment by crucifixion. At that point Jesus is beaten, whipped,
and tortured before having to carry his own cross through the city to the
site of his crucifixion. We also learn that Jesus is the son of God, and it
is his destiny to die in this way in order to absolve humans of their sins.
The bulk of the film focuses on the suffering of Jesus. He is beaten, and
whipped, and scourged, and forced to wear a crown of thorns, and forced to
carry the cross, and beaten some more by the crowd, and finally crucified.
These punishments are depicted in graphic detail - with much blood and gore
and all the wounds the make up artist can supply. This dominates so much of
the film that it is numbing to the point that of all things it becomes dull.
It begins to feel that more than half the movie consists of watching Jesus
drag the cross, which may conform to some scriptural accuracy, but in terms
of dramatic narrative, it becomes tedious. The Passion of the Christ hits
one note throughout its entire two hour running time.
The thankless task of playing Jesus falls on Jim Caviezel. There is no
nuance to his portrayal as there is no nuance written. He is asked for the
most part to suffer nobly, which he does well. It's a bit of a shame because
in flashback scenes, he does show a spark, but those flashbacks are far too
few and far too brief to provide any insight or add depth to the character.
One dimensionality is a common thread throughout the great majority of the
characters in the film, and while this may serve well in a religious context
it does not in a dramatic context. The instances where a character seems to
have any inner conflict are rare, and they almost exclusively belong to
Pontius Pilate. Hristo Shopov takes advantage of that and gives one of the
more interesting performances in the film.
What may (or may not) be most surprising, however, is that The Passion of
the Christ really belongs to the women. While Jesus endures the physical
suffering, it is the women in his life that endure the emotional suffering.
It is more painful and emotionally affecting to watch Mary witness her son
going through the ordeal than it is to sit through the many bloody
whippings. Maia Morgenstern gives the standout performance and provides the
film's most powerful moments. She has a touching moment with Pilate's wife,
Claudia, and when she runs to comfort her son, the moment is intercut with a
flashback that is admittedly manipulative, but she sells it and it works.
There is much about The Passion of the Christ worthy of praise and
admiration. The acting is fine, the sets are impressive, and the
cinematography is stellar. It again must be stressed that placed in a
religious context, the film may work better, and it is perhaps slightly
unfair to try to view it outside of that context. But on the other hand,
this is a movie review and not a religious discussion, and on those terms
The Passion of the Christ does not deliver. It is simply lacking in story
and momentum to drive the film forward and the result, although technically
admirable, is slow-paced, repetitive, and plodding.