When The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, Mel Gibson received a lot of criticism for his use of on screen violence.
At the time, the debate centered around how much violence was too much. “Saw”, also released in 2004 was a lot more grotesque and involved individuals inflicting pain on each other for viewing pleasure. Similarly, “Hostel”, released in 2005, also saw brutal and sickening acts of torture carried out on individuals all in the name of entertainment.
What set “The Passion” apart from these other films was that the victim of violence was no fictional character, but Jesus Christ himself.
Critics have argued whether or not it was really necessary to show Jesus being beaten and crucified as was shown in Gibson’s picture.
Gibson intended to show crucifixion how it really was, and he used this to justify his use of violence.
Other critics argued that by the time “The Passion” was released, audiences had become so desensitised to violence that they would demand nothing less than seeing Christ brutally scourged and mercilessly crucified on screen.
Still, other arguments surfaced that the brutality of the film took away its artistic flavour. Sometimes it’s better to hint at things on screen rather than go out of the way to show it. (Remember the homosexual innuendo in Lawrence of Arabia?)
One thing was for certain, the film was controversial.
Film makers in the past would not have dared to show Jesus being victimised to so much on screen violence.
The movie was released in 2004 and biblical epics have came a long way since Charlton Heston starred as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Audiences in 2004 demanded much more from Hollywood biblical epics.
Part of this has to do with changes in censorship over the years, audience expectations and a sense of realism.
Past depictions of Christ show him as a clean cut miracle worker who suffered, albeit lightly, while on the cross.
Pier Pasolini, in his masterpiece, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” portrayed Jesus as a frustrated messiah who is angered by social inequalities.
Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” shows us a Jesus who is both man and who is also divine.
Gibson’s portrayal of Christ shows him who he really was, a man who loved his fellow humans and who suffered for them.
With Easter just gone, I think now may be a good time to take a look back at the film that was “The Passion of the Christ.”
Set during the final hours of Christ’s life, “The Passion” tells the same story told to millions of Christians every Easter. The story of his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection.
The movie opens in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus, praying to God, is tempted by the devil.
Overcoming his temptation, Christ stumbles into a brigade of soldiers, led by none other than Judas. Judas then hands Jesus over to the soldiers, the soldiers in turn bring him to Caiaphas, Herod and eventually Pilate, where he is sentenced to be scourged and crucified.
Jim Caviezel gives a good performance as Jesus. At first, in the Gethsemane scenes, he plays Christ as a man who is in deep distress, but through faith and love for his fellow man, he transcends any fear of death.
Other notable performances include Maia Morgenstern as Mary, mother of Jesus and Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate.
A sense of realism is added to the movie as the actors had to recite their lines in aramaic, the language of Jesus’ time. Rather than deter from the movie, this adds a more realistic tone to the film.
The costumes and sets are also worth a mention. The Pharisees, in their long robes, reek of arrogance and hypocrisy. Pilate’s courtyard is also very realistic.
Gibson keeps the use of special effects to a minimum. The most notable use of effects in the film include the scene were Judas is chased by the young boys who suddenly change appearance to become devils.
Although eternal life through suffering is the main theme of the movie, audiences certainly did not watch the movie for its message of salvation, they came to the cinemas in droves because of the violence.
Picture the film without any violence. Would the movie have achieved as much success at the box office? I think not. Gibson was capitalising on the post-Tarantino style audience who relish blood and guts.
“The Passion” cannot be reviewed without mentioning violence.
In the scourging scene, the roman guards are potrayed as brutes who take pleasure in what they do. As said earlier, directors during the Technicolor era would never have attempted to show Jesus being beaten the way he was. While the guards in real life probably did enjoy beating Jesus to a pulp, was it really necessary to show this on screen? It does not add anything to the film, merely shock value.
The scourging scene is painful to watch. The violence does not let up. Christ is savagely whipped and beaten by the guards, before being turned around and flocked again and again.
The scenes of Christ carrying the cross are not particularly difficult to watch as compared to the scourging scenes, I did not find the crucifixion scene that difficult to watch either.
We live in an age of 24 hour news coverage. We are constantly being bombarded with images of explosions, bombs and bullets in the middle east and domestic troubles back home. Audiences have been desensitised to on screen violence. As unbelievable as it seems, watching Christ carry his cross and his subsequent nailing to the cross was not difficult to watch.
In short, I do not think that Gibson’s use of in your face brutality justifies his use of violence in “The Passion of the Christ.”
He could have used more subtle film making to make his point.
Gibson choose to relate to an audience who were hungry for on screen violence. This was the unique selling point for the film, and sadly, this is what the film will be remembered for.