The New York Times reviews The Passion

And it’s not pretty:

“The Passion of the Christ” is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace.

Mr. Gibson has departed radically from the tone and spirit of earlier American movies about Jesus, which have tended to be palatable (if often extremely long) Sunday school homilies designed to soothe the audience rather than to terrify or inflame it.

His version of the Gospels is harrowingly violent; the final hour of “The Passion of the Christ” essentially consists of a man being beaten, tortured and killed in graphic and lingering detail. Once he is taken into custody, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is cuffed and kicked and then, much more systematically, flogged, first with stiff canes and then with leather whips tipped with sharp stones and glass shards. By the time the crown of thorns is pounded onto his head and the cross loaded onto his shoulders, he is all but unrecognizable, a mass of flayed and bloody flesh, barely able to stand, moaning and howling in pain.

The audience’s desired response to this spectacle is not revulsion, but something like the cowering, quivering awe manifested by Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) and a few sensitive Romans and Jerusalemites as they force themselves to watch. Disgust and awe are not, when you think about it, so far apart, and in Mr. Gibson’s vision one is a route to the other.

By rubbing our faces in the grisly reality of Jesus’ death and fixing our eyes on every welt and gash on his body, this film means to make literal an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection and that tends to be thought about somewhat abstractly. Look, the movie seems to insist, when we say he died for our sins, this is what we mean.

A viewer, particularly one who accepts the theological import of the story, is thus caught in a sadomasochistic paradox, as are the disciples for whom Jesus, in a flashback that occurs toward the end, promises to lay down his life. The ordinary human response is to wish for the carnage to stop, an impulse that seems lacking in the dissolute Roman soldiers and the self-righteous Pharisees. (More about them shortly.) But without their fathomless cruelty, the story would not reach its necessary end. To halt the execution would thwart divine providence and refuse the gift of redemption.

Anyway, this is a film review, not Sunday school. The paradox of wishing something horrible to stop even as you want it to continue has as much to do with moviegoing as with theology. And Mr. Gibson, either guilelessly or ingeniously, has exploited the popular appetite for terror and gore for what he and his allies see as a higher end. The means, however, are no different from those used by virtuosos of shock cinema like Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noé, who subjected Ms. Bellucci to such grievous indignity in “Irréversible.” Mr. Gibson is temperamentally a more stolid, less formally adventurous filmmaker, but he is no less a connoisseur of violence, and it will be amusing to see some of the same scolds who condemned Mr. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” sing the praises of “The Passion of the Christ.”

I’ll give my own review once I see it. But it sure sounds like the film verges on the lurid (and the inflammatory), which is what I was afraid of.

Update: Lots of other reviews over at metacritic (via commenter Wayne below). The best written of them all is here. I can”t resist offering a sample:

Less reverential than razzle-dazzlin’, more an episode in the history of show business than a religious epiphany, Gibson’s blood-soaked 126-minute account of Jesus Christ’s last hours on earth has been flogged for months with everything from souvenir nine-inch nails and contested papal endorsements to death threats against Frank Rich and bizarre anti-Semitic radio rants by the filmmaker’s 85-year-old father. (Where’s the White House screening?) They do know what they do—the question is, will it do them any good?

The Passion of the Christ opens on a dark and stormy night in what might be a foggy Scottish glen with the Jewish police arriving to arrest Jesus (James Caviezel). His two-fisted, brave-hearted disciples fight back; in an action montage replete with slo-mo and thud-thud, Peter slices off one cop’s ear. Jesus picks it up and reattaches it—a prosthetic miracle that sets the stage for the muscular action and cosmetic wonders to come. Before anything else, The Passion establishes itself in the realm of recent fantasy epics: The Aramaic sounds like bad Elvish, a brief interlude in epicene Herod’s degenerate court suggests a minor detour to the Matrix world, the music is straight out of Gladiator, and much of the movie is haunted by the androgynous, cowled Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) seemingly risen from George Lucas’s cutting room floor.


If yours is a spirituality, as Mel Gibson’s must certainly be, based in the presumption that salvation is only possible after suffering, you might well find something like grace lurking in Mr. Gibson’s dark and bloody spectacle. If not, you’re in for one of the most unremittingly cruel movie experiences this side of the (considerably less pious and certainly more fun) remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

UPDATE: One more review, from the New Yorker. Read the entire thing if you have the stomach to get through it.

Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus’ life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus’ temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus’ pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony—and to say so without indulging in “anti-Christian sentiment” (Gibson’s term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.

UPDATE: My blogger friend in Beijing, Joseph Bosco, has some interesting things to say about the film.

The Passion” IS going to stir unprecedented passion in those who see it. Judging by a lengthy series of scenes from the film just aired by CNN (Asian Edition), it can be said that the film crosses cinematic lines like none other. The graphic, ripping, primal violence inflicted upon flesh, whether believed to be divine flesh or only sublimely human flesh, surpasses anything this author–and WGA (screenwriter’s Guild of America) member–has seen in a commercially released motion picture to date. The historian and writer in me applauds the authenticity of the true barbarity of crucifixion Mr. Gibson has painstakingly rendered in his film.

However, if the scenes, dialogue and commentary aired by CNN are an accurate portrayal of the film’s story, then the same historian and writer parts of me are appalled at the film’s dangerously erroneous assertion that Pilate was blameless and that it was a Jewish mob alone that cried out for the torture and murder of Jesus. That is not only a gross historical inaccuracy, it is shameful anti-semitism. Should such a film or idea be banned or censored? Absolutely not. Should it and its allegedly hateful message be argued against? If true, yes, loudly and passionately.

To see blurbs of nearly every review out there, go here.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

Over at Metacritic, they’ve listed the movie as “The Passion of Mel Gibson.”

You should probably check out Ebert’s review as well.

Given what I’ve read of the reviews, a more accurate criticism isn’t so much that the movie will inflame anti-Semitic feelings but by focusing so much on the hours leading up to the crucifixtion (and I believe not even showing the resurrection) that the movie completely ignores Jesus’s message of forgiveness, compassion, etc. Or at least that’s a lot of Christians’ takes on the movie.

February 25, 2004 @ 4:07 pm | Comment

We forget that the reason for the film was a result of Mel Gibson’s struggle with suicide, and it was Christ’s suffering that made him realise that he could overcome his own suffering, i.e., if Jesus as a man could bear the suffering, so could he. Thus, it is not surprising that he has amplified blood and gore to get that message of suffering across to his audience.

I think that this film is a must see, judging from all the hype and controversy. It just makes me even more amazed at how Christ is still able to stir such ferocious reactions.

Anyway, I heard that it might open in Singapore sometime in April, that is, if the censors approve of course.

February 25, 2004 @ 4:07 pm | Comment

Wayne, I quoted from Ebert a couple of days ago. I’ll check out his whole review.

Idle, I completely understand what you are saying. My problem with what I hear is that Gibson focuses on the sadism and torture in a manner that is almost pornographic. The best movies on the horrors of war or the Holocaust or murder rarely focus moment by moment on the gruesome torture of victims.
Maybe it is called for here; I can’t say for sure. But it so far sounds like schlock to me.

February 25, 2004 @ 4:41 pm | Comment

Wayne, I like Ebert’s closing note:

I said the film is the most violent I have ever seen. It will probably be the most violent you have ever seen. This is not a criticism but an observation; the film is unsuitable for younger viewers, but works powerfully for those who can endure it. The MPAA’s R rating is definitive proof that the organization either will never give the NC-17 rating for violence alone, or was intimidated by the subject matter. If it had been anyone other than Jesus up on that cross, I have a feeling that NC-17 would have been automatic.

A story about Jesus that is so graphic, so gory it deserves an NC-17 rating? Amazing.

February 25, 2004 @ 4:52 pm | Comment

If the central event is a celebration ceremonial human sacrifice then wouldn’t we expect Hollywood to dress it up and sanitise it like it did for prostitution in Pretty Woman?

February 25, 2004 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

By rubbing our faces in the grisly reality of Jesus’ death and fixing our eyes on every welt and gash on his body, this film means to make literal an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection and that tends to be thought about somewhat abstractly. Look, the movie seems to insist, when we say he died for our sins, this is what we mean.

Shall we lose sight of what art is about?

This is what art is about.

Sometimes the goriest, stupidest, things we seem to hate about humanity and godliness can be arranged for our discussion through art.

I may not agree with Gibson when I finally see the movie.

But if he makes something real, even if I hate it, then I am for it and the resulting conversations, or arguments.

I’ll take it if it’s a genuine effort.

February 25, 2004 @ 6:49 pm | Comment

I mean, lots of poems have “Look, blah blah blah” in them because poetry is meant to make you stare harder at something you would rather not see.

Or you would rather believe in abstractly.

February 25, 2004 @ 6:50 pm | Comment

Yes Douglas, I agree with your comment, “I’ll take it if it’s a genuine effort.” If it’s schlock, I won’t take it. I am reading mixed things, and I quoted at length from two positive reviews earlier. But I’m not sure I agree that art is about “rubbing our faces” in gore, even if what happened was gory. Usually great art can convey this without treading into the lurid. It’s a question of degree. Show the brutality, but to dwell on each blow of the hammer pounding in the nails, to follow each lash of the whip and watch in slow motion the flesh being torn open — there is a point where it can — I repeat, can — become pornographic. I can’t say for sure that’s the case here, but some critics I trust say it is. I simply must wonder about the artistic integrity of a film that makes the Passion so violent it would normally receive an NC-17 rating (according to Ebert). Great art should be able to convey the full suffering by limiting the gore and relying more on the actor’s skills, the reactions of witnesses, the use of music and light and camerawork… Example: Let’s say someone gets flayed alive, an action of unspeakable brutality. To convey that in a film, I ask which is more ingenious, and even more powerful — showing inch by inch as the knife slowly slicess off the skin, or showing the victim’s face and showing the knife approach the flesh, and then moving the camera outside of the building and having the victims’ screams be heard down the streets outside? The latter is just as real, just as terrifying, but it avoids being pornographic schlock. To me, great art should transcend the vulgar, even if vulgarity is an important aspect of the story being told.

February 25, 2004 @ 7:13 pm | Comment

Seems to me that you guys should go and watch Braveheart. Mel Gibson’s interest clearly slant toward the graphic display of violence … the execution of William Wallace being the closest parallel to what’s being discussed here … he was hung drawn and quartered, as the movie shows in gruesome detail. However, it’s not the only example … I remember him giving an interview about the movie saying that he wanted to see things he’d never seen in a movie before, such as horses being impaled by pikes. Then there was The Patriot … I really appreciated the realism of seeing legs, heads etc taken off my canon balls. It was the first movie I’d seen where artillery fire was presented accurately as solid balls, rather than massively unrealistic scenes in the past always made those canons look like modern howitzers firing high explosive. Mel Gibson isn’t a director who can be expected to beautify violence … he always wants to portray it as accurately as he can. Crucifiction was designed to be the worst death possible …

February 25, 2004 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

I thought the violence depicted in Braveheart and The Patriot were acceptable (even if I couldn’t stand Braveheart, for other reasons). Neither were anywhere close to being NC-17 material. There’s nothing wrong with showing a head blown off or a limb sliced off. Again, it’s whether it’s depicted as gore or as art. Is it for artistic effect or is it pornography? These are questions. As far as The Passion goes, I don’t have the final answer yet, but I see some compelling evidence that some of this violence goes beyond artistic effect into more vulgar territory. Crucifixion is indeed a horrific way to die. As I said earlier, how far you go in depicting it determines whether it’s being done artistically or luridly.

February 25, 2004 @ 8:15 pm | Comment

Personally, I loved Kill Bill and though I still grimmace at its violence and know I will this weekend when I see the Passion, I love the fact that Gibson has turned Hollywood on its heals. What place is that to condemn such a movie for violence? Have we forgotten Hollywood’s record??

Sure, there may be some hypocrisy in the Church by endorsing such a violent [pornographic?? are you serious!] film, but I beleive the real issue is the motive, and if this movie truly has the motive of showing the death of Christ as it happened, then this is a Good thing.

Though I liked Kill Bill, I can reasonably accept my Christian peers criticism that its violence is pure revenge and at its root an Evil thing. But I can also see the Truths in that film such as the justice being served, albeit at the hands of [wo]man.

February 25, 2004 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

I think that since this conversation has jumped toward the pornographic, the meaning of art, and the meaning of sending out a message, I should direct your attention to 16th Century anatomist

Andreas Vesalius and then ask the question, “What are standards?”

VEsalius drew the most accurate depictions of his time, and others, in regards to human anatomy. But what was intriguing about his drawings were the positions his subjects stood, lay, and sat in.

Take a quick search for images on Google.

His subjects are almost always depicted in “erotic” poses, or in the poses of The Pieta (sp?), that famous slouching, death knell swoon of Christ after the cruxifiction.

Also, it was regarded as appropriate in the 18th century to view dissections, as a public audience, to watch the insane in their asylums pick nits and lice off of each other, to watch them scream.

That was real! That was no movie.

The Passion is a movie. But, it goes back to this tradition of making suffering sublime. And erotic.

Interesting that Richard points out a very non-erotic act, the crucifixtion of a person, as pornographic. I’m not sure that they are the same thing, but I think he’s referring to the intensity of the gaze. It’s unblinking state.

Well, Gibson, no matter his allegiances, is trying to educate. Should we fault him for the message or the means?

The means have precedent.

February 26, 2004 @ 9:40 am | Comment

Andreas Vesalius asked the question, “What are standards?”

Growcho Marx replied, “these are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

February 26, 2004 @ 10:34 am | Comment

Interesting that Richard points out a very non-erotic act, the crucifixtion of a person, as pornographic.

Wrong. Really very wrong. The act is not pornographic at all. How it is depicted, however, might be pornographic, and that is what several reviewers have said of the movie The Passion. I can’t say yet. But if it is done in a manner that shocks for the sake of shock, that is sado-masochistic, that dwells on gore just a bit too long and intensely, that tries to appeal to that part of us that gets cheap thrills from slash-em-up teen thrillers — that is what I am likening to pornography. And many critics are, as well. They may be wrong, butr revisit some of the reviews up there. I realize I can’t give my definitive judgment until I’ve seen the movie, but seversal of the writers I trust are definitely sounding the alarm that the violence here is pornographic. Not the story. Only its representation here. For those who then say, “But that’s what happened,” I can only say that you can depict the story and the suffering without dwelling on every drop of blood spillt. Are there no limits? To make it even more realistic, should we make it a 12-hour movie that lingers on every drop of blood, every moan, every puncture? That is what happened, of course, but great art should be able to convey this without being lurid. Go to the Uffizi Gallery and see the magnificent paintings of Christ being mocked and tortured. Powerful, painful, despairing — yet never lurid. Never pornographic.

February 26, 2004 @ 11:29 am | Comment

Though it’s been years since I’ve seen it, there’s a passage in Clockwork Orange –one of the most violent and pornographic films ever made– where Alex describes his reaction to reading the Bible:

“It had been arranged by the prison charlie, as part of my further education to read him the Bible. I didn’t so much like the latter part of the book which is more like all preachy talking, than fighting and the old in-out. I liked the parts where these old yahoodies tolchock each other and then drink their Hebrew vino and, then getting on to the bed with their wives’ handmaidens. That kept me going.”

This is followed by several biblical scenes, the last of Alex, dressed as a Roman soldier, whipping Christ. He then says:

“I read all about the scourging and the crowning with thorns and all that, and I could viddy myself helping in and even taking charge of the tolchocking and the nailing in, being dressed in the height of Roman fashion.”

So maybe Gibson’s “Passion” is not pornography. But he’s not the first director to consider it in that context.

February 26, 2004 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

Very good points, Rick. Of course, the description of the Passion in pornographic terms in Clockwork Orange was intentional (and comedic), while Gibson’s film apparently takes itself quite seriously; it is no parody.

I think where some are getting stuck is the reference to “pornography,” which doesn’t only mean sexually titillating books and movies. The third definition of the word at

Lurid or sensational material: “Recent novels about the Holocaust have kept Hitler well offstage [so as] to avoid the… pornography of the era.”

That’s how I mean it; like the kind of violent shit Fox TV so often runs — shows, for examle, that just show one car accident after another. There’s nothing to get out of it except that momentary titillation, the cheap thrill that 13-year-old boys find so exciting. And that’s what I’ve been hearing from many reviewers — that Christ’s sublime message of universal love is not what the viewer walks away with, but rather with something uglier, violent, even vengeful. I hope not.

February 26, 2004 @ 4:03 pm | Comment

I think the movie is as truthful and as real as what is stated in the Gospel, it is a fact print to screen. Rather than misinterpreting it to be violent movie, we should look at it from the perspective of a sacrifice by Jesus to reconcile all men to God. It will be a beautiful experience to watch it; with an appropriate knowledge of who Jesus The Christ is and why he did wat he did prior to entering the cinema.

My two cents worth

February 26, 2004 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

This is simply the most high budget version of the Stations of the Cross, considered a sacramental affair by Catholics to produce.
It is Public Ritual, and in Gibsons mind, as demonstrated by his personally weilding the hammer in those shots, is a religious act, affirming his own personal role in contributing to the sin that Christ died to atone.

At least that’s my take on it, as a very serious amateur scholar of comparative religions. 🙂

But yeah, to a non-Catholic (or at least believing Christian), it sounds like it would mostly be just pornographic violence.

I do give Gibson props for having the balls to call them on giving what’s basically a high production value rendering of the Book of Mathew an R and not NC17 rating.

Bet your ass the nasty bits from the Koran or Rig Vedas that were comparably graphic wouldn’t get a mere R!

February 26, 2004 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

Essential Guide

Mel Gibson’s new movie The Passion has got people worked up. As a kind service the Guardian has compiled an important linguistic guide for those seeing or commenting on the movie. “Een, Yuudaayaa naa, ellaa b-haw yawmaa laa hweeth ba-mdeetaa.”…

March 4, 2004 @ 8:35 am | Comment

Dear Sirs.
I viewed the Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson.
I looked and marveled at what I seen. It was so powerful.
I can cofirm some of what I seen in the movie. I personally was taken to Calvary by the Holy Spirit. I witnessed The Cross, the Blood, Touched one of the nails etc.
I suspect that you may be laughing at what I said. I am an old man now and I believe that, I may be able to convince you that what I seen in the movie is TRUTH.

Please visit my web site, if you do not believe me.

Thank you and God Bless all of you….Roger

May 21, 2005 @ 5:21 pm | Comment

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