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FILM / Finding the Sacred Among the Profane: The Passion of the Christ / Sean Woodard

Image © Icon Productions

Image © Icon Productions

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Horror represents the ripest genre to provide commentary on contemporary issues. Not only do horror films appeal to our basest emotions, they are the most malleable in terms of form and content. Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre that the three levels of Horror—revulsion, horror, and terror—not only conjure up a wide range of emotions in viewers, but also allow themes to grow out of the narrative—including those that wrestle with spirituality, faith, and morality. This column will explore how faith and religion are represented in particular staples of the horror genre.

For this column, I have decided to continue addressing the Lenten theme I introduced in my Once Upon a Time in Film Scoring column on Martin Scorsese’s Silence. In this case, I have chosen Mel Gibson’s controversial portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ. While not a technically horror film in terms of genre, the gratuitous violence and demonic imagery in the film, notwithstanding the mob mentality calling for Christ’s death and how evil seeps into the mind and corrupts from without, are horrific elements that permeate the narrative.

Although I am not going to address the controversy regarding Mel Gibson’s vision for the film or his personal religious views, I recognize that the film is problematic, including an alleged white savior angle through the casting of its characters and claims from different groups that the film forwards an antisemitic view. You can find arguments for these and more in other published articles. However, I aim to explore the extreme use of violence in The Passion of the Christ and how its gratuitousness almost equates the film with torture porn (a term used to categorize films such as Saw or Hostel). In effect, the violence has the ability to cause viewers to disconnect from the story, make them forget the underlying meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection and why Catholics genuflect on the Stations of the Cross.

The film opens with Christ (Jim Caviezel) in the Garden of Gethsemane. As with Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ which also addresses the conflict of Christ being fully divine and fully human, Gibson inserts the devil into the narrative in the form of a pale cloaked figure to act as an influential force to deter Christ from the fulfillment of his holy purpose. If Paul Bettany’s character from The Da Vinci Code and Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort character from the Harry Potter franchise had a baby, it’d look like the devil in this film, truly horrendous and repulsive. The devil tempts Christ. He releases a snake as Christ is raked with doubt. But as the snake approaches, Christ smashes it under his heel.

When he is betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested, the scene is exacerbated in slow motion, capitalizing on the spectacle in order to heighten the conflict. When Peter draws his sword and cuts off a soldier’s ear, the act is shown in bloody detail. This first graphic image serves as a precursor to the rest of the violence that will appears onscreen and hints that Gibson is not going to hold back on the carnage. Further on, when Judas hangs himself, he sees demonic faces in place of children’s faces. They drive him to his suicide by hanging from a tree.

When Christ is taken to be punished, he is scourged within an inch of his life. While there are cutaways to show reaction shots, the majority of violence is not left up to the imagination. One particularly gruesome shot shows a barbed instrument of torture wrapping around Christ’s face, burying itself into his forehead above his left eye, before tearing the flesh loose.

This scene last for several minutes and can be quite unsettling for sensitive viewers. I remember my grandmother asking me not to watch the film when I was twelve because of how violent it was, particularly this sequence. In many ways, I’m thankful she did not let my 12-year-old eyes witness this at the time. Revisiting the film now, the violence is revolting, almost to the levels of torture porn in the horror genre. The attention to the violence is off-putting. In my opinion, it achieves the opposite of what reflecting on the Stations of the Cross is meant to do—remind us the reason why Christ underwent these tribulation to accomplish our spiritual freedom of sin. Instead it only reminds us of the bloody execution.

This doesn’t mean that this sequence is not without merit. Once Christ is removed from his shackles and dragged away, Christ’s mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) bend down to wipe up the spilled blood. This symbolic act reminds me of how Christians on pilgrimage will go out of their way to view sites of the Holy Land, as well as purported relics from Christ’s time on earth, such as the Shroud of Turin or a splintered piece of wood from the cross that he bore—reminders of Christ’s suffering to loosen the bonds of sin from humankind.

Christ’s trial and initial punishment take up a majority of the running time. From this point on, it feels like the scenes where Christ carries his cross play like a Stations of the Cross greatest hits sequence. The second part of the film hits the necessary points, but it feels rushed. It is as if Gibson focused so much on the torture of Christ, that he almost forgot he had to tell the rest of the crucifixion story. This section is just as bloody as the previous one. Seeing those nails driven into his hands is enough to make people cringe and turn away.

What perhaps saves the audience at points from Gibson’s onscreen bloodbath is how the narrative uses match cutting to flashback to points in Christ’s life and early ministry. They serve as relief from the carnage, but also attempt to put the film into the context of Christ’s purpose on earth.

However, prior to Christ’s pronouncement of “It is accomplished” on the cross, Gibson flashes back to a brief snippet of the Last Supper. Christ takes the bread and wine and gives it to his disciples. The language is almost translated word-for-word today in churches around the world, whether to have the bread and wine represent a literal transubstantiation in the Catholic tradition or solely a remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection as celebrated in the Protestant tradition. There is one problem I have with this scene. Despite the gravitas it is supposed to have, it feels the editing is off and the scene shoehorned in. It gives the impression that, as mentioned above, Gibson focused too much on the violence acts against Christ and then remembered there was a greater purpose to all of this and had to remind people why.

This brings me to my main criticism of the film. Unlike the Gospel readings or the Stations of the Cross, I feel there is no time to pause, no time to genuinely genuflect on the nature of the proceedings and search our soul and the fullness of our faith for the deeper meaning of the crucifixion narrative. Although Gibson’s film is visually impressive, it feels hollow. While it no doubt has affected many people, it did not have a profound effect on me. There were time where I was close to tearing up at Caviezel’s brave performance as Christ, but aside from registering a sympathetic response, the film did not make me ponder the mysteries of the Christian faith. Instead, the equally controversial The Last Temptation of Christ or the introspectively sublime Silence have a more profound effect on me and encourage me to explore my faith to greater lengths.

Gibson’s Academy Award-nominated film was the 7th highest grossing theatrical film of 2004 and still remains one of the most successful Christian films of all time. The Passion of the Christ’s status as the highest grossing R-rated film of all time has only been rivaled by Deadpool in 2016, according to Box Office Mojo. If you can stomach the blood, the film is definitely worth watching. However, for those viewers who are Christian, especially during this Lenten season, reading the Gospels, participating in the Stations of the Cross, or preparing your own set of devotions would most likely place you in a more reflective state of mind than Gibson’s version of the crucifixion narrative.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University. Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writings have been featured in NonBinary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Cultured Vultures, The Cost of Paper, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He serves as the Film Editor for Drunk Monkeys and as a co-producer of the faith-based Ordinary Grace podcast. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.