Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
Extreme violence distances audience of ‘The Passion of the Christ’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 18, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

In 1936, before he came to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock released his London-made film Sabotage, with Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka. A terrorist is placing bombs around London. When the police have surrounded his place of work the terrorist gives a bomb, set to go off at a particular time, to a 12-year-old child to carry across the city, to a locker where many people gather. The boy gets caught in a World War I anniversary parade and the bomb goes off in a crowded bus. The movie viewer sees the screen go blank as the bomb goes off.

Several critics said Sabotage was the most violent film up to that time because the audience knew a child was blown up, even if the audience did not directly see it. Several European nations banned the film because of the excessive violence.

Well, we have come a long way to the excruciating very visible violence of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. For me, the over-the-top violence that makes the seemingly endless scourging more violent than the crucifixion goes beyond what a person could realistically sustain. In the real world, on the basis of what we are shown, Jesus would be dead before he is asked to carry his cross. As a result I was unable to identify with the punching bag Jesus in the same way that many viewers say they are able to.

The visible masochistic violence portrayed against the Christ is not that much different from a slasher film. Just because it shows Christ suffering for our sins does not make the end justify the means. I believe this is something we need to talk about as we walk down the path to more and more violent movies. If the excessive violence is okay in the movie about Christ, it must be okay in all movies.

Sources for The Passion of the Christ include the Gospels, the Stations of the Cross and a German mystic, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).

The film begins with Jesus (Jim Caviezel) in the Garden of Gethsemane. An androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) appears to tempt Jesus as to the futility of his mission. Eventually Jesus crushes with his foot a large serpent that had moved close to him, reminiscent of Genesis 3:15.

Rapidly the temple guards arrive with Judas (Luca Lionello) and the violence begins with Jesus being pushed over a high wall in a very dramatic fashion. Quickly Jesus is before Caiphas and his fellow priests. People have been awakened and told to be in the crowd. Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) is brutal in his dealings with Jesus and accuses him of blasphemy. There are people in the crowd who speak in favor of Jesus but they are quickly removed. Jesus is sent to Pilate for trial and sentencing.

Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is played very sympathetically. History tells us Pilate was a vicious killer of many Jews. In this film, he has grave doubts about the guilt of Jesus. The actor Shopov gives a powerful performance as Pilate.

As the film moves toward the 20-minute scourging, there are flashbacks of Jesus teaching. In the crowd near the temple area, Peter (Francesco DeVito) dramatically and hauntingly denies he even knows the Galilean. Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) follow Jesus from temple to Pilate’s court. They are present for the brutal scourging. Judas commits suicide in a strange sequence where children who come to help him seem to turn into violent demons.

One scene that I am told comes from Emmerich is where the wife of Pilate (Claudia Gerni) brings a armful of towels to Mary and Mary Magdalene. After the scourging is over the camera watches lovingly as the two women get down on their knees and begin to wipe up the large amounts of blood that are spread on the stones in a 10-foot circumference.

The Way of the Cross is brutal as the bloodied and beaten Jesus dramatically carries his cross to Calvary. Standout sequences include Jesus meeting his mother in the crowd, Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the Cross, and Veronica giving him water to drink. To me, these scenes are highlights of the film.

The crucifixion is brutally realistic. There are flashbacks to the Last Supper. The words of Christ from the Cross are presented solemnly. I was surprised that the key words of Mark’s Gospel — where the guard, seeing the manner of Jesus’ death, declared, “Clearly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15: 39) — are left out of the film. The crucifixion ends with a single drop of liquid falling, as if a tear. The earthquake and the darkening portents seem to affect all those present.

There is a one-minute coda at the end of the film that includes the Resurrection of Christ in a very subdued and minimalist style.

In many ways, The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson’s personal response to his own faith journey. He has beautifully filmed in stunning blues the garden scenes and, with stark browns, the way of the Cross. The two-hours-plus film moves rapidly. The use of the ancient languages of Aramaic and Latin gives a new vision to the Passion. I don’t know how Jim Caviezel survived the eight hours of makeup each day and the personal damage to his body.

But in the end I am not moved by the film because of the extreme violence distancing me from the key figure. I think in terms of violence, less is more. But that is not Mel Gibson’s view and it is his film. I could connect with Mary, Pilate, and even Judas, but the Christ for me was lost in blood and gore.

The Passion of the Christ does not appear explicitly anti-Semitic to me. The Chief Priest is played as a vicious villain. But throughout the film there are Jews defending Jesus and reaching out to him. The Romans are portrayed generally as sadistic monsters. I am well aware of the sad history of Passion Plays that has resulted in violence against Jews. I also know that Hitler used the Oberammergau Passion Play in the 1930s to incite persecution of Jewish people. The Catholic Church has guidelines since Vatican II Council on Passion Plays put on in Parishes and by Catholic groups. Mel Gibson did not find himself under those guidelines as an independent movie maker. The U. S. Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has recently published all Catholic teaching in relationship with Jews and Judaism. The book, titled The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus: A Collection on Catholic Documents, is available for $11.95 by calling (800) 235-8722.

The Passion of the Christ is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America because of violence. It is rated A-3 – for adults – by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Office for Film and Broadcasting.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews frequently appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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