Passion of the Christ (10/10) 

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Fortunately, this wasn’t what I expected, which was two hours of unrelenting torture. In fact, the first hour of this film is a relatively non-violent, realistic rending of Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane as He anticipates the agonizing death He's about to endure, His arrest, and His trials before the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, and King Herod. The violence begins after about 55 minutes with the Scourging at the Pillar, which is also not as graphic as I had anticipated. Although it’s extremely violent, it’s mostly shown through the vivid sounds of the whips and cats o’ nine tails as they strike Christ and reaction shots. From that point on neither Jesus nor the audience gets a respite as He’s taken, shaking with agony and shock, from the Pillar to Pilate who, while “washing his hands” of Christ, delivers him into the hands of his executioners to do the bidding of the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, to be crucified. The most graphic violence is the crucifixion, which shows nails actually hammered into His hands. The Romans are pictured as brutal, sadistic animals as they torture and kill Jesus with glee. James Caviezel is by far the best Christ ever to appear in the movies, a real man. Maia Morgenstern is a strangely dispassionate Mary.

Just because Caiaphas is Jewish doesn’t make this anti-Semitic. You can’t make a Biblical epic about the Passion and death of Jesus without showing Caiaphas as the prime mover in His crucifixion, because that’s what it says in the New Testament, and there is no other historical account of His execution.

But let’s deal with the depiction of Caiaphas by Writer-Director Mel Gibson and whether or not it’s anti-Semitic.  Caiaphas was High Priest from 18-36 A.D. As High Priest, he was also head of the Sanhedrin, which sat in judgment of people like Jesus. According to the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, Caiaphas had a well-known close working relationship with Pontius Pilate. In fact, Josephus reports that both Pilate and Caiaphas were replaced in 36 A.D. by the Syrian Governor Vitellus, probably because of their close collaboration. So the Biblical account of Pilate acceding to Caiaphas’ desire to execute Jesus is not at all improbable. In fact, Josephus describes the High Priests of the House of Annas (Caiaphas’ father-in-law, and his predecessor as High Priest, approximately 6-15 A.D.) as “heartless when they sit in judgment.” So all historical accounts, both Biblical and secular, seem to agree as to the character of Caiaphas, and Gibson’s portrayal of him is consistent. Further, Josephus confirms the Biblical account of Jesus’ trial, saying, “On the accusation of the leading men of our people, Pilate condemned Him to death upon the cross; …”

Just because the Jewish High Priest at the time of Christ was the primary person responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, and is accurately portrayed as such, does not make this film anti-Semitic. If it were so, then depictions of Adolph Hitler as a madman could be considered Germanophobic; an unflattering portrayal of Henry VIII or Cromwell could be considered Anglophobic. It wouldn’t stop. No, what Gibson’s portrayal of Caiaphas does is make the film faithful to the existing record.

To further debunk this unfair rap of anti-Semitism, just about everyone in the film, save the Romans, is Jewish. Jesus, was, after all, Jewish. So were Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, John, Peter, and all the disciples. So was Simon of Cyrene, who was enlisted to help Jesus carry the cross. They are all depicted favorably.

The only criticism I have of the film is the decision to perform in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles. I’m used to seeing subtitles because a large percentage of the good films made today is foreign. But there is no doubt that having to read subtitles does detract from the ability to concentrate on what’s taking place onscreen. 

For most Christians the crucifixion has become sort of a cliché, something they know happened without really appreciating what agony it was. Passion shows what a truly horrible death Christ experienced. When we see what inhuman treatment he received, His forgiveness of His malefactors while hanging on the cross makes an indelible impression. This is not for children, but it’s a must see for Christians. Even if you’re not religious or Christian, it’s a magnificent story well told. In Aramaic and Latin with subtitles.

February 28, 2004

The End