Talk about the Passion: ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ 10 years later
To say it was controversial would be an understatement. Anti-Semitism, excessive violence, scriptural deviation—the charges leveled against it were numerous and fierce, with many coming months before the film’s release. It certainly didn’t help that Mel Gibson—no Boy Scout himself—was the film’s primary creative force. (He both directed and co-wrote it.) To those who bemoan religion’s waning influence in the United States, it served as a forceful refutation, selling more pre-release tickets than any film before it. Three hundred and seventy million dollars at the domestic box office later, it was the highest grossing R-rated film in American cinematic history.
If only “The Passion of the Christ” was as compelling as the conversation that surrounded it. At the time of its release (10 years ago Tuesday), the discourse was inescapable, but now a decade removed, the film can be evaluated on its own terms. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as provocative as its reputation would indicate. In fact, what’s most remarkable about “The Passion of the Christ” is just how unremarkable it is.
That’s not to say it’s entirely incompetent. Gibson’s purpose—to depict Jesus Christ’s final hours—is clear and executed without too much of the stifling self-seriousness that often marks depictions of Jesus in pop culture. But where’s the bite? Sure, there are moments of horror, but for a film centered on emotional and physical suffering, I felt very little. Often, I couldn’t help but wish “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen had been behind the camera. The unflinching stillness he brought to “12 Years” made the human costs of slavery inescapable. You wanted him to cut away from Solomon hanging from a tree or reluctantly beating another slave, but he wouldn’t because doing so would make easier an experience that should be anything but.
In contrast, Gibson cuts with an itchy trigger finger during many of “Passion”’s most brutal moments. Most irritating is his unyielding affection for reaction shots. We watch Christ’s suffering through the eyes of others, as if Gibson doesn’t trust the viewer to properly process the savagery unfolding on the screen. It’s condescending and constantly undermines what should be heartrending moments.
Gibson’s blunt hand looms throughout the film. From the opening scenes, we’re treated to gratuitous slow motion that made me long for Zach Snyder’s relative elegance. In the film’s second half, Gibson opts for gobs of ham-fisted parallelism, wasting no opportunity to highlight obvious thematic links. This made-for-TV literalism erodes any spiritual resonance Gibson seeks to produce. It’s hard for your soul to be stirred when the film shoves subtext down your throat.
Compounding Gibson’s sins is a strikingly bland visual design that belies a $30 million budget. From the B-movie glow of the nighttime scenes to the mush of browns and tans that dominates the rest of the film, “Passion” is an abject failure of art direction and cinematography. Even on the rare occasions when Gibson attempts striking camera placements or neat visual tricks (such as when he creates the illusion of a raindrop falling from the camera in bird’s-eye view), they feel like self-conscious anomalies. Once again, the visual aesthetic of “12 Years a Slave” comes to mind with its pinpoint-precise mise-en-scene and clear, contrasting tones.
Ultimately, “The Passion of the Christ” amounts to little more than run-of-the-mill religious fan service, leaning too heavily on its loaded subject matter. For those not religiously inclined, we get characters too thin for a compelling narrative and visuals too undistinguished to make visceral the film’s unrelenting brutality.
Gibson may feel passionate about the material, but little of that passion makes its way onto the screen. Ten years later, “The Passion of the Christ” is a fascinating chapter in film history. Sadly, much of its significance has little to do with the film itself.