DVD Release Date:  August 31, 2004
Theatrical Release Date:  February 25, 2004
Rating:  R (for sequences of graphic violence)
Genre:  Drama
Director:  Mel Gibson
Actors:  Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci

"Veritas," mutters Pontius Pilate, in Mel Gibson's epic film, The Passion of the Christ. "Quid est veritas?" What is truth?

It's a question we must all ask, at least once in our lives. And when we finally do, just how do we find the answer, in a world where the flow of information - along with the industry that feeds our minds, day and night - is controlled by those who so often deny its very existence?

Like so many others, Mel Gibson has found his answer in the person of Jesus Christ. But, unlike most, Gibson also has the power - and the money - to bring that message to the rest of the world.

Speaking in Aramaic, Jesus prays to his heavenly father for release from the task that awaits him, even as his disciples slumber and a satanic figure taunts him in the Garden of Gethsemane. An arrival, a kiss, a betrayal, a tussle. Peter lops off an ear; Jesus restores it, and the stunned Roman guard sits unmoving, wondering what has just occurred.

The film moves through the various trials, with the accused being mocked and judged by the high priests of Israel, then Pilate, then Herod, then Pilate again. Unwilling to condemn Jesus to death, Pilate sends him off for a brutal beating at the hands of his sadistic soldiers. Hounded by the Jewish leaders for a death sentence and fearful of a revolt, Pilate finally relents, washing his hands to deny all responsibility. 

Through the streets and up the hill to Golgotha, a blood-covered, stumbling Jesus carries his cross, as soldiers continue to beat him and the crowds continue to mock him. A reluctant Simon of Cyrene steps in to help. Finally, at the top of the hill, Jesus crawls onto the cross, where merry soldiers drive nails into his palms and ankles. One stretches his arm, dislocating a shoulder - and laughing. Jesus cries out for their forgiveness.

The thief dying next to Jesus pleads for forgiveness; another scoffs, as a black crow comes to rest on his cross. Caiphas arrives in his swirling robes to taunt Jesus, who responds in muttered prayer, always faithful to his last words as recorded in the Gospels. Mary and John approach the foot of the cross, where he tells them to behold one another.

Then, the sky darkens and a violent wind stirs, whipping the cloak that the soldiers are casting lots for beneath his feet. Finally, after crying out to God that he has been abandoned, Jesus dies - and a single, solitary drop of water comes crashing down from heaven. The earth trembles and the temple floor cracks in two. Jesus rises from the dead in a brief scene, and then the film ends.

My tears, as well as those of the seasoned film critics sitting around me, were copious. It is a hard film to watch. Yet, it is equally impossible to turn away. Suddenly, the cost of my salvation is personal, very personal. It is also an important film, an epic, but it is not for children. The unflinching brutality of the Roman soldiers is historically accurate, and it is no wonder that the word "excruciating" shares the same root as "crucifixion." The beatings and torture are savage - more so than anything I have ever seen onscreen. Harder still is the knowledge that this story is true and that it happened to someone I know personally. Just when you think it cannot get any worse, it does. And it continues throughout the film, relentlessly.

My husband, a biblical scholar, suggests a guideline for parents. The Bible, which is written on an eighth-grade level, assumes that most children younger than 13 will not be reading the story for themselves. How much more so should they therefore not be seeing it - especially when the story is this graphic. For the rest of us, however, "The Passion" is a film we should all watch, every year, for the rest of our lives - lest we take it for granted, lest we forget.

The film's artistic quality is unsurpassed, with a sweeping musical score and haunting cinematography. The film should, although it probably will not, receive every award ever given, including Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography. Jim Caviezel, with his prosthetic nose and digitally-altered eyes (from blue to brown) is shockingly credible - and Semitic - as Jesus. Equally compelling is Maia Morgenstern, a Jewish descendant of a man killed at Auchswitz. As Mary, Morgenstern takes us into the anguish of a mother watching her son cruelly tortured and put to death. It is almost unspeakable.

Equally important to the film are Gibson's nuances - subtleties that add greatly to the cinematic value of the film yet accurately reflect the message of the Gospels and even the Old Testament. A snake slithers, and Jesus crushes its head, in a visual reference to Isaiah's prophecy. Mary recites a line from the Passover liturgy, "Why is this night different from all others?" foreshadowing the day's events. As he willingly lies upon the cross, Jesus tells his disciples (in flashback) that the "shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." During another flashback to the Upper Room, Jesus instructs the disciples to drink the wine, in memory of his blood, which was shed for them. The camera returns to the crucifixion, where Roman soldiers pass around a wineskin, getting drunk. So many details, all pregnant with meaning.

Gibson's greatest accomplishment is his masterful portrayal of how people are changed, again and again, simply by looking into the eyes of Jesus. Peter, after his betrayal. Simone of Cyrene. The thief on the cross. They are changed not by persuasion, Gibson seems to say, not by arguments, not even by good doctrine, but rather, by looking into the eyes of God Himself. As Jesus says to Mary during his beating, in an almost incomprehensible paradox, "See, Mother? I make all things new." One look - one soul-piercing gaze - and all is changed. It is a lesson we should all remember, when sharing our faith. When people see Jesus in us, He will change their hearts.

It is hard to criticize a film that is so beautiful, so moving and so faithful to the Gospel accounts. Although many will recoil from its graphic nature, the horror Gibson shows us is necessary for a true understanding of the sacrifice and the terrible cost that was paid when God sent his only Son to die. But that horror need not be in vain. Even as Jesus' crucifixion was replaced by the resurrection, so shall our horror be replaced by hope, as we look into the eyes of the Son of Man who was, and is and ever more shall be the way, the truth and the life.

And what shall we say to those who criticize this film, missing its ponderous message? Quid est veritas? As Pilate' wife responds, "If you will not hear the truth, no one can tell you."

OBJECTIONABLE CONTENT: 

  • Adult Themes:  Heavy
  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Mild
  • Language/Profanity:  None
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Mild
  • Violence:  Extreme