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Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ (Part One)
February 26, 2004
This is part one of a two part review of the movie The Passion of the Christ. In the first part I am going to give a detailed scene-by-scene synopsis of the film. It will contain plenty of spoilers so if such things bother you, you may want to skip it. However, if you are at all familiar with the gospel stories you already know much of the story. Tomorrow I will follow the synopsis with a detailed analysis.
At 12:30 PM I met a friend in the foyer and we headed into the theater. When we arrived a few seats were filled in the 440 seat auditorium but we were still able to get seats right in the center, exactly where I wanted. Perfect.
At 1:00 the show began after only one G-rated preview (something about two tigers separated at birth - I think I’ll take a pass on that one). The auditorium was at about seventy five percent capacity.
The movie begins with the screen displaying the words of Isaiah 53:5 which reads “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The camera moves in on Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is obviously in anguish, pouring out His heart to God. It is probably the best scene in the entire movie as we see Jesus wrestling with what He knows is coming. His humanity and deity appear to be almost in conflict; His humanity knowing that what is coming will be unbearable, but His deity knowing it must be done for those He loves.
Jesus ceases praying and goes to check on His disciples. Three of them are under a tree sleeping so Jesus rebukes them and returns to prayer. It is here that we are introduced to the female character that plays Satan. She tempts Him and tries to convince Him that no one can bear the wrath of God poured out against sin. She tries to tell Him that His sacrifice will be a waste and He will not succeed. Jesus calls upon His Father, refusing to believe the devil. He falls on His face praying and as He does so a serpent crawls from Satan. Jesus, after seeing this snake, stands up and crushes it under His foot.
Jesus is arrested by a small detachment of soldiers and led towards the city to face the Sanhedrin while his disciples flee. There is an excessive use of slow-motion in these scenes, especially when Peter slices off one of the soldier’s ears. As Jesus is arrested and brought into the city we see Mary wake up, knowing in her spirit that something is wrong. While Mary is sharing her fears with Mary Magdalene, John bursts in and tells the women that Jesus has been arrested.
As Jesus is dragged through the city He is struck and pushed by the crowd. At one point He is thrown from a bridge, and suspended from chains just above the ground He sees Judas cowering beneath. They make brief eye contact and as Jesus is hoisted back up a demon appears behind Judas. Jesus is led into the temple courtyard and before the Sanhedrin. Peter, Mary, Mary Magdalene and John are all present as Jesus is questioned. At this point there is an odd flashback where we see Jesus the young carpenter building a strange kind of table. Mary laughs at Him and scolds Him about going into the house with His apron on and without washing His hands. I cannot discern the meaning of this scene unless it is to show the love of Jesus and Mary, son and mother.
As the court scene continues we see Mary pray to God saying “It has begun Lord: so be it.” We also see Pilate’s wife tossing and turning in bed, moaning in terror as she has a bad dream.
The Sanhedrin asks what accusations people can bring against Jesus and person after person throws ridiculous, false accusations at Him. Finally some of the members of the council grow tired of the charade and say that Jesus is innocent and should not be punished. These dissenters are attacked and pushed out of the courtyard. Ciaphas takes leadership, allowing people to continue beating Jesus, charging Him with blasphemy and deciding that they will present Him before Pilate.
The movie’s attention turns briefly to Peter who is in the courtyard following the proceedings. A man recognizes him and screams out that He was a disciple of Jesus. Peter denies this as well as two subsequent charges. There is then a flashback to Jesus’ prediction of this very event. As Peter remembers this he runs, pushing his way through the crowd. He sees Mary and falls on the ground before her. She reaches her hand down to comfort him and he cries out to her, calling her mother and saying that he is unworthy because he denied Jesus. He falls on his face weeping.
Judas is shown trying to return the silver to the Sanhedrin. They refuse, of course, so Judas throws the money at them and runs outside. Some small children begin to tease him, telling him that he is cursed. Soon a crowd of children gathers around him, attacking and mocking him.
The movie returns to the courtyard, which by this time has been cleared. Mary walks slowly around the courtyard as if searching for something. Finally she falls with her face to the floor. The camera moves down through the floor to show that Jesus is chained immediately below her. He looks up, knowing she is there.
We return to Judas who by now is chased by a hoard of children as well as the character playing Satan. He finally frees himself of the children and then spies a rope tied around a dead, rotting animal which is crawling with maggots. He takes the rope and hangs himself.
By this time Jesus has been brought to Pilate’s palace. Pilate’s wife is speaking with her husband telling him that she has had dreams about Jesus and asking him not to let them kill Him. Standing in the courtyard Jesus sees a dove flying overhead. Pilate sees no reason to punish Jesus, and learning that He is from Galilee realizes that he can simply defer the decision to Herod. Jesus is dragged before Herod who is apparently in the midst of an orgy, with drunken men and prostitutes all around him. He asks Jesus who He is and asks Him to perform a miracle. When Jesus refuses to answer Herod labels him a fool and commands him to receive a fool’s homage.
Jesus is once again dragged before Pilate. Pilate and his wife converse about truth and we learn that Pilate is scared of rebellion, knowing that if a rebellion occurs Caesar will hold him responsible and have him killed. He has Barabbas brought before the crowd, asking who they would rather have freed. Barabbas is a crazy, disgusting man with wild hair and strange eyes who continually laughs hysterically. The crowd, of course, chooses Barabbas. Pilate then commands that Jesus may be beaten severely but not killed.
Jesus is dragged into a courtyard where we see a selection of implements used for punishments, ranging from poles and whips to clubs with nails in them. Mary, John, Mary Magdalene and Satan are all in the crowd watching. The scene is one of terrible brutality as Jesus is beaten again and again and again. The Roman soldiers are crazed with hatred and bloodlust, laughing and enjoying every stroke of the rod. Each blow is accompanied by sprays of blood and groans from Jesus. After 29 strokes (if I remember my Latin correctly) they put down their rods and pick up whips. When Jesus finally collapses they roll him over and begin to beat his arms, stomach and chest. Flesh is torn and blood flows freely. As she watches Jesus be beaten Mary whispers “My son, when, where, how will you choose to be delivered from this.” Pilate’s wife comes quietly into the courtyard and without making eye contact hands a white cloth to Mary. We also see the devil walking around carrying some sort of terrible, deformed child that I presume represents an evil spirit.
Finally Pilate’s deputy arrives and berates the soldiers for being too harsh with Jesus, reminding them that they are not allowed to beat him to death. Jesus is released from His chains and dragged from the courtyard. He has a robe placed on Him and a crown on thorns is pressed into His head. Mary walks to where He was beaten and begins to wipe up the blood with the cloth Pilate’s wife gave her. Mary Magdalene soon begins to help her. As Magdalene does so there is a flashback where she remembers falling on her face before Jesus and receiving His forgiveness.
Jesus is once again brought before Pilate and there is the first of many flashbacks to the Last Supper. Pilate, realizing that to protect Jesus means there will be a rebellion, washes his hands and tells Caiphas that he can kill Jesus as Pilate will have nothing more to do with it.
Jesus, knowing that the die is now cast, prays to God saying “I am your servant and the son of your handmaid.” In contrast to His present situation is a flashback that shows Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem just five days earlier where He was received with great joy and celebration.
Jesus is forced to carry His cross and He slowly drags it through the city streets, all the while receiving blow after blow from Roman whips. Mary, John, Mary Magdalene and Satan follow the crowd. There is another flashback where Mary remembers a time when Jesus was a child and He fell to the ground. She was able to help Him then but realizes there is nothing she can do now. She runs to His side and tells Him she is there. Jesus looks at her and says “Behold I make all things new.” He then stands up and continues carrying the cross.
Finally the cross becomes too heavy to bear and Simon, a bystander, is forced by the Romans to help Him. At one point Jesus falls and a woman from the crowd rushes to Him. She gives Him a cloth which He uses to wipe His face. As He gives it back the woman kisses it and is then immediately thrown out of the way by belligerent soldiers. Simon, angered by the continual beatings, screams at the soldiers, threatening to stop carrying the cross if they don’t stop punishing Jesus. Though they laugh at him, they do stop. Simon helps Jesus back up and they link arms, continuing to move up the hill. As they begin walking Jesus looks to the woman who is holding the cloth which contains a bloody likeness of Jesus’ face.
Jesus once again falls to his knees, unable to continue. The movie turns to a flashback of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. This flashback is important as we hear Jesus’ words about His death and how it is voluntary. No one has coerced Him into this awful situation - He does it willingly for those He loves. Jesus opens His eyes and sees his mother. As He sees her He finds the strength to stand up. There is another flashback to the Last Supper, and this time Jesus speaks about there being no greater love than a man who is willing to die for His friends. He also says that no one can come to the Father except through Him.
The crowd finally reaches Golgatha. The crucifixion scene is as bloody and disgusting as anything the big screen has ever seen. Blood spurts as the nails are pounded into His hands. Bone crunches as spikes are driven through His feet. As the cross is lifted we see Mary releasing a handful of stones she had clenched in her hands. I am not sure of the significance of this except to suggest it is an act of surrender on her part as she comes to peace with Jesus’ death.
Ciaphas stands before Jesus and mocks Him, saying that Jesus should prove He is the Messiah by coming down from the cross. One of the thieves crucified next to Jesus believes and receives assurance that He will be with Jesus in paradise while the other mocks. As he mocks a raven lands on his cross and begins to attack his face, tearing out pieces of flesh. The Roman soldiers quickly drive off the bird, but not before it has left some ugly wounds on the man’s face.
Darkness settles over the land. It is not sunless darkness but stormy darkness with thick clouds covering the sun. As the wind picks up and seemingly a storm brews, the crowd leaves until only Mary, John and Mary Magdalene are left with a small detachment of soldiers. Mary walks towards Jesus but is blocked by a soldier. She stares at him until he steps aside. Mary then walks to Jesus and kisses His feet. Jesus cries out “I thirst” and the Romans lift a wet sponge to Him which he tastes and then rejects.
Mary, looking at Jesus in anguish says “Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart, my son, let me die with you.” Jesus ignores her plea, instead pointing her towards John and saying “Behold your son.” To John He says “Behold your mother.”
After a few camera angles showing Jesus hanging on the cross He cries out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” A few seconds later He says “It is accomplished.” Finally Jesus says “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” and His head falls to His chest. Immediately there is an earthquake that tears the temple in two, leaving a huge crack through the midst of it.
As the earthquake rolls on the Roman soldiers panic. They immediately set about making sure the other two condemned men die quickly, breaking their legs. The centurion commands that they ensure Jesus is dead, so a soldier pierces Jesus’ side. As he does so a spray of blood and water comes forth and the man kneels reverently in this torrent of blood. Suddenly we see Satan screaming in anguish. This is a rather detached scene and I am not sure of its significance, though I suspect it indicates that Satan realized he had defeated himself (or herself in the case of this movie).
Jesus is lowered from the cross and into Mary’s arms by John and the soldiers. The camera alternates between this scene and one of the crown of thorns and the blood-covered spikes lying on the ground together. Finally the camera stays with Mary, slowly pulling back and fading out.
The next scene shows the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb being rolled away. The camera moves up and we see Jesus, alive again, smiling. He stands up and as he does so we see a hole in his hand.
And that is how the movie ends. The final scene lasts only a few brief seconds.
As the lights came up I immediately began to look around the crowd to see how people were reacting. There was a small smattering of applause (far less than at the end of The Return of the King, the last movie I went to) and most of the people immediately stood up, put their coats on and left. I quickly walked out into the hall to study the faces of those who saw the movie. I did not see a single red or tear-filled eye. The crowd headed towards the bathroom and then the door. My wife attending a screening this evening with our church and said many more people were emotional with several openly weeping. I cannot say which reaction is more the norm.
That is a brief synopsis of the film covering all of the major scenes. Tomorrow I will write a detailed analysis. If you have specific questions you would like me to address please email me or post a comment and I will attempt to answer them.