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doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000287846.14422.2b
Department: Turrisi Takes on the Movies

Starring Jim Caviezel, Monica Belluci, Maia Morgenstern. Directed by Mel Gibson; written (in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles) by Benedict Fitzgerald, with Mel Gibson; cinematography by Caleb Deschanel; Rated R, 120 minutes, Now available on DVD.

With its epic proportions, The Passion of the Christ has been a lightning rod, attracting the energies of those with political and social overtones as well as those inspired by it.

Controversy swirls around Mel Gibson's intentions, and the graphic violence depicting Christ's final day as never portrayed before.

The violence here is sadistic and overdone, but dramatized facts described in the New Testament. Just because it is in the Bible does not make it holy.

The main controversy involves a two millennium-old argument about who killed Jesus. The movie at its core does not intend to answer this question, but the methods used and the portrayal of Caiphas fuel the fires of anti-Semitism and the thesis that the Jews killed Christ.

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Medical Facts of Christ's Death

There are no oncologic points to this movie, but the medical facts of Christ's death and how it was accomplished make an excuse to write this review and deal also with the theological and political spinning that turned the film into a blockbuster that is now worthy of consideration as a work of art.

Hematologically speaking, there is more blood in this movie than in the average blood bank. Perhaps we should measure the hemoglobin on each frame of the film.

The loss of blood clearly would have weakened a mere mortal, but the pitiful figure played reverently and sympathetically by Jim Caviezel could not have had the strength to carry the cross. Maybe his performance was enhanced by Epogen or Procrit.

The facts of crucifixion historically and forensically have been probed—death occurred from cardiopulmonary failure, in this case exacerbated and accelerated by blood loss. The movie, and most crucifixes, makes the improbable assertion that the nails were hammered through the metacarpals in the palms of Jesus' hands. The shearing forces and weight of an average human make this an improbable engineering feat. The more likely position strikes the spike through the space proximal to the carpal bones between the ulnae and radii.

Not only are these bones in Latin, the Roman characters speak street Latin, somewhat more gruff and guttural than the Latin some remember fondly from the Tridentine Mass said in Roman Catholic Churches until the Second Vatican Council determined that the language of the people should be used, and the Last Supper commemoration should be done as a table with the celebrant of the Mass facing the congregation rather than with back turned, intoning in a language no longer understood or spoken by anyone.

The remainder is in Aramaic, a language still spoken in parts of Syria, where the early Church flourished in the centuries after Christ's death.

But the linguistic care that Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald took in their writing requires subtitles. To Christians, Christ's death atoned for “the sins of all men” (and women), and is essential for faith.

The murder of Jesus Christ factually was committed by the state—Rome—carried out by sadistic centurions of occupying Rome. Jesus represented a threat to peace and order in occupied Palestine for Rome and threatened the Jewish leadership and mainstream beliefs as well.

Pilate had a public relations problem, and an impending insurgency of the Jews, if he mismanaged this case. The movie deftly deals with his plight and attempt to follow the Biblical passages describing Jesus' capture, torture, and march of death to Golgotha.

The phrase from the Gospel of Matthew: “Let (H)is blood be on us, and on our children.” was not heard in the movie, purportedly expunged in the final editing.

Nor was the exculpatory phrase found in the Gospel of St. John where Caiphas uttered, “It is better that one man die that an entire nation be saved.”

Christianity requires that Jesus was God incarnate (made flesh), delivered from Mary's womb, and grew in Nazareth to preach in public life the news to love one's neighbors and enemies alike—revolutionary even today when Old Testament “Eye for an eye” carries the day.

Jesus' suffering intends to atone for all sin, before and after his death, committed by humans—a central tenet that finesses whether it was Rome or Israel, or really each and every one of us who sinned then and now that caused Christ's awful suffering and death.

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Art & Craft Worth Noting

The art and craft of the movie are substantial and worth noting.

The movie's opening scenes are shadowy blue in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel has been universally acclaimed for its artistry and sensitivity.

The camera stalks Jesus with awkward angles around a spidery tree—he is found alone, sad, perspiring, prayerful, and unlike the Master of the Universe, begging that this cup would pass and that he would not have to suffer and die.

The blue minutes of this movie are spooky, almost haunting and surreal, with the familiar-to-some episodes of betrayal and cowardice—not just from Judas, but also Peter, who denies that he is a friend of Jesus.

I marvel at Peter's weakness. He was called Simon at birth but renamed by Jesus, Petros in the Greek, which means rock. And on that rock was his Church to be built. In the garden, the rock crumbled.

An androgynous Satan makes his first appearance in the movie, played in fact by a woman (Rosalindo Celentano).

Indeed Satan is equally present when even Jesus Christ is tempted to veer from His mission, and others revert to their human nature and seek to protect their mortal selves from punishing authority.

The violence of the movie is graphic and sickening. The movie earned an “R” rating, and many queried why not an NC-17 prohibition as well?

The Passion spares no one. Every lash can be felt, splattered blood and graphic violence creates a horror of unbelievable dimensions—to some, a testament to Jesus suffering, to others graphic evidence of man's inhumanity to man.

Figure. B

Figure. B

“Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” And the story of the good thief that will join Him in paradise that day, and the less fortunate bad guy on Jesus' left who has his eye plucked by a raven for his lack of vision and lack of understanding—like Shakespeare's King Lear, who only saw when his eyes were removed.

Forgiveness and understanding is not what the people of God focus on; it is more judgment of those less holy than them and now about amendments to force the government into what was formerly walled off as religious matters.

This is a memorable movie, done in a serious and graphic way. It will offend some. Others will have their faith deepened.

The historical Jesus will remain an enigma, and to many this will lead them to either believe or not believe with more conviction. The message of the movie, as with most pieces of art, has an intention from its creator, but the audience will take away many different messages based on their own experience and perspective.

Mary (Maia Morgenstern) plays a passive, weeping, pained Mother—I sense the model that the Church holds for women to be loyal and supportive for the modern-day church.

Catholic women do not have to wear a veil or Burka, and even a hat is now not critical, but the second-class citizenship and lack of opportunity is strident. This is disrespectful to more than half the human race and cannot be the role that Jesus wants for women.

Some will be turned off, other will be appalled by the violence, and others will find justification in messages of this movie—views that I am quite sure would revolt Jesus.

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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