When Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, I made a deliberate choice to stay away. In retrospect it wasn't a bad choice.
I was curious, but as one who never goes to slasher films, I wanted no part of the much publicized gore.
When I recently heard someone express the opinion that the Gibson film is one of the significant films of the new millennium, I thought I'd better have a look.
Other than in passing, my review will not concern itself with the film's historical inaccuracies or matters of theological controversy.
The Passion of the Christ opens with a shot of the moon in a bluish night sky. The camera pans slowly down, through layers of clouds, to a garden shrouded in mist. The first sound is that of a man's voice praying. Among the trees we see the standing figure of Jesus. He is praying in Aramaic or Hebrew. I recognized the word Adonai, "Lord." He looks around for the three disciples who are supposed to be watching and praying with him.
The three, John, Peter and Thomas, (not, as in the gospels Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee), are sleeping. Jesus wakes them, chides them and goes back to praying. Contrary to gospel accounts, they remain awake and give a little back story. The scene switches to the palace of the high priest where Judas is arranging the betrayal in the midst of a huge formal gathering of elaborately dressed priests and Temple soldiers.
According to three of the four gospel accounts, Jesus was taken by "a great multitude" so Judas served the necessary purpose of identifying Jesus in the confusion. Gibson prefers John's account which has Judas come with "a band of men and officers from the chief priests." In the film a small detachment of Temple guards say they're looking for Jesus. Jesus promptly identifies himself so there doesn't seem to be much point in having Judas kiss him.
In the gospel accounts Jesus begins to suffer physical abuse only after he has been taken to the assembly of priests and utters blasphemy. Gibson can't wait so long. In the film the arresting soldiers, even after having witnessed the miraculous restoration of Malchus' ear, start the sadism by yanking Jesus around with chains, choking and hitting him with them, and even subjecting him to a grotesque bungee jump over the side of a stone bridge.
Even if one wants to argue that ancient Roman soldiers were more brutal than the modern variety, the fact is they were kept under strict discipline by their officers. And they were efficient.
A Roman crucifixion detail consisted of four men commanded by a centurion. The centurion would have been present at the scourging. In the film Abenander is the centurion in charge, but he turns Jesus over to enlisted men who are not just brutal. They're insane.
In ordinary practice, the condemned man would have been beaten with rods and then taken to the place of crucifixion. The additional torture with the weighted scourge is not believable for a routine execution. A beating like the one shown in the film would have left the victim unable to walk, let alone carry a cross. Even a standard beating would have left Jesus in a state of shock. That, in fact, was the idea--to numb the victim before the crucifixion.
In a place where crucifixions were common, as in Jerusalem during the governorship of Pilate, upright timbers would already be in place at the execution site. The condemned, like the two thieves in the film, carried only the crossbeam, not the entire cross. Gibson has Jesus start out carrying the entire cross by himself. Only when he has fallen do the soldiers conscript Simon. Even then Jesus shares the weight.
In the film the Roman soldiers are shown striking and abusing Jesus as he struggles with the weight of the cross. From a purely practical standpoint the idea is ridiculous. All the gospel accounts agree that both the Jews and the Romans were in a hurry to get the crucifixion over with because of the coming holy day.
It is not believable that the centurion in charge would have permitted his men to do anything to slow the proceedings. Likewise, if the guards were Italian Romans, as they are depicted, and not local men serving as auxiliaries, their sadistic hatred of Jesus has no conceivable explanation. Romans believed in the existence of many gods. A Jew who claimed to be a god might amuse them, but such a claim was nothing to anger them.
Mel Gibson may have intended this film to be a spiritual experience, but he succeeds only in reducing the image of Jesus to a bloody carcass with as little identity or significance as the dead donkey that provides Judas with the rope halter he hangs himself with.