Conveying Christ's Divinity

However, the film also maintains a certain degree of objectivity in its approach to Jesus and thus manages to convey his divinity as well. Indeed, the very fact that Jesus is often more of an observer than an active participant in the events that surround him lends a certain abstract quality to him as a character. His relationship with Mary, so human and winsome in the flashback to his life as a carpenter, turns more mystical as he is detained by the authorities. At one point Jesus is imprisoned in an underground cell, and Mary, standing in the room above him, senses his presence beneath the floor and kneels directly above him; in return, Jesus, sensing his mother through the ceiling, looks up.

Significantly, Gibson retains the tradition of showing how the very sight of Jesus can affect people and convict them, at least momentarily, of their sins. When Jesus is brought before Herod Antipas, the king and his entourage mock Jesus mercilessly, but one soldier trades point-of-view shots with Jesus—and when Jesus looks at him, the soldier looks away uncomfortably. Similarly, the Barabbas of this film is a vile, vulgar brute who eggs the mob on when they cry for Barabbas's release, and who rudely wags his tongue at the Roman who sets him free—but when he looks at Jesus, his coarse confidence falters, and he seems slightly troubled before he turns back to the crowd and basks in its attention once more. (As with Malchus, so with Barabbas: The person observed by Jesus is framed in isolation, while the head of the person Jesus observes is visible when the film cuts back to a close-up of Jesus's face.) Even the high priest Caiaphas, so resolutely antagonistic toward Jesus throughout the rest of the film, hesitates before leaving Golgotha.

Gibson also points his camera directly at Jesus's face on at least one occasion, when Jesus answers the high priest's question and says he is the Son of God; the bold camera angle underscores the boldness of Jesus's claim. The shot lasts only a few seconds, so it cannot be said that Gibson encourages us to gaze on Jesus as other directors have, but Gibson does confront us with Jesus's divinity on a visual level, just as Jesus confronts us with his divinity through his words. In addition, when Jesus is finally crucified, Gibson densely mixes scenes from the crucifixion with flashbacks to the Last Supper and the farewell discourse that Jesus delivered at that time. Although some of these flashbacks may represent the thoughts of specific characters, such as John or perhaps even Jesus, the overall effect is to transcend any particular point of view and to suggest that the physical body and blood of Christ being nailed to the cross on Calvary is itself intimately connected to the mystical body and blood of Christ served at that first communion.

Gibson also draws us into the minds of other characters besides Jesus through point-of-view shots and flashbacks. Judas is hounded to his death by children whom he perceives as demonic; we see their distorted faces from Judas's point of view, and as he staggers away from them, the camera waves back and forth, suggesting Judas's own disorientation. Peter and Jesus exchange close-up point-of-view shots after Peter denies Christ, which prompts Peter to recall, in a flashback, how he promised Christ he would never let him down. As Mary Magdalene kneels to mop up the blood of Jesus after his scourging, she has a flashback in which she recalls kneeling at his feet as he rescued her from a mob that was calling for her death. (Gibson here erroneously identifies Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, presumably because of the western tradition, found nowhere in Scripture, that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.)

After wiping his face with her cloth, Veronica watches Jesus, who is looking at her, as he is led away. Gesmas, the thief who is crucified next to Jesus and mocks him, gets a frighteningly up-close look at a crow that has perched itself on his cross, before the crow pecks out his eyes. And most startlingly of all, after Jesus dies, Gibson has his camera look down on Golgotha from high above—at which point a divine teardrop sends ripples around the edge of the screen before falling away from the camera and causing the earthquake that rips the Temple in two. Overhead shots such as these are sometimes called "God shots," because they suggest that we are seeing the world with the same dispassionate objectivity that God supposedly has. Gibson's God shot, however, suggests that even God has a point of view and an emotional attachment to his Son.

The film's last shot, not counting the brief resurrection sequence, has Mary kneeling over the body of her son and looking directly at the camera. Many Jesus films have ended by breaking the "fourth wall" and appealing directly to the viewer: One of the final scenes in King of Kings ends with Mary Magdalene looking toward the camera and proclaiming "He is risen!" Other films, like The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Miracle Maker, have Jesus himself looking into the camera as he promises to be with his followers until the end of the world. The Passion of The Christ faces the viewer with a somewhat different agenda in mind. It asks us to observe, objectively, the sacrifice that God the Son has made on our behalf. And because it has drawn us into the subjective experience of Jesus's own commitment to making that sacrifice, the film has given us in the audience a taste of what it might be like to become imitators of Christ ourselves.

This excerpt from Re-Viewing the Passion, edited by S. Brent Plate, is reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. The book is available at amazon.com.

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