As I contemplate Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the sequence I keep coming back to, again and again, is the scourging at the pillar.
One reason, certainly, is that it is the most horrifying sequence in the film, more agonizing even than the Crucifixion itself or the carrying of the cross. But there are other reasons as well.
The sequence is also an outstanding example of Gibson's original vision of telling the story in the languages of the day, without subtitles. As the Roman centurions flog Jesus, their brutal, laughing mockery and derisive taunts go on for long minutes — and the Latin is left untranslated. We don't know what they're saying, and we don't need to know. Subtitles would be an unnecessary distraction.
At other points throughout the film, Gibson ultimately found it necessary to use subtitles; still, some of the most effective scenes remain the ones for which he was able to avoid them. As necessary as they might be in some scenes, especially on a first viewing, when the film becomes available on DVD everyone who buys it should watch it at least once with the subtitles turned off.
That the story was filmed in Latin and Aramaic at all is worthy of note. Put aside linguistic quibbles about what first-century Latin actually sounded like or whether Jews and Romans wouldn't have used Greek rather than Latin to converse with one another. The larger point is that, for the first time since the silent era, a cinematic Jesus is unencumbered by British-accented (or worse, American-accented) English or by a European romance language.
The scourging at the pillar also stands out for the way it cuts through the smoke of confusion and misinformation coming from both sides of the controversy surrounding the film. Watching this scene, two things become transparently clear.
First, notwithstanding at times exaggerated claims of historical accuracy and fidelity to the Gospels from some of the film's defenders, The Passion of the Christ is not an attempt to depict the sufferings of Christ exactly as described in the New Testament. Rather, while following the basic outline of the Passion narratives, the film is an imaginative, at times poetic reflection on the meaning of the Gospel story in light of sacred tradition and Catholic theology.
Consider the following incident. As Jesus is being flogged, Claudia, the wife of Pilate, approaches the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene bearing folded linens, which she gives to them. After Jesus is taken away, the two Marys go down on the flagstones and begin mopping up the blood around the pillar.
This incident, found nowhere in the Gospels, comes from the visionary writings of Venerable Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, the 19th-century stigmatic and mystic whose Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ significantly influenced the screenplay for The Passion of the Christ. The scenario is strikingly evocative of Catholic piety regarding Jesus’ precious blood but doesn't reflect a historio-graphical concern with sticking to the Gospel accounts.
Not all of the film's glosses on the Gospel accounts come from Sister Emmerich. The scourging at the pillar is also the occasion of one of Gibson's own most singular, unnerving imaginative flourishes. A satanic figure haunts the film, watchful and inscrutable. We first see it in the Garden of Gethsemane, where its attempts to dissuade Jesus from his mission with a nihilistic litany of negation: “No man can bear this burden. No one. Ever. No. Never.”
At certain points this androgynous figure is depicted in opposition to the Virgin Mary — but never more arrestingly so than before the pillar, where there is a kind of anti-Marian vision that I will not describe except to say that it is so bizarre, grotesque and ultimately meaningless that it seems to come straight from hell.
The other thing the scourging scene makes clear is the hollowness of activist complaints about the film's supposed anti-Semitism. The depiction of the Jewish mob might be unflattering, but it pales to insignificance beside the unmitigated barbarism of the Roman brute squad. We also see the high priest Caiaphas watching the scourging — not enjoying the spectacle but clearly uncomfortable, finding it painful to watch.
Significantly, this humanizing touch in Caiaphas’ characterization comes neither from the Gospels nor from sources such as Sister Emmerich but is original to the film. In fact, Sister Emmerich's account includes a strikingly different account of the Jewish onlookers during the scourging. She depicts Jewish leaders paying the Roman soldiers and plying them with drink to induce them to even more brutality. Gibson's film not only omits this unsavory flourish but goes in the opposite direction, giving a humanizing detail not found in the Gospels.
For all this, though, the single-most overwhelming aspect of the scourging at the pillar remains its sheer savagery. No previous Jesus film has ever approached this level of brutal violence — in part because no previous film has ever focused so closely on the Passion particularly.
Certainly, Jesus’ passion and death were horrific and violent. There is a long tradition, especially in the West, of devout meditation on the specifics of Jesus’ sufferings (the sorrowful mysteries, the Stations of the Cross and so on).
Yet when the film shows the soldiers stretching Jesus prone to nail him to the cross, then flipping the cross over and crushing him under it before raising it upright, some viewers, especially those less used to cinematic violence, might wonder whether this goes too far. Some, indeed, might not wish to see the film at all — and might even feel guilty for feeling that way, as if reservations about this film were somehow unchristian.
That would be a mistake. Movies, like everything human, are a matter of Christian liberty. No one is obligated to see, or like, any film in the world. The Passion of the Christ is an artistic expression of the faith, not the faith itself.
Yet it is also a pre-eminently important cinematic expression of the faith — probably one of the most important religious films of all time. It tells only a part of the Gospel story, as the Passion narratives themselves are only a part of the Gospels. But that part is the very crux: Christ died for us.
Content advisory: Much strong and bloody Passion narrative violence; some disturbing demonic imagery.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.