How to Watch Mel Gibson's Intense, Beautiful Passion

I live six miles from the foothills of the Rockies, in a spot where the Great Plains end and the mountains abruptly begin.

On a summer morning, I can sit in my backyard looking west and watch the sunrise light the high peaks, then creep across a mountain range that sweeps the horizon from far south to far north. It's spectacular, and it's available to anyone with a pair of eyes.

Of course, I could also view the whole scene through the cracked glass ashtray where I kill an occasional cigar. But that would say some very strange things about how I choose to look at the world.

You can watch Mel Gibson's film The Passion in exactly the same way: simply, clearly, with your eyes and heart wide open; or squinting through the cracked glass of an unreasonable anxiety.

I saw The Passion in rough-cut form in mid-June, before any of the larger group screenings, just as allegations of the film's “anti-Semitism” were heating up. Gibson's team was still editing the footage, trimming scenes and refining the special effects and soundtrack. And yet, even so, even in early form, The Passion was simply spectacular—a work of extraordinary talent and faith, and the kind of film that knocks the breath out of your chest by the time the lights finally come up.

Gibson has created a film that's intense, beautiful, moving, true to the Gospels and unforgettable. It lingers in the mind for weeks. Nobody who sees it will leave the theater quite the same person. It's a film that short-circuits our comfortable emotions of faith—the routine piety that gives us warm, religious feelings without all the blood and dirt—and replaces them with an experience of the real costs paid by a real Man whom believers embrace as the Christ.

The Passion puts a living face on the Crucifixion, and the encounter with Jesus that emerges is harrowing, personal and—in the end—profoundly magnetic. This is not a film for young children. It's too violent and too real. But it's also not a film for people who like to keep their Christ at a safe distance. You're there in the Jerusalem crowd. He's unavoidable.

The Passion is not merely a good “religious” film. It's a superbly crafted film by every professional standard, beginning with the casting. Most portrayals of Jesus founder on one of two stereotypes: Christ as vaguely effete holy man or Christ as unearthly miracle maker. Jim Caviezel's Jesus transcends both. He's astonishing in the role, an absolutely believable young carpenter-rabbi who balances the immense mission of his life with intimate and wholly human moments of love with his mother and disciples.

Caviezel captures the best of Robert Powell's messianic presence in Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth and Enrique Irazoqui's earthy masculinity in Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and his performance is complemented perfectly by the great Romanian Jewish actress Maya Morgenstern as Mary, who, with Caviezel, sets the standard for anyone who may play these roles in the future. The rest of the cast members—notably Monica Bellucci as Magdalene but also Pilate, Judas and even the centurions and common soldiers who make brief appearances—are equally compelling.

None of this should surprise. Gibson has been a star for many years, and he obviously wasn't asleep on the set. He's an Oscar-winning director in his own right, and it shows in the writing, the cinematography, the editing, the entire texture of the film. He overcomes the severely compressed time frame of the story—the hours between Gethsemane and Golgotha—by intercutting flashbacks from Mary, Mary Magdalene and the disciples; moments from Christ's childhood, his young adulthood, his public ministry and the Last Supper.

While brief, they're marvelously done, and they provide a context to the events—a remembered moment of play between mother and son, glimpses of intimate sorrow, forgiveness, friendship—that opens up the humanity of the characters in an unprecedented way.

The rough cut I saw included subtitles, and yes, they're clearly needed. The film's opening sequence in the Garden of Gethsemane would make no sense without them. But what does surprise is how well the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin actually works.

Caviezel and the rest of the cast deliver their lines as if they'd learned them in first-century Galilee. Their performances are flawless, and these “dead” languages, in coming so vividly alive, reinforce the immediacy of the whole film. Gibson also briefly introduces a personification of evil, an adversary character utterly arresting in her ambiguity, who helps dramatize Christ's interior anguish, and his treatment of the Resurrection is spare, understated and enormously powerful.

Of course, how the film looks and fares when it finally reaches the theaters is still unresolved. But the very public campaign waged against The Passion so far is a form of pre-emptive bullying that often seems to spring from resentment of the Gospels themselves. Ironically, it has also hurt the likelihood of any real dialogue about the film between Christians and Jews.

While it's true that The Passion casts Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin in harsh light, so do the Gospels—and as Christians know from their own bitter experience, weak and evil men in holy garb have occasionally plagued every religious tradition.

Nothing in this film, certainly nothing in the rough cut I saw, attacks the Jewish people or encourages prejudice against them, and Gibson has explicitly distanced himself and his film from any such bias.

But Catholics and other people of good will should see it and decide for themselves. They'll want to share it with many others. The film left me with one overriding thought: I want to follow that Man … who, of course, was himself a Jew.

To squint at The Passion through the lens of an alleged “anti-Semitism” is not only baffling but also seriously misleading, and it distorts both the intent and the content of this extraordinary film.

Francis X. Maier, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, is a former fellow of the American Film Institute's

Center for Advanced Film Studies.