In the end, as life's evening fades into the black pool of night, there is only one question. If the answer is no, then there is nothing more: time is a conceit of destruction, and destruction has been taking place for billions of years now and shall persist for billions more to come. Amidst this endless chain of death and survival and death, we have been granted some brief light and joy and asked to savor this meager portion even if all the while we know there is nothing more. So how should we presume? We should presume that even this gruel will be stripped from us and we will wither and fade into ash, never to exist again, never really having existed at all. How anyone can possibly live a life with such an understanding of its egress is truly staggering; some may call it brave, yes, others may more properly call it foolish. But again, that is only if the answer is no. If the answer is yes, then we can regain forever what we have always possessed: childhood meadows, our parents and grandparents that taught us the world, our enormous schools with their enormous thresholds and windows and blackboards, our adolescence and young adulthood, our first tastes of that most adult of activities, our first crushes and painfully lovelorn sunsets, our families and children – is there anything more persuasive of immortality's existence than children? – our careers wending through responsibility, calamity, and discovery. But in the end, when we are feeble, grey, and bent, we may look back at what we have lived and know that we may retain these joys for eternity. Because if the answer is yes then it is destruction which is the conceit of time, as in this extraordinary film.
Everyone knows this story, although it is not quite the story known to everyone. We begin during an ominously blue night: as a small band of Aramaic speakers huddles in company and warmth, another Aramite not far off has been accosted by what appear to be holy men, and even those with scant knowledge of the Abrahamic tradition will soon recognize the High Priests of the Hebraic faith. For a mere handful of coins we know that this man, Judas (Luca Lionello), the most infamous name in Christianity, will direct a pack of marauding Roman soldiers to that band in the garden, and that amidst that band will be one man in particular, a rabbi, a carpenter, and the leader of a revolution. What that revolution may consist of we do not know because our man is not a soldier or firebrand; in fact, when we first see him he exhibits impatience, almost curtness towards his disciples as they slumber against a large tree's roots. He feels there is something wrong, they say to one another, as if he senses betrayal. Soon the Romans will enter the garden and the band will struggle in arms in defiance of sure death, but not before our man retires to a corner in a strange ritual. He raises his hands to the thick night sky and asks his father – and what father could be seated in the firmament? – to have a chalice pass from him. A voice, not a very pleasant voice, whispers: "Who is your father?" And when it receives no response, it continues: "No one can bear all the sins of the world. No one." Soon we see the speaker, an androgynous cloaked figure (Rosalinda Celentano) whose countenance is volatile, pale, and almost sneering. In its nostril crawls a worm, and from beneath its robe, or some portal to an infernal dimension, a longer worm of sorts slithers out towards our man in prayer, touching his wrist. He will crush that serpent's head underfoot, disregard that Satan has tempted him in his weakest hour – there will come, alas, far weaker – and face his captors. He will be seized and brought before a Jewish tribunal, and his name will be revealed as Jesus of Nazareth (James Caviezel).
What happens then is not the beginning of the end, but the climax of Our beginning. As the soldiers seize Jesus, Peter (Francesco De Vito) and John (Christo Jivkov) fight them off with the frenetic violence of a parent protecting a nest, but Jesus stays their blows, recurring to his adage about those who live by the sword – and soon we know why they have come for him and not anyone else. One of the Roman soldiers loses in an ear in the mêlée, but Jesus restores it whole without a thought. As they whisk him away, the soldier remains kneeling where he has just seen and felt a miracle; towards the end of the Calvary, another Roman soldier will fall to his knees in bewilderment – the magical, inexpressible bewilderment of knowing that there is something you cannot explain, something that confirms your belief in the heavens, in oxygen, in our numbered days – and this will complete a cycle of conversion before our very eyes. It is also with his arrest that the beatings begin. Jesus the historical figure is nothing if not a man: tall, wiry, a carpenter by trade who revels in the fine craftsmanship of making a lasting piece of furniture (a wonderful scene with his mother shows him to be as human as anyone has ever been), and may be considered to be in what we term "fighting shape." By the end of his humiliation and the fourteen stations, he will have endured an unfathomable amount of physical pain, enough to leave his Roman torturers in awe. And yet how else can one film portray a man absorbing all the sin of the world? Eventually he is brought before the second most infamous name in Christianity, Pontius Pilate (a fantastic Hristo Shopov).
Pilate is spared Judas's ignominy perhaps only because he was a heathen, and here I shall permit myself an aesthetic aside. While the casting for The Passion of the Christ is uniformly excellent, Shopov as Pilate must simply be considered a decision of sheer genius. For whatever reason I have always thought of Pilate just as he is depicted here: muscular, handsome if roughly hewn, eloquent, polyglot, self-assured in the fashion of a man unaccustomed to having to repeat himself. Yet we also know that like every man, Pilate has a fatal flaw, and his is unmistakable cowardice. When his wife warns him that she has dreamt of Jesus as a holy man and petitions for his amnesty (a dream likely devised by Satan), doubt and fear begin to flicker in Pilate's eyes. Not because, mind you, a pagan should have any fear before someone proclaiming himself to be a god, but because at weak moments – moments that will define a career, a marriage, a life – the pusillanimous among us will gather in their minds' theater a highlight reel of all other such incidents, and the results will be reflected in their faces. When Pilate begins to waver and ponder his destiny – he will do a lot of silent gulping – we sense that he has had a history of taking the path of least resistance, of electing silence over dissent, palliation instead of solution. We should be so unlucky as to be ruled by an invading army, as were the Hebrews at this time; we should be unluckier still as to be governed by the dark wishes and wickedness that such military might permits itself. No fouler example of Pilate's craven shame occurs than in the juxtaposition of Jesus with the "hideous murderer" Barabbas; no better retort may exist than how Jesus counters Pilate's boast of wielding the power of life and death. Pilate and Jesus do not exchange many unsaid ideas (although the Roman is visibly stunned that a Jew's command of Latin could be greater than his own of Aramaic), but we may witness more moments of telepathic dialogue than in any other film ever created. Jesus communicates what should not be spoken with the wounded soldier in Gethsemane, the African slave at the court of the judge who first condemns him, his disciples who watch his loathsome demise, his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Judas, who will spend his last hours in demonic possession, Barabbas, who is conceived in the film as the exact opposite of Jesus the man, and in the last stations of his Calvary with Simon, who insists that an innocent man is bearing the cross – and is talking about himself. He will communicate with his eyes, his passivity, and occasionally and very forcefully with his words. But in the end he will also redefine the meaning of a man of action.
The allegedly objective critic will masticate on the question of whether belief in such a story is vital to its appreciation – and if you need that question answered, there is little that can be done to help you. Similarly, calling this film racist or anti-Semitic is akin to labeling the Blue-Grey Civil War anti-American: the hero, so to speak, is the greatest Jew who has ever lived, and if there is one ethnic group with a horde of competition for such a title, the children of Abraham would surely be it. Naturally then, both his enemies and his friends are of his people. To cast the Romans (who are portrayed as precisely the rabid barbarians we have long since suspected them to have been) as the lone perpetrators of savagery and injustice is not only historically improbable, it is completely out of line with what normally happens to revolutionaries in their own lands. Hopelessly conventional complaints – that the film is heavy-handed, disgusting, dangerous, and harmful – are wrought from two quarries, that of atheistic rejection, which we can forgive, and that of ignorant malice, which we cannot. The Passion of the Christ re-imagines, from a Christian's artistic perspective, the greatest event in the history of mankind. If you do not subscribe to what Christianity means, you may very well be bored and even repelled; you may even ask why such a film needed to be made. And the answer is that there was no need, but once you have seen it, you cannot imagine life without it – a magnificent definition of art if there ever were one. If you do believe in the Son of Man, however, you may never avert your eyes from the screen. And at the exact middle of the film, when we gaze upon the empty square where He was almost scourged to death, upon the weapons and the trail of blood, we understand the linens that Pilate's wife proffers Mary. We understand the moments He remembers as a man: washing His disciple's feet, building a table for a client, breaking bread with His apostles, preaching from the Mount, drawing a line in the sand to protect an adulterous woman condemned to death by stoning. And we understand why His mother remembers Him as a child falling and now as a man collapsing. And if we understand a parent's love for his child, then we understand a lot more than we may think.