The Return of the Eternal King : A Film Review of The Passion of the Christ

Published in the February, 2004, issue of Catholic World Report


I have to admit I was skeptical. The Passion of the Christ had received the highest praise from people who had seen the advance screening. Nevertheless, when I was invited to attend a preview for Christian pastors and ministry leaders in my region, I went with a certain reluctance. I had expected to remain unmoved, distanced, analytical, as I watched yet another version of the greatest story ever told. Of the several films of Christ’s life that I had seen over the years, all had been flawed in some way. They offered either good but idiosyncratic acting, or mediocre acting with meticulously researched sets, or the cinematic equivalent of a saccharine holy card, and of course the inevitable schlock music pumping the emotions to compensate for limping film techniques. I was certain that any attempt to personify Christ would be a disappointment, because it could never match the interior icon each of us has in the heart of the soul. The best portrayal, to my mind, had been in Ben Hur, where we never see the face of Jesus.
What an extraordinary grace is The Passion. What a surprise. Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus is by far the deepest and most convincing to date—restrained yet surprisingly rich in meaning, and rendered with a dignity that can only be communicated by an actor who is, in some mysterious way, living through the story in communion with its central character. In this dramatization of the very axis upon which history turns, the director has chosen wisely to avoid theatrical effects. The story is so familiar it could easily have become a cliché—an interesting cliché, and an expensive one too, but in the end just another grandiose effort to impress. Instead, we become aware from the first moments of the film that we are participating in something altogether majestic and grace-filled, both as a work of art and a work of God.
Throughout the film there is sustained evidence of a masterful understanding of art as language—indeed it has several layers of language (English is not one of them), all successfully integrated. Symbols, texture, action, dialogue, and music work together to achieve an effect greater than the sum of its parts. There are numerous subtle strokes of the cinematic brush such as the lavish details in the trial before the Sanhedrin, which is reminiscent of a painting by Rembrandt in its linear narrative, its moods, complexity, and colors—and all of this without becoming self-consciously “artistic.” In a word, it is real.
The film is profoundly Marian. The role of Mary the mother of Christ as she suffers with her son from the moment of his arrest and all the way of the cross is beautifully portrayed. Their love for each other is conveyed as a united sacrificial offering to the Father. The utterly chilling portrayal of Satan as an androgynous or feminine persona is repeatedly used as a counterpoint to the fiat of the Mother—again in scenes that are presented with deft strokes of significance.
There are, as well, the characters of Judas, Caiphas, and especially the wonderfully acted Pontius Pilate, the flashbacks to Christ’s childhood, the Last Supper, the woman taken in adultery, the demons, the Resurrection. There is so much more to describe, but it would be a shame to preempt the reader’s right to see the film with his own unprejudiced eyes. Let me at least say that the overall sensory effect (aside from the graphic tortures of Christ, which can hardly be understated) is subdued, never an assault on the senses nor a strained melodrama aimed at stimulating emotionalism. On every level, the makers of this film have chosen to evoke, rather than provoke, profound emotion.
A week earlier I had seen Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, and loved it. I could sit through it five more times and not grow tired of it. It is a feast for the eyes, the heart, and the spirit, largely because it is so close to J. R. R. Tolkien’s mythological tale of the war between good and evil, and because, I suppose, so much extraordinary effort has been made to make it a success. The special effects are stunning, there are some surprisingly deep portrayals of character, the battle scenes far surpass any others in the history of movie making, but all in all this film succeeds only because of the greatness of the story it is based upon.
Artistically, The Return of the King is a mess—albeit a superb mess. Moments of startling beauty are followed by cheap cliché attempts to elicit fright or humor, poignant events are portrayed with profound empathy, followed by scenes that are purely emotional manipulation. The acting is uneven throughout. Aragorn the returning king is not quite the character Tolkien intended—stern, courageous, resolute—he has been transformed into a sensitive, conflicted modern man, despite his bravery. Some of the Orcs are scary in original ways, others are pantomime bogeymen. Legolas the Elf snow-boards down one too many precipitous slopes, such as the trunk of a titanic “oliphaunt”, without blinking an eye.
One can enjoy such hijinks and forgive the director just about anything, because in the end he has been faithful to the spiritual essence of the story. The central character, Frodo, is a very small Everyman who finds the moral character (read grace) necessary to undertake the impossible task of shifting the balance of a doomed world. A simple character, he carries a heavy burden through much trial and error to the gates of hell on Middle-earth, and beyond into the heart of darkness. In the process, he discovers in himself undeveloped virtues and his own fallen nature. The film, like the book, is about fear and courage and love. Most of all it is about sacrifice when the cost of the sacrifice seems too great, indeed the loss of everything. Frodo is well portrayed by Elijah Wood, who expresses more with his eyes than ten Hollywood leading men combined. Perhaps the finest performance, however, is by supporting actor Sean Astin, who plays Sam, Frodo’s companion on the quest.

The Return of the King exhibits some awareness of how layered language works, yet it remains stylistically a patchwork, combining elements of a horror flik, a Boy’s Own Adventure tale, and (indisputably) the qualities of great literature—by which I mean great story-telling that will continue to have universal appeal long after our own times.

In one of his letters Tolkien wrote that he did not intend The Lord of the Rings as a Christian allegory, but rather as a “consciously Christian myth.” And so it is. Clearly it is the greatest myth of the modern age, comparable to The Odyssey or Beowulf in their respective eras, for it is igniting the human appetite for the fundamental drama in existence, and does so by gripping the imagination with wonder.
This achievement, both in book form and in the film, is an encouraging sign that despite the glutted appetites of man in the consumerist West, at the heart of his soul he is still capable of recognizing, and desiring, the genuine. What, really, is this authenticity that we instinctively recognize when we come upon it, know without being told that it feeds us in some absolutely necessary way? Reflecting on the vast archipelago of the historical imagination, one can only conclude that the greatest works of art in every era are those which infuse into an individual and a people new awareness of their true stature. Such art speaks of the eternal in man, often without using the vocabulary of religion. It evokes a sense, more than a knowledge, of the inherent glory in his nature, and at the same time reveals his capacity for tragic choices.
It is now a commonplace that we live in a post-Christian age. Though the term is inaccurate, it is true that a majority of people on the planet have no idea who Christ is. The majority of people in the Western world, who have heard about him, apparently no longer believe in him or his teachings. Moreover, a large majority of Catholics in Europe and the Americas remain so poorly formed in the Faith that they cannot articulate its basics doctrines and moral theology. We are experiencing a multi-tiered apostasy within a broader context of religious illiteracy, each of which reinforce the other. Having largely succumbed to secular definitions of the meaning of the human person, man no longer knows himself.
In his 1999 Letter to Artists, John Paul II wrote: “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
Here is where implicitly religious cultural material such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy can come to the rescue. It is uncertain how much exposure The Passion of the Christ will receive, but it is beyond doubt that The Return of the King and its two companion films will play to packed theaters in every corner of the world. How much this will influence the coming generations is hard to say, but its influence cannot be underestimated. The trilogy will offer heroic role models to hundreds of millions of young people who are starved for genuine heroes, who know instinctively the beauty of sacrifice, but have rarely, if ever, encountered it. By dramatizing the great war in which we are all immersed until the end of time, it will teach much about the nature of that war, throw light upon the confused battle lines, enflesh living examples of what man must do to foster the good and resist evil. Many who have never seen a Bible will come to recognize more clearly the artifices of men of evil intent, and will instinctively desire to emulate men of good will, for that is the hidden icon within every soul, no matter how deeply it is buried. One might call it pre-evangelization or pro-evangelization, but regardless of the name we call it, it will prepare the ground for the more explicit evangelization to come. The return of a king will inspire countless souls, many yet unborn, to long for the return of the eternal King.

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