This leads me to one of my two larger complaints about the film, which is that it just doesn’t work as a standalone movie, separate from all the Biblical context most of its supporters bring to it. (Too many of the film’s boosters argue from this perspective, treating the movie as, essentially, an addendum to years of Bible-reading and Sunday school. Considering that it is a mass-market film for a popular audience, this seems absurd. Also, the fact that it’s not, you know, canon.) The villains, Jew and Roman, are all bug-eyed caricatures, sneering, cackling manifestations of unhinged evil. To call them flat characters is an understatement; they are not people at all, just whooping, stereotyped manifestations of mad rage.
Worse, Jesus—the central figure in Western civilization for two thousand years—is similarly lacking in depth. We get a few flashbacks, and a few pivotal scenes are dramatized, but the film offers us nothing about Jesus as a dramatic character, as history’s only sinless man, as the sovereign Lord of man and son of God. Surely Jesus, of all the people who ever lived, should be a gripping, infinitely compelling onscreen character. ~ Peter Suderman
Mr. Suderman’s first point is a good one. I cannot say how The Passion would appear to someone with only a limited or non-existent acquaintance with the Gospels, and it might be that the movie only really works for people who already come to it with more familiarity with Scripture. That said, the story of Christ’s Passion is perhaps one of the most famous in our civilisation, references to it abound in our cultural history and you would have to be something of a complete cultural illiterate to have no requisite background for understanding the film and the entire backstory of Christ’s life to that point. We might as well say that an adaptation of Henry V cannot stand on its own because no one any longer knows anything about the Hundred Years’ War. As a portrait of Christian theology, The Passion’s reach may be limited to those with eyes to see, but as a work of dramatic storytelling I am unsure why it needs significant introduction. Besides, everything you need to understand about the characters and their motivations is revealed in the course of the film: the Passion narrative sums up and recapitulates what was most important in Christ’s ministry.
The charge that the “villains, Jew and Roman, are all bug-eyed caricatures, sneering, cackling manifestations of unhinged evil” seems less compelling, when you consider that Pilate, his wife, the soldier Abenader, the centurion at the Cross and Caiaphas are certainly better developed and better played than this. There is at least some complexity in each of them. Satan certainly sneers, but also provides an embodiment of evil that goes beyond the predictable way of showing the Prince of Darkness. The villains who fit Mr. Suderman’s description here are the soldiers who scourge and beat Christ, who fill the roles of brutal henchmen; we do not typically hold it against a film that its brutal henchmen are flat, superficial characters–they are henchmen! Perhaps this is a deficiency of film-making, but it is one no different from every other film in which there are henchmen. The other villains, though perhaps not as multi-layered and conflicted as we post-moderns like our villains, are not quite so shallow as all that.
Portraying the character of Christ has always been problematic, which is typically why artists have not attempted to delve too deeply, lest they wander off either into Nestorian errors out of a need to portray a human that they, as artists, can understand and describe or simply jump off the deep end like a Kazantzakis. It is true that Christ should be the deepest character one can imagine, since He is the God-man, but it is quite one thing for this to be theoretically true and quite another for an artist to attempt to describe the mental state, interior life or motivations of the Word Incarnate. Right away, I think Mr. Suderman will see the problem with his objection: no orthodox Christian could, short of Kazantzakian or Nestorian blasphemy, or would attempt to flesh out a character for God the Word. Gibson makes brief efforts to inject moments from ordinary life into the film, but this is not the same thing. So, I suppose what I am saying is that Mr. Suderman is right to a certain extent that The Passion’s Christ lacks depth, but it could not have been done any other way and still remain faithful to the common orthodoxy of all major Christian confessions. The artist must be true to his material, and in this case that required Gibson to allow the words spoken by the Word to speak for themselves; he could not significantly embellish or elaborate on them without doing violence to his subject.