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The Passion of the Christ   B

Newmarket Films / Icon Productions

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Mel Gibson, Benedict Fitzgerald
Cast: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Shopov, Mattia Sbragia, Luca Lionello, Claudia Gerini, Francesco Cabras, Rosalinda Celentano.

Review by Rob Vaux

After months of pundits on every conceivable side trying to tell us what this film is about, The Passion of the Christ proves to be a real tabula rasa. It harbors no shocking agenda, and carries little in the way of firebrand divisiveness. Director Mel Gibson has a simple purpose -- to dramatize the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ. This he achieves with thoughtfulness and skill. Whatever else people may think springs not from the sights on-screen but from the cultural feeding frenzy (some admittedly perpetrated by Gibson himself) that has consumed it whole. We shouldn't be too surprised. Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ engendered the same sort of clash (though foes of that film are some of this one's most ardent supporters), and doubtless some similar filmmaker will start the whole thing up again in another 20 years. In the meantime, we have The Passion of the Christ to keep us occupied.

From a pure filmmaking standpoint, there's quite a bit to admire. Gibson the director lags far behind Gibson the actor (I find Braveheart barely watchable), but he does have a cinematic eye, and no one can accuse him of not caring about this project. The rubber hammer is his Achilles' heel; he pounds his emotions into the audience with the force of a wrecking ball, demolishing nuance and subtlety beneath it. Thankfully, his chosen subject is well-known, and even thrives on the sturm und drang he wields. When married to strong pacing and a keen visual sense (yeoman work by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), the results can be quite stunning.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening scene -- the best of the film -- depicting Christ's arrest in the garden. We first see him kneeling in prayer, terrified of his coming ordeal and emotionally assaulted by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), who mockingly contends that no one man can possibly carry the burden of mortal sin. Gibson shows a sure hand in maneuvering through the confrontation, aided by a well-cast Jim Caviezel as Christ. The Savior's human frailties are apparent -- his doubts, his fears, his knowledge of the cosmic stakes -- which makes his strength at overcoming them all the more moving. Guards soon arrive, led by the traitor Judas (Luca Lionello) and sending his remaining followers scattering to the winds. But set in his convictions, he proceeds meekly to his fate.

And what a horrendous fate it is. Early fears at the film's anti-Semitism have slowly faded, to be replaced with a new rallying flag: violence. Certainly, The Passion of the Christ is graphic. Clive Barker graphic. The final 75 minutes consist primarily of our Lord and Savior being torn into hamburger meat, first by the Roman soldiers under Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), and then in a grueling crucifixion demanded by Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the other leaders of the temple. Gibson spares no detail as he slowly, almost lovingly, reveals what pains Christ endured: fists, canes, barbed whips which strip his flesh down to the bone; a crown of thorns hammered into his head with mallets; a slow march to the mount, dragging a 400-pound cross to which he will be nailed. And all of this before the piece de resistance: everything you never wanted to know about one of the most gruesome forms of execution conceived.

Gibson intersperses it all with some quiet flashbacks depicting Christ in gentler times, but the bulk is centered directly on the immediacy of his torment. It's not pleasant viewing; children should be kept far away from this film -- regardless of the context -- and anyone with a weak stomach might be better off catching a nice date flick. At times, it goes too far, clouding Gibson's need to convey the horror of it with the visceral glee of exploitation filmmaking. The Passion of the Christ compounds the problem with a series of cardboard characters: sneering Romans, baying crowds, and the hateful Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), who fears Christ too much to let him live. In a different context, it may have been laughable, and it certainly sets Gibson up for the criticism he's currently receiving.

And yet despite that, The Passion retains a real sense of power. Its message never wavers, always visible beneath the gore, and belies the divisions that have sprung up around it. We see Christ's suffering, not as a judgment or an attempt to make us feel guilty, but as a testament to the best parts of his philosophy. He went through this because he loves us, the movie says; he loves us so much that he endured the worst possible tortures on our behalf. We shouldn't blame ourselves, or condemn others who disagree with our point of view; we should only feel that once upon a time, someone cared about us just that much. For all its brutality, the film ultimately affirms such belief -- simplistically, perhaps, but also with genuine dignity. It's a pity that more people who speak in Christ's name don't understand the distinction.

As for the anti-Semitism, the rumors prove far larger than the reality. The Passion draws its boundaries more along class lines than religious ones, and though some of Christ's persecutors are, indeed, Jews, they act solely out of a desire for secular power. Jesus threatens what they have accumulated; their faith -- and the more sympathetic characters who share it -- never enters into their actions. Will some look upon the film and be inspired to hate? Perhaps, but blaming Gibson for their crazed delusions is no more valid than blaming Marilyn Manson for the Columbine killings. As with so many religious statements, people will see what they want to see in The Passion of the Christ. Some will be uplifted. Some will be repulsed. I found myself moved by its conviction and raw beauty, though it finally feels less bold than Last Temptation or contemporary mediations such as 21 Grams. But that, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Gibson has done what he set out to do, as reverently and skillfully as he knows how. The rest is up to us.

Review published 02.27.2004.

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