Passion of Christ Review

by Andy Keast (arthistoryguy AT aol DOT com)
February 27th, 2004

"The Passion of the Christ": ** out of ****

Directed by Mel Gibson. Screenplay by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald. Starring Jim Cavaziel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Jivkov, Hristo
Shopov, Mattia Sbraglia and Rosalinda Celentano.

by Andy Keast

"The Passion of the Christ" drove me away. It's well made for the most part, but I felt outside the story the whole time. The movie hopes to engage you -harrowingly- with a graphic depiction of the torture endured by Jesus in his last twelve hours of life, but it backfired with me. Part of it may be due to conditioning: For me, the movie didn't establish much emotional investment in the character. That, coupled with when I see such extreme violence take place onscreen, I develop a certain detachment from what's happening.

The movie borders on punishing the audience with an hour of relentless torture and gore. Jesus is beaten, whipped, skinned, and flogged. There are crunching
sounds and slow motion whooshes. Blood splatters onto characters' faces and torsos. For an hour. When hands are nailed to the cross, the camera doesn't cut away. Gibson's intentions were to make the audience know intimately what Jesus was going through in the throes of death. My religious beliefs are not that strong, but I *am* a somewhat reasonable human being that understands physical pain. I could imagine what a giant nail entering my palm would feel like before I saw this film. I would hope that the audience is already fearful
of the idea of being tortured to death. And even if not, what does "The Passion" contain beyond that?

The critic David Ansen compared the violence in the movie to that in Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible," a film which contains one of the most brutal scenes of violence I've ever seen. In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he states that had it been anyone other than Jesus being tortured, the film would be rated NC-17. I agree. One issue I'm taking with the film is the idea that if a movie hides behind "historical justification" or "social merit," it licenses itself to be as gratuitously violent as it likes -and I think this movie does to a degree. Is it too much? I don't want to be the one who waves their finger and says "you've gone too far." The audience I was in was clearly repelled and disgusted by what they saw, as if this were not what they had bought tickets to see. Some had to leave the theater. Beyond his attempt at the intimacy I spoke of, I'm left wondering what exactly Gibson's purpose with the bloodbath was.

The violence aside, there are other elements here that I loved. The performances are great, I suspect because the cast is comprised of a lot of non-Western actors whose work would transcend any director. I liked Maia Morgenstern in an almost wordless performance as Mary the mother of Jesus. Her
moods and expressions suggest a great silent film actress. Master
Caleb Deschanel creates scenes that are at once ugly and beautiful. Notice the
garden at Gethsemane and the image of Satan looking on as Christ is flogged. There is also a very stark and convincing pietà.

That's another thing. The portrayal of the angel Satan (or the fact that he's personified at all) was a bit simple-minded and comic-bookish, I thought. Not to compare and contrast, but the presence of Satan in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" was an unseen wicked spirit, who could appear as a pillar
of fire, or an animal, or an innocent-looking girl -the better to feed you lies
with. In "The Passion," "he" is played by an androgynous Italian actress named
Rosalinda Celentano, who at times resembles Death from "The Seventh Seal." Satan is shown with a demonic, horror film menace that in my mind would go against his agenda: How can the devil seduce or trick or tempt you when he's scaring the hell out of you?

I've also said that the directing and editing is manipulative, which brings up another argument. A friend of mine hated "21 Grams" for being melodramatic and
overcooked, but liked the operatic nature of "The Passion." What's the difference? I suppose you can say that there isn't another story that "measures up" to the passion of Jesus. My friend said that he wasn't sure if the fact that it was a Biblical story influenced his opinion. We all go to movies to be manipulated in some way, but I don't know…

The movie is not anti-Semitic, though Gibson's directing doesn't necessarily make it clear. To my knowledge, it only depicts historical events (reliable or
not) taken from the gospels. It's important to remember that in that time there were hundreds of peasants claiming to be prophets, who were seen by religious and political leaders (Jewish and otherwise) as insane people who represented a threat to the system. Caiphas and the Pharisees did not represent the majority of the Jewish people, in that or any other time. However, one of the disappointments of the movie was that the film never established any kind of context of history. I also felt that, despite his vision, Gibson wasn't very confident about the subject. The movie stands on the back of an ancient document without trying to enter or understand it's social or political context. It lacks the depth of a film that wants to take religion seriously, like "The Last Temptation" or "Breaking the Waves." It's all spectacle. This is the kind of film I can appreciate what was tried more than what was done.

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