Passion of Christ Review

by Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
February 27th, 2004


Director Mel Gibson, a fundamentalist Catholic (fundamentalists reject the modernizations of 1962's Vatican II), explores the last twelve hours leading to the crucifixion of Jesus (James Caviezel, "High Crimes") in "The Passion of the Christ."

After all the debate about this film - whether it is anti-Semitic, why Mel doesn't renounce his father's Holocaust denials, the rationale behind its pre-release screenings, even analysis of its theatrical rollout - what Gibson has delivered is his own passionate vision. Undeniably the work of a man of deep faith, Gibson's Passion Play may not convert unbelievers, but it is likely to be profoundly moving for those brought up as Christians. And yes, "The Passion of the Christ" is brutally violent, but this viewer never found it to be fetishistic or obscene, as others have charged.
"The Passion of the Christ" begins in the Garden of Gesthemane where the apostles fret over the disturbed behavior of Jesus. Jesus, in turn, is softly taunted by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano, "The Order"), a truly creepy grim-reaperish androgyne, with the impossibility of his task. In quick order, the wheels are put into motion when Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) delivers his treacherous kiss, paid for with thirty pieces of silver by Jewish High Priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia, "The Order"). Caiphas, unable to issue a death sentence, turns Jesus over to Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) for heresy. Pilate, whose wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini, "Under the Tuscan Sun") begs him not to harm the holy man, attempts to get Herod to deal with the Galilean, but Herod declares the man crazy, not guilty, and Jesus is returned to Pilate. Pilate then hopes to quell the mounting rebellion by sentencing Jesus to a scourging, a task the Roman soldiers take to extremes, almost flaying the man to death. When Caiphas still demands crucifixion, Pilate offers to free either Jesus or the notorious murderer Barrabas. The crowd chooses Barrabas. Christ tells Pilate 'It is he who delivered me to you that has the greater sin,' and that his death has already been decided. At this point, Gibson's film begins to follow the Twelve Stations of the Cross.

Although the crowd which gathers before Pilate screams with bloodlust, it is at this time that apostle Peter denies Jesus three times. The scene comes across not as anti-Semitism, but as mob mentality. The depiction of Caiphas can be read as a denunciation of any politicized religious leader and it only makes sense that Caiphas, who arranged for Jesus to be arrested secretly, would have ensured a crowd supporting his view was present before Pilate. When Jesus is paraded publicly through the streets, the Jew Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz), drafted by the Romans to help carry the cross, demands mercy for Jesus and leaves Calvary a shattered man.

Other critics of the film, who have described it as a bloodfest with no spirituality, should look to the subtle and effective editing choices made here (editor John Wright, "Rollerball"). As Christ is prodded and beaten, his point of view falls on details of his torturers - a nail being hammered, the foot of a Roman soldier - jumping off points for flashback memories of jovial affection with his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern, extremely moving) or the washing of the apostles's feet. These juxtapositions reinforce Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, where he preaches the importance of loving one's enemy. Another moment works on three levels. As Jesus is surrounded while dragging his cross, we see his point of view remembering of the procession of palms from his mount on a donkey. This recalls the decaying donkey from which Judas took the rope to hang himself after being driven out of Jerusalem by demon children.

Gibson is especially soulful in his depiction of Mary (who is supported by Magdalen (Monica Bellucci, "The Matrix: Revolutions") throughout). Gibson imbues Mary's love for her son with such strong intuitiveness that she is able to kneel on the very stone over the underground chamber where Jesus is shackled. When Pilate's wife humbly offers linens to the two women at the scourging, Mary quietly begins to sop up the rivers of blood left behind on the stones after her son is dragged away and Maia Morgenstern joins Caviezel in depicting great suffering combined with spiritual acceptance. Gibson's handling of Mary's meeting Jesus with his cross is made an overpowering depiction of a mother's love by the flashback that accompanies it.

Screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald turned not only to the New Testaments for their material, but to the accounts of the visions of 19th-century stigmatic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. It is Emmerich's material which states that the crucifixion nails were placed into Jesus's palms (the popular depiction, although his wrists would have been used in order to hold the body), adds the presence of demons (a concept Gibson incorporates with great skill) and describes Herod as effeminate. Gibson's depiction of the Roman soldiers acting like a pack of sadistic hyenas (behavior rebuked by centurion Abenader (Fabio Sartor)), is also taken from Emmerich, who describes seeing demons goading the Romans on.

The film is stunningly photographed by Caleb Deschanel ("The Hunted"). Production, set and costume design all add to the feeling of authenticity (Gibson shot the film at Rome's Cinecitta Studios). The decision to have the actors speak Aramaic and Latin strongly supports the illusion of witnessing this oft-told story realistically for the first time.

Mel Gibson has been self-flagellating himself on screen for decades and Jim Caviezel has been typecasting himself in Christ-like roles ("Angel Eyes," "Pay It Forward," "The Thin Red Line") for too long. Perhaps this like-minded outpouring will enable both to move on. In their wake is a profoundly moving account of their faith.


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