Passion of Christ Review

by Shannon Patrick Sullivan (shannon AT morgan DOT ucs DOT mun DOT ca)
March 8th, 2004

[Aramaic and Latin; English subtitles]

Directed by Mel Gibson. Screenplay by Benedict Fitzgerald and Gibson. Starring James Caviezel, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Mattia Sbragia. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated R for extreme violence by the MFCB. Reviewed on March 7th, 2004.


Synopsis: The story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Caviezel), from his betrayal by Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) in the Garden of Gethsemane to his death upon the cross.

Review: I was raised a Roman Catholic. While I still respect and admire some of the basic teachings of Christianity, over time I've developed a contempt for the hypocrisy of the Catholic church and an overall skepticism toward the more supernatural elements of Christian doctrine. I suppose that, at this point in time, I'd fall into the category of the ardently agnostic, and I feel it's important to make this clear before reviewing "The Passion Of The Christ" -- for a review of any movie which touches in so raw a manner upon the fundamental aspects of a faith must surely be informed by the beliefs of the critic.

So, for instance, one thing which really struck me about "Passion" is the way this tale of the beginnings of Christianity reflects so stingingly upon the deeds of subsequent adherents to the faith -- and in particular the Catholic Church itself. Consider the Jewish priests, led by Caiphas (Sbragia), who seek Jesus' death not because they truly believe he has transgressed Jewish law (what allusions they make to such crimes seem halfhearted at best) but because he represents a palpable threat to their power base. Compare this to the deeds of the Catholics in later centuries, and even unto today, doing everything in their power to maintain the influence of Rome upon the world; from my perspective, it's more than a little telling.

Some have misguidedly seen the portrayal of Caiphas and his cronies in "Passion" as an attack upon Jews, and indeed historically this very element of the story of Jesus has served to incite antisemitic violence. But it misses the point: it is not all Jewish peoples in "Passion" who seek the death of Christ, but merely those whose position he threatens. And as dismally as the priests come off, surely the brutal Roman legionnaires -- none of whom are likely to have been Jewish -- are portrayed in a much poorer light, indeed appearing as little better than subhuman monsters.

Gibson perhaps tends toward excess in his treatment of the Roman troops, and this is in general the biggest fault of "Passion", as the director appears misguided in understanding when he needs to pull back and restrain himself. That said, though, much of the point of the film is to paint how monumental and difficult a sacrifice Jesus is supposed to have made, and scenes such as one in which he is flogged interminably -- while bloody and difficult to watch -- have their place here.

But consider the inclusion of Satan in the narrative, slipping in and out of the proceedings like a flitting shadow. Played with eerie effectiveness by Rosalinda Celentano, Satan mostly serves as an unsettling visual reminder of the mammoth evil being perpetrated -- and also of the ultimate victory of God through Christ's sacrifice. But occasionally Gibson goes over the top and seems to start cribbing from schlock horror flicks, as when Satan is seen cradling a hideously distorted baby.

Of course, readers with any reasonable acquaintance with the Biblical Gospels are likely aware that there's no mention of Satan peering over people's shoulders during the crucifixion, and this is just one of many departures Gibson makes from his source material. Admittedly, to a certain extent Gibson has little choice: the Gospels (and indeed the New Testament as a whole) are contradictory on many of the specifics of the story. Much of Gibson's interpretation is inspired by traditions of Catholic mythology, which may leave practitioners of other Christian denominations feeling a little left out. Others are invented by the director out of whole cloth and, like the appearance of Satan, are only moderately successful; the demons which plague Judas Iscariot following his betrayal of Jesus are similarly melodramatic and rather unnecessary.

Nonetheless, what Gibson manages to do is to convey a tale of supreme hope springing from supreme tragedy. Even non-Christians and skeptics like myself will likely find it difficult not to get drawn into the story of a man who endures unbearable torture for something he truly believes in. Does it really matter if Jesus is the son of God, or a madman with delusions of grandeur? Frankly, no. Anyone who would go through such limits of torture for so noble a cause as the salvation of humanity is worthy of respect, and that's true regardless of whether you believe that "Passion" is an accurate historical record, a complete work of fiction, or -- as in my case -- somewhere in between.

It's also worth noting that Gibson does an excellent job of evoking his setting. The decision to have the dialogue delivered in Aramaic and Latin is inspired, and I liked the fact that the characters look like they really could have lived in the Middle East of two thousand years ago. Gibson largely eschews the traditional image of the Apostles as clean-cut, beatific men and instead allows them to be grimy, haggard, and basically normal-looking.

And while the actors are largely slaved to the emotion inherent in the film's scenario, they do fine work nonetheless. Particularly good is Shopov, who brings a flawed nobility to the usually thankless role of Pontius Pilate. Indeed, I appreciated the fact that Gibson did not go the usual and obvious route of portraying Pilate as a hideous villain, and instead brought out the complexities of the character, painting Pilate as a man who fails not by committing a sin of deed, but a sin of omission, of inaction.

Powerful and disturbing, "The Passion Of The Christ" is a laudable accomplishment, despite its flaws. It may offer little in the way of genuine insight -- for that, go check out Monty Python's superior "Life Of Brian" -- but it's as effective a telling of the crucifixion as is likely to be committed to film.

Copyright 2004 Shannon Patrick Sullivan.
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