Passion of Christ Review

by Dan Navarro (eldorado2 AT adelphia DOT net)
March 15th, 2004


Icon Productions (2004)

by Dan Navarro

    Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (Icon Productions/Newmarket Film Group) is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen.

    If that evaluation seems at odds with other reviews of the film you've read, maybe the difference is a matter of perspective. Producer-director Gibson chose to dramatize the story of Jesus' last hours on earth using postmodern cinema naturalism rather than Sunday School imagery; and the result is a grueling, violent film that approximates what Christ's Passion must have really looked like. On balance, I like Gibson's approach better, for through it we can begin to appreciate the degree of suffering the Savior had to endure for our sins.

    Although the Jesus story has been filmed many times, it's never looked like this before. Here, the carpenter from Nazareth is subjected to the longest, goriest, most sadistic beating ever recorded on film. After the Roman soldiers have finished battering Jesus, their bloody, lacerated victim is forced to carry the large wooden cross on which his earthly life will end, along the Way of the Cross leading to Calvary.

    James Caviezel stars as Jesus, and here delivers on the promise he gave in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). His Edmond Dantes was an innocent man who was made to suffer brutal torture by those he loved, and foreshadowed his role as Jesus of Nazareth; but then, of course, Edmond was a man who would exact revenge against those who betrayed him, and that was the right way for that story to end. Jesus, too, suffered for those he loved, but at the end of this story he exhorts the Creator: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

    The film opens in a dark blue, moonlit haze, with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is approached by Satan, a sinister, androgynous creature with no eyebrows (Rosalinda Celentano). "Do you really think one man can atone for all the sins of mankind?" Satan asks, mockingly. (In one of many subtle touches by Gibson, we see a tiny snake emerge momentarily from one of Satan's nostrils.)

    Soon, Judas (Luca Lionello) makes his appearance, famously betraying Jesus to his captors with a kiss on the cheek. Several beefy Roman soldiers haul Jesus away to be judged before Pontius Pilate. Along the way, the soldiers pummel their prisoner and soon Jesus' right eye is nearly swollen shut from the beatings.

    More abuse follows, at the hands of the Pharisees, who beat Jesus and spit upon him. And here, we note with satisfaction that Gibson has done his cinematic homework: Mattia Sbragia, the actor playing Caiaphas, the high priest, is -- in costume -- a dead ringer for Rudolph Schildkraut, who played Caiaphas in Cecil B. DeMille's silent film about Jesus, The King of Kings (1927).

    After Jesus is condemned to be crucified, the film's longest and most problematic scene is launched. He is tied to a block and mercilessly beaten by two sadistic Roman guards who seem positively gleeful as they carry out their gruesome task. Again and again the whips fall on Jesus' back, and his skin is ripped away in several spots. Caviezel, writhing and jumping about, convincingly portrays a man suffering the torments of severe pain. But the scene goes on for so long (10 minutes, by my watch), and the whippings are so graphic, with rivulets of blood running along and across Jesus' back, sides, and chest, many in the audience will feel deeply disturbed. This is the scene that dictated an R rating for the film, from the MPAA. Nothing else in the film is that raw or that brutal.

    Gibson told an interviewer that the bloodbath in his film is probably still not equal to the beatings that Jesus really took, because the Old Testament psalmists described him as being beaten beyond recognition. The "Servant of the Lord" oracles in the book of Isaiah foretell the coming of the Messiah and say, in part: ".he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins. Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed." (Isa:53:5 NAB.)

    The other two key roles in The Passion of the Christ are Mary, the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern), and Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci). These two, along with the apostle John (Hristo Jivkov), are the only followers of Jesus who accompany him all the way to Calvary.

    As Jesus is forced to carry his cross, the Roman guards continue to whip him, but he trudges on. Crowds line the Way of the Cross, many hostile to Jesus, some grieving, others simply curious. And here, halfway to Calvary, Gibson inserts another of his subtle directorial touches.

    Everyone who knows the Passion story remembers the scene where a woman named Veronica emerges from the crowd, weeping, and asks if she may wipe the condemned man's bleeding face with her veil. He stops and allows her to wipe his face, then moves on. In other Jesus films you may have seen, the imprint of his face is miraculously imprinted on her veil, and it gets a closeup from the camera and gasps from the crowd. Here, however, Gibson has Veronica step back into the crowd and look to her right, following Jesus with her eyes, and not look at her veil at all. She holds it at her waist, and if we bother to look at it, we can see clearly the imprint of his divine face. Gibson is telling us: Some of you may see a miracle, and some won't. It depends on where you look.

    Jesus is nailed to the cross - by virtue of some deft cinematic sleight of hand - and hanged on Calvary between two insurgents who are also crucified. One of them berates Jesus, but the other - the "good thief" of legend - shouts the first man down, saying they are being punished for the evil they have done; but Jesus has done no wrong. Then, turning to the Lord, he asks: "Remember me, when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus answers with the most beautiful words ever spoken: "I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise."

    After Jesus dies on the cross, a heavy storm breaks out and an earthquake rends the earth. The scene fades to dark, and all is silent.

    The next thing we see is the floor of the tomb, and on it lies a white shroud, unoccupied. The camera pans left, and we see the face of Jesus, clean and unmarked, and he's wearing a spotless white robe. He is almost smiling. But look fast, because the scene is short; and then the end credits roll.

    I've said that this is the most beautiful movie I've ever seen. You may well ask, how can I - how can anyone - describe as "beautiful" a film that shows us such wanton brutality, and so much physical suffering? I would say, it's all a matter of perspective. Christ suffered and died for our sins; sacrificed himself to save us from the snares of the devil. As much as he suffered, that's how much he loves us. And that's beautiful.

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