Passion of Christ Review

by Jonathan Moya (jmoya AT cfl DOT rr DOT com)
March 15th, 2004

The Passion of the Christ


A movie review by Jonathan Moya

Jesus, the Christ: James Caviezel
Mary: Maia Morgenstern
Mary Magdalene: Monica Bellucci
Pontius Pilate: Hristo Shopov
Caiaphas: Mattia Sbragia
Judas: Luca Lionello
Claudia: Claudia Gerini
Gesmas: Francesco Cabras
Satan Rosalinda Celentano

Newmarket Films presents a film directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated R (for sequences of graphic violence).

To complain or be offended by the violence in The Passion of the Christ is to simply miss the point. Jesus' sacrifice was as much symbolic as it was real. It simply has no meaning if it is mild. The violence needs to be brutal, extreme, more than any MAN can bare, because Jesus was much more than any mere man. Rest assured that the pain depicted here or the pain one feels in watching The Passion is one hundred times less than the actual agony that Jesus endured. He takes it like a man, or more precisely, like the greatest man that ever was. With the laying down of his life, Jesus ended his thirty-three year dance in the skin of humankind and assumed his proper place in the aspect of Godhead-- taking with him some knowledge of what it is like to be human and conversely incorporating an awareness of the fragile pain of man into the nature of the divine. To put it in a catechism: Jesus showed God what it is like to be human and showed us what it means to be God.

The Passion of the Christ is a film for believers, and as such it is an incredibly realistic and moving portrayal. For those who don't believe in the book, it is one long, hard and pointless ride because Mel Gibson, the director, assumes everyone who is watching has more than a passing familiarity with the basic story. The only time he cuts from the agony is to provide a light moment from the past, to give the viewer the briefest respite from the pain.

The film opens with the mental anguish of Jesus shearing himself of indecision and doubts, mustering the courage and will to finish his mission to the end, and doesn't stop the torment until the end of his physical agony on the cross. Gibson imposes a somber fatalization on the whole story; a sense that this is the one process that Jesus is powerless to stop. Jim Caviezel who plays Jesus portrays him with the resigned look of a person experiencing the 1001 reimagining of this very moment. His Jesus almost seems to be establishing the psychological process for grief and death: from denial in the garden, to a gruff contempt in front of the Sanhedrin, to stony silence in the face of Pilate's machinations, to acceptance of the pain inflicted on him, to his ultimate expression of forgiveness and death on the cross. He stumbles toward his fate with all the grace of God and the agony of a man.

The violence in The Passion is gruesome and graphic, and Gibson probably intends to imply a metaphor of the need to scour the flesh in order to release the spirit and the soul. In a scene that seems to go on for eternity, Jesus is lashed some forty times with a conventional whip and another thirty or more with a horrible variant of a cat-o'-nine-tails embedded with shards of metal and glass. Each welt and tearing of skin is cataloged and shown, photographed and recorded, mixed and heightened for the maximum visual and aural impact. When Jesus is fastened with his crown of thorns it is depicted and heard in stomach churning detail- as the crown is hammered into his scalp with a slow whack that sends blood trickling down his face in rivulets. On the cross, Jesus' legs are broken and his side is lanced and his blood sprays out in a misty gusher.

Everything is shown and almost nothing is left to the imagination. No one is not soaked with the blood of the lamb. The extremity of the violence produces a repulsion that yields to compassion and mercy, and The Passion oddly finds its emotional meaning when the tormentors realize their mistake and find compassion for the innocent that has submitted to their lash. To say that more than two hours of unrelenting violence can be redeemed by five minutes of heart is the central paradox of not only The Passion but the Christian religion.

The nexus between tormentor and tormented, between persecutor and persecuted does get a slight working over in Gibson's hands. The upper levels of the Sanhedrin come in for a good deal of the blame for Jesus' death with Pilate settling somewhere between the bloodlust, the need for justice and the need to maintain his own political self-interest. The Sanhedrin are shown as a group that has been corrupted with too much power and money, who have lost sight of their true religious duty, and who see Jesus as a threat to their power base- a threat that must be exterminated. Pilate is the pawn caught between the will of a Rome that won't brook insurrection and the blood cry of the Sanhedrin. Even though Pilate sees through the schemes of the Sanhedrin he is powerless to do anything because the Sanhedrin have bought all the votes and the crowd.

Gibson has produced a literalist masterpiece that not only forces one to bear witness but forces a catharsis that produces some true religious insight. Spoken in the languages of the time (Aramaic and Latin) and subtitled in English The Passion has the raw look of first witness. In its attention to historical authenticity and the minute details of Jesus' suffering, Gibson has created a cinematic testament that radically confronts the piety of his predecessors. By sticking to the details of Jesus' last hours and omitting the back story, Gibson forces one to confront the issue of Jesus' death on whatever level he/she is capable of.

Copyright 2004 Jonathan Moya

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