Passion of Christ Review

by Matt Noller (imgiphted AT bellsouth DOT net)
March 22nd, 2004

The Passion of the Christ
Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)
A film review by Matt Noller

I feel that, before I begin this review, that you should know a few things about me. Firstly, I am not Christian. I am, in fact, a devout atheist. The Bible stories seem to me nothing more than moralistic fables with no basis in reality; they just don't make any sort of logical sense. So it goes without saying that I see Jesus as nothing more than a man. I don't believe he was the son of God or that he died for my sins or anyone else's. Because of this, I wasn't exactly psyched to see Mel Gibson's filmed depiction of Jesus's death. I was afraid the brutal violence wouldn't have any emotional effect on me because, well, I would just be watching a man get beaten.
But I was gripped by The Passion of the Christ. I was impressed. I was, against all odds, affected, moved. Because Mel Gibson has made a film that is, to me, not about the death of the Messiah, but about an extraordinary man. A man with so much love for mankind that, even after all he went through, he could forgive his killers. The Passion of the Christ is, at heart, not a religious sermon but a character study.

Being based on the gospels (as well as the visions of two nuns, Mary of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich), the story of The Passion of the Christ should be at least familiar to just about everyone. The film follows Jesus (James Caviezel) through his final twelve hours - his capture at the hands of Roman guards, his trial before High Priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the Sanhedrin, the scourging, his eventual condemnation by Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), and the final, wrenching trip with the cross. Also present are Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), and John of Zebedee (Hristo Jivkov). There are flashbacks to the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, but most of the film works chronologically.

The violence of The Passion of the Christ is as extreme as you've heard. The scourging goes on for nearly thirty minutes; whips rip into Jesus's skin, tearing out chunks of flesh and spatters of blood. The violence is not ridiculous or over-the-top, as has been reported, but utterly convincing and disturbing. It becomes nearly impossible not to look away as this innocent man is ripped and torn. The crucifixion is nearly as difficult, with close-ups on Jesus's hands and feet as nails are driven through them. Many critics have suggested that parents view the film before taking children; I'm going to take it a step farther: do not, under any circumstances, take young children to see this film. To do so would be irresponsible.

It would be equally irresponsible of me to discuss The Passion of the Christ without addressing the charges that have been leveled against it. Some Jewish groups have claimed that the film is anti-Semitic. This is an utterly damning claim, or it would be, if it was true. But these attacks are no more accurate than those made by fundamentalist Christian groups against films like The Last Tempatation of Christ, The Life of Brian or Dogma. It is true that Caiphas and many of the High Priests are shown as villainous individuals, pushing hard for Jesus's execution, but Gibson makes no attempt to spread his condemnation of Caiphas onto all Jews. And Caiphas isn't even the most villainous person in the film: the Roman soldiers, laughing as they beat and torture Jesus, are shown in an even worse light.

The only remotely legitimate claim against The Passion of the Christ is its historical accuracy, particularly to the character of Pilate. But it is not my place, as a critic, to question the film's historical verisimilitude, particularly because the film is largely in line with the gospels and only represents one man's opinion of what occured. Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deshanel have done their best to create a realistic portrayal of the place and time. Characters speak in Aramaic and Latin (subtitled), although their words are largely unimportant. Most people already know the story, and this is a visceral film, filled with powerful images and performances, particularly James Caviezel's wrenching physical performance. The rest of cast does strong work as well (except for Mattia Sbragia, whose Caiphas is too over-the-top), especially Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci, who make a lasting impression with minimal dialogue.

As Jesus is on the cross, he prays to God to forgive his killers. It is in this scene that the cumulative effect of The Passion of the Christ really hits. We realize that it isn't a movie about the death of the Messiah, but about the power of faith. Faith in God, or, in my case, the lack of a God. Faith in something, anything. Faith allowed Jesus to accept his fate and to forgive those who caused his death. The Passion of the Christ won't change anyone's opinions, but no one will be able to walk out of the theater and deny that, as a man, Jesus was extraordinary. And that, I think, is the biggest compliment anyone could give this film.

See more of my reviews at www.uhmovies.co.nr, and please e-mail me with your thoughts at [email protected]

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