Passion of the Christ, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are so many ancillary issues surrounding the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (née The Passion) that they threaten to dwarf the 127-minute movie that lies at the maelstrom's epicenter. (The controversy, whether real, concocted, or some combination of the two, has provided an unprecedented level of free publicity.) So let me cut to the chase before backing up and looking at some of these appendage elements. The Passion of the Christ is a gripping, powerful motion picture - arguably the most forceful depiction of Jesus' death ever to be committed to film. It leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche; viewers of this movie may never look at a crucifix in quite the same way.

The most potentially damaging charge to have been leveled against this film is that it is anti-Semitic. Many (although not all) of those at the forefront of this accusation have not seen the movie. (Ironically, this is the same kind of negative wave that results when Christian groups attack a movie for being anti-Christian - like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ or the Pythons' The Life of Brian.) Here, the controversy is unwarranted. Although the high priest Caiphas is depicted as a villainous individual, determined to bring about Jesus' death, he is not shown in any way to represent the entire nation of Jews. In fact, Caiphas has plenty of competition for the role of villain - the Roman centurions who beat and brutalize Jesus are presented in an even grimmer light.

The film also does not come across as a valentine to Evangelical Christians. This is proof, if any is needed, that it is possible to craft a fine motion picture that falls cleanly within the bounds of mainstream religious doctrine. In essence, The Passion of the Christ represents a vivid, stylized journey through the 14 Stations of the Cross - a trip made by many devout Catholics every Good Friday. Most of the film's text is taken from the four gospels (supplemented by the visions of two nuns - the 17th century Mary of Agreda and the 18th century Anne Catherine Emmerich), but at no time did I feel as if Gibson was preaching. That's the common trap that The Passion of the Christ avoids.

The violence in the film is as necessary as it is disconcerting. There's no question that Gibson is pushing the envelope, going as far as he can without emptying the auditorium. It's easy to be desensitized by extreme, graphic violence in a cartoon-like setting (like the Terminator movies, for example), but that's not what we're getting here. The torture of Jesus is presented in such a brutal, unflinching manner that it's almost impossible not to look away as chunks of flesh are ripped out by a scourge, and the bloody, mangled skin is shredded to appear like a grotesque parody of ground meat. This is tough stuff, capable of unsettling adults and potentially traumatizing young viewers. My advice for parents considering taking children is as follows: see the movie first, alone, then make a determination about whether it is appropriate for your offspring's sensibilities. (If they go, you'll have to attend with them, since it is rated R.) Do not assume that, just because the movie has a deeply religious message, it is appropriate for pre-teens.

For the most part, The Passion of the Christ follows Jesus (James Caviezel) during the final 12 hours of his life - from Gethsemane to Golgotha, with stops along the way for a hearing before Ciaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the Sanhedrin, the scourging under the auspices of Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the court of Herod, Pilate's eventual condemnation, and the final, torturous journey with the cross, as Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), and John of Zebedee (Hristo Jivkov) follow behind. There are occasional, brief flashbacks to the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) interspersed throughout, but nearly all of the action unfolds chronologically. And, as one would expect, the movie ends on a note of hope: a short, understated shot of the resurrected Christ.

Because information about the so-called "historical Jesus" is so incomplete, it's impossible to argue for or against The Passion of the Christ's factual veracity. It is largely in line with the gospels, and ultimately represents Mel Gibson's vision of Jesus' long, lonely final hours. Unlike many of the past movie and/or television depictions of the Passion, this version remains firmly rooted in solid cinematic soil. The Passion of the Christ is a stylish film, with the cinematography of Caleb Deshanel drawing us into the story. Words, spoken in Aramaic and Latin (with subtitles), are almost inconsequential - this is a picture of acting and images, with Jim Caviezel's unforgettable performance dominating throughout. (Looking back on this film, if anyone recalls anything other than Caviezel's tortured Jesus, it will be the sad, haunted eyes of Monica Bellucci and Maia Morgenstern). Originally, Gibson indicated that he intended to release the movie without subtitles - a choice that was heavily criticized at the time. Now, having seen the movie, I believe it would have worked that way. At times, the words almost seem to get in the way. (Those familiar with the gospels will readily be able to recall what Jesus is saying at any given moment.)

Anyone viewing the film from a non-Christian perspective will discover much to appreciate, and one overriding theme comes across with crystal clarity: the inhumanity of human beings to others of their kind. There is such naked, unfettered cruelty in the way Jesus is treated that it makes one ponder the nature of man. And the dark reality is that worse torments have been visited upon others throughout history. Over the centuries, our civilizations and technology have evolved, but that aspect of our essential nature has not changed. Given the chance, we easily revert to the bestial barbarians who derived sadistic enjoyment from the torture of Jesus. It's a sickness that cannot be expunged.

Watching The Passion of the Christ is an immersive experience, at least after the first 30 minutes. It takes a little while for the movie to find its feet - some of the early scenes are awkwardly paced, with uneven performances by secondary actors. Once Jesus is first brought before Pilate, however, the film's grip inexorably tightens. The toughest scene to watch is the scourging - more difficult even that watching nails driven through Jesus' hands and feet, because Gibson allows it to go on for so long. What transpires after is not easier, but it at least will not exceed the threshold of those who have come this far.

In making The Passion of the Christ, Gibson set himself up to fail. His goal - to take one of the best-known stories in all of human history and transform it into something new, vital, and emotionally potent - was audacious to the point of foolhardiness. Yet, somehow, against all odds, he succeeded. (His explanation is simple: the Holy Spirit worked through him.) It is hard to imagine even the most cynical atheist being unmoved by Jesus' ordeal. Understanding Christian doctrine - that this suffering was necessary to save sinners from damnation - adds an additional layer of meaning to the narrative. You don't have to be a believer to "get it," just as you don't have to accept the existence of Sauron and Middle Earth to be captivated by The Lord of the Rings. Good movies work on their own terms, and that's what happens with The Passion of the Christ.

Passion of the Christ, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:27
U.S. Release Date: 2004-02-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Aramaic and Latin
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1