2004, R, 126 mins

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

Directed by Mel Gibson/  Written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald

Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is finally upon us.  It easily has been one of the most hyped films since THE PHANTOM MENACE and it's simultaneously one of the most controversial films of recent times.  Not since Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST has a film polarized religious pundits so thoroughly. 

Largely, the controversy is unfounded and ignorantly a media created contrivance by individuals whom, as ridiculous as it sounds, have not even seen one minute of the film.   Discussing the film’s controversial aspects will not be seriously dignified with a response by me, as I see no real controversy here at all.  My best advice: look at the film yourself, judge critically and objectively, not to mention…be your own judge.  What I want to do is look at the film.  Let the media feeding frenzy continue on its own time laborious pace. 

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a film of unrelenting and barbarous horror and torture.  Taken literally from its ancient Latin origins, “passion” means suffering and “Christ” is Aramaic for messiah. I can’t think of another more appropriate title for this film.  It’s a two-hour descent into the most sadistic and perversely violent images I have ever seen in a commercial film.  Saying the film is “violent” and “intensely graphic” does not in any way appropriately described this brutal and gut-wrenching exercise. It is, for those who do not know, a self-financed film by director/co-writer Mel Gibson that has been his passion for the last ten years.  It details the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life and his journey towards his brutal torture, death, and resurrection.   Nothing that you will have watched will adequately prepare you for the orgy of pain and bloodshed that this film offers. 

Gibson’s movie begins in the garden of Gethsemane, with Jesus’ disciples sleeping as he prays for guidance.  We subsequently see the well-known betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the capture and trail of Jesus, and his journey towards being condemned to death.  The two other players in this journey are Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, and Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest.  The Biblical Middle East was a Jewish community run by the Roman Empire.  Essentially, the message and teachings of Jesus were threatening to both sides.  He was a rebel and a revolutionary to both as he preached against the status quo, which was seen as a threat.   

The Jewish people in the film are balanced off overall.  Some in the priesthood attacked Jesus vehemently whereas others were his strongest supporters.  What the Jewish leaders did in conjunction with the Romans was attack and kill a man that preached everything they failed to believe.  I think that the fact that the film is set in a Jewish land, in which the “messiah” is Jewish and his supporters are Jewish helps stamp out the unnecessary and unfortunate stamp of anti-Semitism that the film’s publicity had been gathering.  The Jewish High Priests, truth be told, seem more willing to condemn Jesus to die than Pilate does.  If one were to look at Pilate, historically speaking, we have a portrait of a man that was a brutal, mass-murdering dictator that indiscriminately killed and crucified thousands of people .  For him to be portrayed as a somewhat introspective and sensitive man that agonizes himself over whether to kill Jesus or not seems stupefying.  Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate as a somewhat sympathetic figure in the film was a sour and contentious point for me. 

However, that is not to say that the Romans are portrayed in an overly positive light.  It was the Romans that in fact brutally and endlessly tortured Jesus before his eventual crucifixion.  It is here where the film parades on a fine line of questionable taste and graphic overkill that, quite frankly, may turn people off more than it will inspire.  Gibson the director pulls absolutely no punches here.  Jesus is battered and beaten in what is the most visceral, grotesque, and extended torture scenes ever committed to film.  Jesus does not just get whipped a few times, but endlessly…over and over and over again.  Then, just when you think the sadistic Romans, who laugh their way through the torture, are done…they find a new instrument of pain and continue to whip Jesus over, and over and over again.  If the 100 plus whippings were not bad enough, he is forced to carry his cross to the crucifixion point and is continually whipped, punched, kicked, and spat on for what seemed an eternity.  Some critics gave Gibson credit for complete verisimilitude with these scenes.  It is the most realistic presentation of Christ’s suffering ever presented on film, and many may not be emotionally prepared for it.  Its R rating is completely deserved, and this is not for young children, which makes the sight of so many evangelical viewers with kids in tow at the screening I was at all the more distressing.

Yet, its Gibson’s seemingly unbridled focus on the violence and gore of Christ’s last twelve hours that sells the film short.   His suffering, no doubt, is important to understand and present.  Nevertheless, the film is endless in its torture and barbarism to the point where even my liberal mind was starting to question how much is enough?  The film is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted.  Jim Caviezel gives the most thankless performance in recent memory as Jesus, and Maia Morgenstern as Mary brings a quiet and desperate poignancy.  The film’s dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin, the languages used in Judea during Christ’s time and this provides a sense of realism to the proceedings.  The art direction and score are Oscar caliber.   

Despite this, the film shocked me more than it moved me.  Surely, the teachings and life of Jesus where the most uplifting aspects of him as a figure, as was his resurrection.  Yet, Gibson sees these aspects as an afterthought.  The resurrection itself gets barely a minute’s screen time.  Gibson also barely has time to probe into Jesus’ life or teachings.  The film offers flashbacks into his life, his preaching, his “last supper” and a small and tender moment he has with his mother as he’s building a table (which provides the film’s only laugh).  Yet, Gibson is so completely focused on Jesus’ graphic death that these flashback scenes barely last for minutes.  It was almost like his life and teachings were interfering with the blood, gore, and suffering.  For me, the film had content without context.  You leave the theatre not really gaining an understanding of Jesus the preacher and man.  Sure, his torture and death are important, but what about the lessons he taught?  We get a bit of that, but Gibson does not seem actively engaged in it.  The film feels like one long two-hour third act without buildup or exposition.  It feels like it wants to break free and be a 3-4 hour epic biopic that it is not in the final product.   Imagine BRAVEHEART with William Wallace’s torture and death are focused on for two hours and his life and all that occurred before are omitted and you’ll start to understand THE PASSION. 

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will no doubt move those of faith.  Several people wept openly and covered their mouths throughout the film.  But, I am not sure if they were spiritually moved or just appalled.  The film is a glorious and unflinching production that definitely shows on the screen and works on a distinct level of shock and awe.  Yet, the film’s total preoccupation with the sadistic torture and death of Jesus is its ultimate undoing.  Surely, seeing how Jesus lived is as important as seeing how he died.  The film is unforgettable, yet cinematically negligible at the same time.  I left the theater completely drained and thought that I really did not learn anything about Jesus.  The crucifixion is and has been the central preoccupation of millions of people of faith for centuries, but if a film does not have the time to probe to the root of the crucifixion  and step back and provide a bit of context, then I feel that Mr. Gibson just has not done the story of Jesus justice. 

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