Rated R - Running Time: 2:07 - Released 2/25/04

Author's Note:
After first releasing this review, in which I comment that I feel the charges of anti-semitism leveled against Mel Gibson and his co-producers are unfounded, I received some letters suggesting that portions of the film were taken not from the so-called Holy Scriptures, but from other sources not included in the Bible. They also included links to articles which claimed that some Christians were using the film to "educate" others as to the extent of Jesus' suffering and attempting to convert non-Christians by way of guilt and/or anti-semitic sentiments. If this is indeed true, and if Mel Gibson is in any way connected with or in support of this behavior, I must say that I am appalled and disgusted by this. As an agnostic, I do not have the same emotional connection with this story as many others do, so I looked at the film as I would any other; that is to say, as a story written and produced for the purpose of entertainment or to convey the producer's interest in the subject matter. I didn't get terribly upset by the film's religious/political issues, because since I am neither Jewish nor Christian, I simply looked at it as another fictionalized account of a story which may or may not be true in the first place. It is in this vein that I present my review, simply as a commentary on the work itself, and as such my opinion stands. I feel the film is an excellent work of cinema; if its impact has been perverted for use by religious fanatics, that is an unfortunate side issue.

--John McEwen

There has been no end to the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s brutal retelling of the most famous story in Christian theology, The Passion Of The Christ, with some people fearing that it could provoke anti-Semitic attitudes among its viewers (this feeling is influenced, no doubt, by Gibson’s father’s openly anti-Semitic stance). Although Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic, has worked tirelessly to dissuade critics from this viewpoint, allowing not only the Pope but international Jewish leaders to preview the film, all of whom have endorsed it, some still hold the opinion that it could cause trouble, but I think this argument is rather silly. While it is admittedly the most violent depiction of the Passion story I’ve ever seen—and let’s face it, it’s a violent story—I don’t believe it is any more anti-Semitic than any other such film. It simply retells the account told in the Gospels (adapted by Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald), and anyone who thinks it maligns the Jews, well...I think they’d have to take that up with the authors of the source text.

Frankly, almost everyone but Jesus and a few of his followers are painted in a not-too-flattering light in this story—the Jews, the Romans, even the most devoted followers of Jesus who so abruptly turned on him in the end. But if a film like this is to have any validity, it must portray the Jews as they were depicted in the Bible, i.e., as devout religious leaders who felt Jesus was a common blasphemer and were fearful that his widespread acceptance among the Jewish population would bring about a swift retribution from the ruling class, and as equally fearful peasants who knew that associating with him could lead to their own executions, if not by their local leaders then by the Romans who controlled them. In a way, it is man—not the Jews, not the Romans, but the human race itself—which is the perpetual villain in this story; it is all who sin and do not repent who are guilty, and this story simply depicts the first generation who knowingly did so.

Regardless of the film’s perceived religious bias, however, there is no doubt that in terms of acting, direction, and production values, it is up there with the greatest films of the genre. This is one of those pivotal moments in a director’s career, like Schindler’s List was for Spielberg, where the filmmaker cannot possibly hide his, well, passion for the subject matter. This movie has been Gibson’s pet project for years, and his love shines through it with such clarity one cannot help but be swept up in its spiritual grandeur; his devotion would not allow him to make this a substandard film. The fact that the film’s dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin (and a little Hebrew) lends an authenticity not usually present in English-speaking movies on this subject, and the settings, costumes, and cinematography (by Caleb Deschanel) are without flaw.

The acting is no less superior; although the film is performed almost entirely by Italian actors who will not exactly be household names to American moviegoers, they all, without exception, perform their roles with the commensurate sense of spiritual gravity for the subject matter. The film’s star, James Caviezel (another devout Catholic), endows his Jesus with not only the embodiment of love and compassion that are the standard prerequisites, but also delves into more human characteristics, some of which are usually downplayed, like the fear, the anxiety, and the ambivalence toward his mission that would cause most of us earthly types to throw in the towel. Caviezel, who reportedly suffered several injuries during filming (including a separated shoulder, a lightning strike, and a few actual lashes from the whip), is increasingly bloody and broken throughout the film, which begins at Gethsemane and progresses through the resurrection, but also has numerous flashbacks thrown in to include important scriptural references and flesh out some of the supporting characters. Even as we see him being punched, kicked, whipped, and nailed, we return to the clean and unmolested Jesus for these flashback scenes, each of which usually involves his interaction with some particular disciple or follower, the sweet memory of which is brought into sharp relief when we return to the character’s witness of the brutal present. In this way, we learn some of the well-known (and some less well-known) details about the Virgin Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Peter (Francesco De Vito), Mary Magdalene (Monica Belluci), Judas (Lucia Lionello), and others. Also offering superb performances are Mattia Sbragia as Jewish high priest Caiphas, Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate (who is portrayed with a little more compassion than is probably standard), and Claudia Gerini as Pilate’s wife, whose sympathy toward Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene informs one of the most touching scenes in the movie. Finally, the spectral presence of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) appears at crucial moments throughout the film; although it is played by a woman, the cloaked figure is really not sex-specific, and its scenes are usually attended by some unsettling visual images. Here is where Gibson allows himself to add some computer-generated artistic flourishes, emphasized by the ominous music of John Debney, whose score adds to the film’s emotional impact.

The brutality is another particularly controversial and affecting portion of this film; while most artworks and movies involving the Crucifixion have sanitized the violence somewhat, perhaps out of respect for the subject, Gibson chose to show no such deference here. Since his treatment chronicles the passion of Jesus (that is, the suffering), the director shows the cruelty in unflinchingly graphic detail. In fact, I can agree with some critics’ charges that the director’s approach may be somewhat excessive in terms of violence; I can understand the desire not to sugar-coat what was supposedly done to Jesus, especially if one desires to impress on the viewer the gravity of the sacrifice involved, but at times it almost seems Gibson is emphasizing the sadism at the expense of the larger story. The scourging at the pillar, for instance, is a particularly bloody scene that goes on so long, with the vicious Roman soldiers enjoying their task so much, that it begins to strain the limits of necessity, pulling focus away from Christ’s pain and devolving into a pointless blood bath.

This movie is no more anti-Jewish than Jesus Of Nazareth, or King Of Kings, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Greatest Story Ever Told. But it is definitely more graphic, and therefore more disturbing, than any of those. Devout Christians and devout movie lovers alike may want to see this film, and may want to take their children, just for the sake of education. But be aware that if you do, you may be sitting up late at night comforting a horrified nightmare sufferer. And it may upset your kids, too. ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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