(Release Date: February 25th [Ash Wednesday] 2004)
It's Ash Wednesday 2004, and I've just watched the opening showing of The Passion of the Christ! I was prepared for a moving and shocking depiction of the last day of the life of Jesus Christ. I thought I knew what I was in for, and I felt that I knew how I would feel going in and coming out of this film.
I was wrong!
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial labor of love, is far from just a "Jesus Movie!" It's far from just some "Bio-Pic" and it's far from some potentially incendiary faith-based initiative that the press wants to make it out to be!
Gibson has created a vastly realistic film from characterizations, to story, to sets and costumes to even the language (as it was in Jesus' day in Jerusalem, the only languages spoken here are Latin and Aramaic). To Gibson's credit or to his downfall, he's made the depictions of torture, crucifixion and intolerance more realistic than any prior adaptation, hence the controversy. While it is a beautiful film, it is also the most violent and bloody film ever on this subject, arguably more strikingly bloody than recent gore fests like Kill Bill or Freddy Versus Jason. Still it manages to maintain its integrity as an excellent and high-minded film partially because this really happened (Christian or not, it's a historical fact that there was a man named Jesus who was killed in this manner). In short, this is a wonderful film, and it would be a shame to see it mired with any sort of hatred. This film should never inspire one to hate Romans or Jews (see sidebar), and in fact is careful in its depiction of both to show that all the human beings involved in this literal passion play are just that... humans and are therefore a mixed bag of good and bad. No one group is shown to be wicked in any way, to my eyes!
The Passion of the Christ begins, quite literally, with His Passion, as told in the Bible. It's a near verbatim account of his prayer in the garden after the last supper, right down to his sweating of blood. Much of what has come before is only suggested (and assumed known). The unenviable task of performing Jesus on the screen falls to Jim Caviezel. You may have seen him in High Crimes or The Count of Monte Cristo, but you've never seen him like this! Here Caviezel (and presumably, Gibson) focus strongly on the Humanity of Jesus. Although it is understood that this film takes the Christian point of view that Jesus was Divine, Jesus is shown here with a very human fear, very human feelings, and very, very human anguish. All of these things are played to perfection in ways no other actor has shown, and no other Caviezel performance can approach (yet). James Caviezel is incredible as Jesus of Nazareth!
What could go down as excessive in blood and violence (Clive Barker's Hellraiser has nothing on this) actually only succeeds in demonstrating the inhumanity of the torture and crucifixion that Jesus (and countless others) had to go through. Each thrown blow, each shocking bloodletting hits the audience hard, and succeeds in evoking tears virtually from beginning to end.
All the while, flashbacks and the emotions of Jesus' friends and family succeed in telling the story of who He was as a teacher and speaker, and all around good fellow! Wonderful in their portrayals are Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalen, Maia Morgenstern as Mary, mother of Jesus and Hristo Jivkov as John. It is through their sad eyes that we witness so much of what Caviezel's Jesus faces at the hands of the Roman Soldiers and those who handed Him over. All three seem inexorably entrenched in the plight of Jesus to the point of almost feeling His very pain.
Also notable are Francesco De Vito as Simon Peter, the surprisingly sympathetic Luca Lionello as Judas, and most shockingly (to the Nth Degree) Rosalinda Celentano as Satan frightening in subtlety! You won't find any Horns or a Tail on Celentano's Satan! Instead, we see a truly scary figure full of outward torment and trickery (as in the bible) that looks like it could just be a former angel!
Because this is an interpretation almost exclusively of the Passion, as told in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Gibson employs one or two thematic embellishments to set the scene for us. Early on, Jesus performs an amazing miracle that proves His Divinity, but it's there strictly for that purpose and doesn't appear in the Bible. This isn't a problem, really, because it's something that Jesus would have been likely to do, and probably did. Likewise, there is the occasional special effect or surprise appearance by Satan which is conjectural, but thematically sound in the film's stretching the Bleakness to the Limit!
Filmed in old Italy, this film looks like one might imagine Jerusalem to have looked at the time, and while Caviezel and others look much more Italian Renaissance than Ancient Palestinian, the majority of the period of this film is both textually and historically accurate.
And that includes the Characterizations here. Let me be clear and careful when I explain this, because (see sidebar) I am loathe to suggest that there is any culpability to be had in the death of Jesus. Here, there are Jewish characters portrayed as calling for the death of Jesus. However, Gibson seems very careful to show these as being a handful of a much larger population of people. Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) certainly seems far beyond driven in his desire to see Jesus put to death, however, many other characters who also happen to be Jewish (as were Jesus, Mary, John, Peter, and so many others) are characterized as remarkably sympathetic. I completely understand the concern that people might have that this might spawn anti-Semitic rhetoric when looking at Caiphas, but I must say that unless people take certain scenes out of the context of the whole, I can't imagine anyone who can understand this film feeling that way about Jews on the whole. Likewise, there is care to separate Pilate (Hristo Shopov) from the culpability in Jesus' suffering (which feels a little orchestrated), but many other Romans (more than Jewish characters) are shown in the most bloody reveling in the torture of Jesus imaginable. Gibson appears to be trying hard to show each group, not as wholes, but as individuals, some good, some bad, and many in the middle.
This is a wonderful film, and I believe it can be appreciated by all kinds of people, however, I do have some caveats for you. The suffering in this movie is endless. It is Biblically accurate, however, seeing it for the first time and reading it are two different things. From just a few minutes in to the last scene there are impossibly realistic scenes of torture against the innocent. Be prepared before you bring your Sunday School Student. Aside from the blood there are moments of creepy fear surrounding the appearances of devils and other bad guys. The Special Effects here aren't just in the physically real. This film is surreal in its disturbing nature, and it's both overt and covert in its ability to touch. I also want to caution you that this is, for all intents and purposes, a Foreign Film. While the acting is remarkable, and would be worth seeing with or without subtitles, to follow the dialogue you must be prepared to read for about two and a half hours.
They are two and a half glorious hours, though, and aside from my warnings about this being starkly realistic in suffering, this is also a warm and beautiful movie. Gibson and co writer Benedict Fitzgerald never let us forget that this is a depiction of the Divine, and it's ultimately a very uplifting film.
The Passion of the Christ is in every way a Five Star motion picture, and is the first truly mind-blowing film of 2004. Ignore the controversy, and you'll see that the director of Man without a Face and Braveheart has granted us another wonderful film worth your attention. There's never been anything like this movie before, and it takes an absolute artist like Mel Gibson to give this to us. You may cry from first scene to last credit, and you may be disturbed to the point of nightmares, but you will be moved. Praise God, you will be moved! Blessings and love to you all!
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