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The Passion of the Christ
2004 - R - 127 Mins.
Director: Mel Gibson
Producer: Mel Gibson
Written By: Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson
Starring: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Naumov
Review by: Greg Ursic
   
For Jesus of Nazareth the last twelve hours of his life were fraught with agony both mental and physical. While praying for guidance in the Garden of Olives, he resists the temptations of Satan, only to be betrayed by Judas Iscariot, a member of his inner circle and taken prisoner. Delivered to the Pharisees, he is judged to be a blasphemer and taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, to be put to death. Pilate, who believes that Jesus doesn’t deserve death, offers to pardon him. His offer to have Christ whipped in the hopes that it will quell the crowd fail - even after the flagellated shell of a man stands before them they call for death. Pilate reluctantly accedes to their wishes and Jesus is led away to be crucified.

Long before filming on “The Passion of the Christ” was completed it became a lightning rod for controversy: editorials decried it as being anti-Semitic and blasphemous, warning Gibson that risked spurring violence against Jews (several rabbis who saw the film deemed neither Gibson nor the film to be anti-Semitic). Gibson also had to deal with claims that his father is a Holocaust denier, and Gibson’s own comments about his detractors ( his infamous “I want his intestines on a stick” as quoted in the New Yorker magazine) inflamed the controversy. Gibson’s recent interview with Diane Sawyer – during which he constantly fidgeted, laughed nervously and avoided questions – didn’t help matters. The one question that has regularly been overlooked however is whether his film is any good .

Portraying one of the leading figures in history is no small undertaking, indeed Gibson warned Jim Caviezel that by taking the role, he risked alienating people and could be putting his future career in jeopardy. Caviezel, attacked the role with vigor, spending many hours in prayer, researching and suffering for his craft: he endured a laborious makeup regime several hours a day, was suspended from a cross for long periods of time and experienced hypothermia. Evidently the tribulations helped prepare him, as Caviezel delivers one of the most powerful performances ever brought to the screen. Even more remarkable is that he must rely almost solely on facial expressions and physicality to convey the agony of his situation, yet he remains almost subdued. When Caviezel is recognizable (before the beatings), he practically glows, emanating a palpable serenity. The supporting cast is also impressive.

Maia Morgenstern is restrained as Mary, Jesus’ mother, displaying a resolute stoicism and strength as she watches her son’s degradation. Morgenstern, also faced with the same dialogue constraints, leaves the viewer with little doubt of her character’s pain. Monica Bellucci, stripped down to the essentials as Mary Magdalene, provides the emotional, human response as she bears witness: she is absolutely distraught, and borders on the hysterical, acting as a conduit for the other participants. . Mattia Sbragia embodies desperation as the High Priest Caiphas: when his position of power is threatened his response is to have the threat (Jesus) removed. It is clear however that he is motivated by fear rather than hate. Arguably the most novel portrayal is Hristo Shopov as Pontius Pilate: rather than strip him down to arch villain status, Shopov presents a deeply conflicted man who is in part a victim of circumstance and is pushed into a decision he doesn’t want. The cast is only one part of the equation however.

Gibson, who strove to capture the authenticity of the era, called on the services of language experts to translate his script into Aramaic (spoken throughout the region at that time) and street Latin. Contrary to my concerns that I would find the subtitles distracting, there is not a lot of dialogue, and in most instances the characters’ actions speak volumes. Gibson charged Italian set designers with the task of transporting the viewer back to ancient Jerusalem and they responding with historically accurate replicas of the Temple, Pilate’s palace, and a city bustling with inhabitants.

Gibson chose to shoot large portions of the film at night, or indoors to emphasize the struggle between light/darkness, good/evil, which ultimately imparts an ethereal feel to the film, epitomized by the sequence in the Garden of Olives. He also employs slow motion in several sequences to intensify the scene – Jesus’ march to Golgotha, is devastating. The accompanying score compliments the film seamlessly –
never overwhelming the drama onscreen and often barely audible, it enhances the viewing experience. As with any film however, it does occasionally stumble.

The slow motions sequences - that prove so visually effective throughout the film- feel almost gimmicky during the encounter with the guards in the Garden of Olives. I was also put off by the demonic creatures that repeatedly pop up during the film, as they serve little apparent purpose. Finally the instrument that Gibson utilizes to signify the tumult that erupts upon Christ’s death is the one thing in the film that feels Hollywood: while I understand the impact and enormity that Gibson was trying to communicate it could have been done with much more subtlety.

It is important to note that this film is not easy to watch and definitely not for children or anyone who is squeamish. I have a high tolerance for onscreen violence, as it is typically cartoonish in nature and there are no real consequences for what is being portrayed. The torture that Jesus endures however is vividly and realistically depicted, and difficult to watch, indeed I found myself cringing as he was flagellated for what seemed like an eternity. While there are those who feel that the Gibson revels in the violence, it is an integral component of the film, and to play it down would be to negate or minimize what Jesus went through. It is also a vivid reminder of what men are capable of and that in spite of 2000 years of “civilization” human nature hasn’t changed.

Mel Gibson gambled both financially and emotionally to bring 'The Passion of the Christ' to the screen. The final product is an evenhanded epic film that showcases the talent of a renowned international cast, several of whom will surely be remembered at Oscar time. In spite of the violent content of the film, it resonates with a message of hope – the passerby who helps Jesus bear the cross - that will speak to anyone whether they are spiritual or not. While I realize it is a moot point, I urge anyone with preconceptions about this film to try and go in with an open mind.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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