The Passion of the Christ Review
Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel) is about to endure the final hours of his life - from Gethsemane to Golgotha, he’ll encounter a hearing with Ciaphas (Mattia Sbragia), and the scourging of Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). Then, after separation from those he holds dear, he’ll begin the harsh journey with the cross, under the watchful eye of Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), and John of Zebedee (Hristo Jivkov). And with his dying moments on the cross, he’ll rise again - a figure of hope to those who denied him. And so, The Passion of the Christ weaves its spell, and a notorious motion picture is born.
Few films have ever attracted controversy like The Passion, Mel Gibson’s haunting and brutal picture. Biblical films have always been the target for criticism, but Gibson’s treatment of these centuries-old texts has proven powerful and often gut-wrenching; choosing to put on celluloid what others wouldn’t dare. It’s clear to everyone that Christ’s last day on Earth was anything but a picnic, and the director uses everything in his power to get this message across. He mixes archetypal imagery with graphic violence in a bid to leave a lasting effect. The blood really does flow like wine, and by the time the credits roll, many will have found something to hate about The Passion. If ever a film was designed to split audiences down the middle, this is it.
Many writers and critics have wasted hours talking about The Passion of the Christ, weighing its pros and cons, and discussing its potential anti-Semitism. Everyone has formed their opinion, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Therefore, the question remains: is The Passion a masterpiece of modern cinema, or is it simply the product of a director with a controversial vision? The answer isn’t simple. The explosive propaganda surrounding its release certainly helped ticket sales, turning it into a phenomenon; steered by word of mouth, and the promise of shock value. It isn’t unlike the treatment given to Martin Scorsese’s much-maligned The Last Temptation of Christ, a picture that was pretty much the fiction of writer Paul Schrader and novelist Nikos Kazantzakes. Gibson sticks doggedly to the gospels, making sure that many of Scorsese’s detractors are his supporters. Yet, it remains equally as problematic, not for its liberties with the text, but for its unrelenting bloodlust. This isn’t a film suitable for Sunday school presentations, no matter what the context. I’m not a religious man, but no matter what your beliefs, The Passion will effect you on some level.
It has several gaping flaws (which I’ll discuss later), but there is no denying that the film is a considerable technical achievement. Gibson has progressed light years beyond the potent patriotism of Braveheart, both creatively and artistically. Aided by the stunning photography of Caleb Deschanel, the film is beautiful and stark, depicting the horrors in masterful fashion. His handling of the material packs an emotional punch, leaving images in the mind long after viewing. His pacing can occasionally drag, lingering too long on specific moments - the exact details of the crucifixion are too hard to stomach, in a scene where an iota of restraint would have been appreciated (the hands that nail him to the cross, are in fact Gibson’s.) But his latest effort often looks exemplary. Special mention should go to the production design and clothing departments, since The Passion has an acute sense of era.
Still, it is the story itself that holds the interest. Gibson shows us so much torture, making it easy to forget that the events are taking place in the same day. The film can be split into several parts, or “confrontations”, that lead to Christ’s sacrifice. His initial arrest in the garden is full of foreboding, complete with a visit by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano). It sets the mood expertly, and since we know what’s coming, it is particularly bittersweet. As the film progresses, the tone shifts into a pitch black void, and never seems to escape, though that ray of hope does glimmer here and there. The endless montage of Jesus being whipped by the Roman soldiers reaches new heights of on-screen awfulness. Beaten within an inch of his life, though miraculously holding his composure, Jesus’ disfigurement at the hands of these monsters left me inescapably cold. The images creep under your skin, and stay there.
These scenes are helped no end by the breathtaking make-up effects of Keith VanderLaan (a man who deserves a shower of awards.) By breathtaking, I mean the way an effect can leave you hollowed out, and the protracted nature of Gibson’s coverage allows you to see the horrific details. Many will look away from the screen, since these effects are utterly convincing. And it sickens. It may be harsh, but it deserves to be there. How else could Gibson show the frailty of the human condition, and the length to which Jesus suffered? For decades, the image of Christ on the cross has received lessening impact. Now, not a soul who sees this picture will think of it in the same way again. If the director should be commended for an aspect of The Passion, it’s for his fearless hand in delivering these sequences with so much potency.
However, the violence also proves to be a double-edged sword. While I understand its place in the film, there’s no escaping the fact that this is all the film offers. Gibson firmly believes that the movie is an act of faith (he stated in interviews that the holy spirit was “flowing through” him), and the picture does indeed carry valuable themes. But the endless bloodletting soon becomes too much. There is no way that one can “enjoy” this film. It isn’t here for your entertainment, making those repeat viewings a rarity. The fact that the film never finds other avenues to explore may infuriate some, and it’s certainly a valid point raised. The screenplay by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald only has one agenda on its mind - the suffering - but the film is often inter-cut with memories of times gone by. The Last Supper is carried out, as you’d expect, and Christ’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem is cross-cut with his torturous journey with the cross. These moments are so full, with a clear emotional vale generated by the filmmakers. But the script doesn’t restrict itself to the perspective of Christ. The betrayal of Judas (Luca Lionello) is covered early on, from his collection of the 30 gold coins, to his swift suicide at the hands of Satan’s demonic influence. The role is so full of humanity’s darker instincts, that we don’t feel pity for him when he takes his own life. Death, it seems, was on the director’s mind the whole time.
His themes and messages well placed out, Gibson was still attacked by the press, mostly due to the potential anti-Semitic overtones. I really don’t know what to make of these accusations, but since it is such a core part of The Passion’s road to the screen, I feel obligated to address it. The Jews do contribute to Christ’s crucifixion, obviously spear-headed by Ciaphas, whose lone voice pretty much speaks for his people. The Jews in the film snarl and laugh at Christ’s unfortunate situation, but I really don’t believe that Gibson wanted to inspire hate towards this race. The Romans are shown in an equally vicious way, perhaps more so. Only one person knows the truth about these charges, so anything the press can drum up is pure speculation, nothing more.
With that out of the way, I can talk about the performances. Caviezel is simply amazing in the lead role. Every ounce of pain encountered by Christ is expressed by his angelic features, and that indelible bone structure (his blue eyes were changed to brown digitally.) I have a lot of respect for the man, to take on such a figure and bring him to life so successfully. Caviezel barely seems to talk, but his feelings are carried effortlessly. It clearly wasn’t an easy film to shoot - the actor experienced many injuries, such as a real whip-lash that left a 14-inch scar on his back. Other reports also stated that the cross was hit by lightning, with Caviezel on it! I guess you could call it divine intervention, since Caviezel was always thankful for a lunch break.
Morgenstern and Bellucci also handle their roles with a great deal of care. Mary in particular, is given a lot of room to show her horror as a mother. A flashback involving her and Jesus in happier times enables her to show more than just pain, but the scene is sloppily scripted; fitting in clumsily amidst the torture. Still, it is hard not to be moved when she attempts to console her son. The actors should also be congratulated for handling the Latin and Aramaic dialogue with apparent ease. It adds an extra layer of realism to the film, and it is a testament to their abilities when the subtitles do them a disservice. I could have easily understood them without the subs, since their motivations are so clear.
Ultimately, The Passion of the Christ is a film to love and hate. It’s got an undeniable power, that will no doubt last through the years. It is also a film that will inspire debate wherever it goes, possibly forever. Gibson’s picture isn’t clean-cut when it comes to revealing its true purpose, but he got his vision told nevertheless. It’s a highly personal and demanding assault on our morals, asking questions that need to be answered. Both spiritually uplifting, and mentally draining, The Passion is important film-making at its most grandiose. See it. Live it. And discuss it. Whatever your opinion, it’s a film to experience.
Being a high-profile release, The Passion of the Christ is given first-rate treatment. However, as many of you will already know, there is no bonus material (though the subtitles can be removed.) I’m not sure if Gibson is planning on another release further down the line, but for once I’m not disappointed. The Passion is a film that speaks for itself - no collection of documentaries could hammer home its message any clearer. Therefore, the quality of the transfer is a major plus.
The Look and Sound
MGM and Icon present the film in its original anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) ratio, and it looks spectacular. The image literally sears with clarity. Always sharp, the colours are vibrant and awash with resonance. Even the night-time scenes look impressive, with a deep finish. I never expected any flaws, and I didn’t get any. This is a recent film, so it stands to reason that the transfer is pretty much perfect, with no grain or artefacing to spoil the presentation.
Sound comes in two forms - Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Naturally, a film like The Passion relies a lot on the audio, and these tracks do it justice. The dialogue for once doesn’t matter so much, but the overall ambience is wonderfully atmospheric. The musical score by John Debney is given an extra degree of power, coming from the rears and elsewhere with force. The sound design is very complex, and the effects spread across the field (the noises used to simulate nail through bone is very unpleasant but effective.) At the end of the day, I challenge anyone not to be satisfied with this disc.
There’s nothing really left to say, except that this disc comes with a high recommendation. The film is a tough one to assess, but if you haven’t seen it, I would suggest a rental before plonking down the cash. The Passion of the Christ has reached DVD, and it’s still a magnet of controversy. Let the debates begin, again...