The Passion of the Christ (Definitive Edition) Review
As you might expect, it isn't necessary to discuss the plotting of this film as there can be very few people alive who don't know something about Jesus Christ even if that is only something to do with his birth at Christmas and his death at Easter, the latter of which is what The Passion Of The Christ concerns itself with. As for this film, it's an odd work but one that succeeds, taking the kind of violence to the body that horror filmmakers had dallied with and making it acceptable for a Christian audience by tying it to the story of Christ's suffering and death, the passion both of his love for mankind and, in the older use of the word, the pain that he endured. Without irony or postmodernism and very little humour, The Passion Of The Christ does feel like the last word in Christian cinema, implying no way back to a pale, blue-eyed Jesus, strolling to his own crucifixion in a clean robe. It's hard to imagine that anyone, outside of the cheap-as-chips MARK IV Pictures, ever going near a biblical drama for quite some time so clearly has The Passion Of The Christ redefined our expectation. And, largely, in a good way.
The heart of The Passion Of The Christ lies in one of its many flashbacks, specifically to the last supper, at which Jesus says to the apostles, "This is my body which is given for you" (Luke Ch.22:v.19). Christians, particularly Catholics who look upon this moment in the mass as transubstantiation, have tended to think of this only in terms of how it is the communion bread and wine that is offered as Jesus did in the hours before his arrest.
What Mel Gibson has done in The Passion is to show how literal this statement is. Gibson shows us through the flesh torn out of Jesus' body, the blood that's wrung from the whip and the sweat that pours from his forehead as he staggers under the weight of the cross on his way to Golgotha. A typical viewer will be shocked at seeing this suffering, the cat o' nine tails that embeds itself in Jesus' back, the blood that pours through the cross and the blood and water that rains from his side when pierced by a soldier. Horror is the emotion that comes to mind at seeing the grotesque characters that assemble around Jesus, the Roman guards who whip him, the devils that fleet across the screen and the crowd that roar with laughter as Christ collapses on the streets of Jerusalem. This is a horror film slipping into mainstream cinemas under the guise of Christianity and witnessed by millions whose stomachs would turn at Hostel.
Yet in amongst all of this, and likely to be the reason an example of such extreme cinema was not merely welcomed as such, Gibson remembers that one meaning of passion is of an unconditional love. The film shows Jesus asking for God to forgive those who would claim responsibility for his death and ultimately giving up his life to, as a Christian would argue, to save mankind. "He died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures." St Paul described the passion in those words in his first letter to the Corinthians (Ch.15:v.3), giving, as Christ did, a fatefulness to the events of his death. Gibson's belief in this is absolute and he never wavers in his faith that Christ was born both Son of Man and Son of God and endured terrible pain out of love. In its blood shed, in the tears that are cried and in his sacrificing of Christ's life, Gibson has made The Passion Of The Christ into a powerful film, one with a sense of righteousness and with few doubts about the events that it portrays.
In his structuring of the film, Gibson, a confirmed Catholic, builds it in the manner of the Stations of the Cross, something that will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited a Catholic church. There, it is traditional for Catholics to celebrate Good Friday by praying at the stations, making a pilgrimage aside Christ. Gibson begins the film slightly before the First Station, opening The Passion Of The Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and with Christ's arrest, before Christ being condemned to death, and eventually going on to when Jesus is, in the fourteenth Station, laid in the tomb. And so we have Christ falling three times, his being helped with his cross by Simon of Cyrene, his faced being cleaned by Veronica, his meeting of the women of Jerusalem, his being stripped of his garments and, finally, his being nailed to the cross where he dies. There isn't very much that's surprising other than the ferocity of the film, one that has Mel Gibson tear at the flesh of his leading character to leave him, by the film's end, battered, torn, bruised, cut and weeping blood onto the ground. There are flashbacks to happier times, not least Jesus making, of all things, a kitchen table but it's clear that Gibson's mission in The Passion Of The Christ is in the horror of the story, a reminder how Christ died for us.
There are problems with The Passion Of The Christ, not least that from a point of view of making this film, his death is obviously the highlight of the story. For Christians, what is much more important is the resurrection, which is the entire basis of Christianity, but it's easy to see that a stone being rolled back and the finding of an empty tomb isn't as memorable as the crucifixion, the storm clouds gathering over Golgotha and the tearing down of the temple. Gibson does attempt to add some cinematic colour to the resurrection by having the shroud collapse as daylight touches it and having Jesus sport some CG holes in his hand but it's clear that as a director, if not as a Catholic, his interest lies with the death of Jesus not his resurrection. It's difficult to blame Gibson for this - he is, after all, only doing what every other director of gospel stories has done before him - but other than A.D., which was scripted by Anthony Burgess from his book Kingdom Of The Wicked, it's hard to find any film or television show that has much interest in what happens after Christ is taken down from the cross.
There are other mistakes of course, one that was reflected in the Catholic Church's recent debate on the role of Judas. Was he acting through greed and the selling of Christ for the notorious thirty pieces of silver or, as Christ's death had been foretold in Scripture, simply the fall-guy for a predetermined act of sacrifice. The recent (April 2006) furore over the Gospel of Judas portrays the apostle as being a benevolent figure who betrayed Christ not only in order to fulfil the prophecy of his death on the cross but also to liberate the divine with the body of Christ, being, in the Catholic Church, God the son. Without a Judas, there would have been no crucifixion, no resurrection of the body and no Catholic Church yet its own teachings persist in casting the character of Judas Iscariot as being a traitor. Gibson could have done much worse, such as is written in the Gospel of John - "And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him" (John Ch.13:v.2) - but avoids this, showing Judas being haunted by devils as a sign of his guilt and eventually, as in the Gospel of Matthew, hung himself. Once again, Gibson goes for a very literal reading of the gospels and though there isn't any particular rehabilitation for Judas, Gibson does rein in some of the excesses of elsewhere.
Mention of the devil and of these excesses brings out another fault in the film, being used in moments of weakness, not only amongst the Romans and Pharisees but in Christ's own doubts about his dying. Gibson appears to use Satan early in the film to tempt Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prays shortly before his arrest. "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" is what Jesus prays in Gethsemane (Matthew Ch.26:v.39), later adding "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done" (Matthew Ch.26:v.42) and again a third time (Matthew Ch.26:v.44). In terms of the film, that makes for a good and particularly ghostly opening but the Satan's later appearance behind the Romans and the Pharisees as Jesus is whipped is one too many. As many theologians have asked, if Jesus' dying was all part of the God's will, what element of free will was there in their actions? And how could Satan have been working towards this plan unless he had been tricked into it. The howl of outrage that comes when the devil realises that he has been the case is one moment when The Passion Of The Christ takes leave of Catholic teaching, though it does, much like the falling tear from God in Heaven give the death of Jesus more impact.
Personally, though, what continues to have the greatest impact in this version of the passion is the reactions of the apostles to the crisis they have found themselves in. Jesus is a figure that is difficult to relate to. The gospels present him as being almost perfect - almost in the sense that his temper flares on more than one occasion - making it much easier to come to terms with the weaknesses of his apostles, particularly Peter who famously denied him three times soon after his arrest. The best moment in Zeferelli's Jesus Of Nazereth was at the very end when Peter, resting his head on the Jesus' shoulder, said, "Oh, Lord, stay with us. For the night is falling and the day is almost over." This time, however, Jesus is not there to soothe them, leaving them looking terrified at realising that what is happening to Jesus may, and will in the Acts Of The Apostles, happen to them also. It's fair to say that Mel Gibson probably struck the right notes with his film, choosing to shock the audience into caring about his lead rather than hoping that they understand him and drawing out the fear in the apostles as a way for us to understand how we would have reacted were we in the same situation. That fear, hopelessness and sense of loss is what this viewer remembered most in The Passion Of The Christ and why, in amongst the bloodshed, the story of the early Christian still makes it through, moreso in later viewings than in the first. The events of The Passion Of The Christ make the later Catholic Church seem very distant but there's an optimism as it ends with the resurrected Christ leaving his tomb. It does seem very little, very late on but probably just the right note of hope that the film needs. It would have been suffocating without it.
This is a superb-looking release, ably capturing the night-time scenes as well as it does those in daylight and rarely blurring the detail in each frame. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has been rightly praised for his work on this film - Mel Gibson sought a look that was as close to a Caravaggio painting as the screen could get and he has largely succeeded - and this DVD presents his work in stunning fashion, being detailed and colourful but with a use of shadows, helped along by what is very dim lighting, that forces the contrast in the image to work hard. There isn't a single fault in the print as far as I was able to tell, leaving me to take one mark off for a very slight amount of breaking-up of the picture during some of the night scenes, such as Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.
However, as good as the picture is, most of the plaudits should go on the Aramaic/Latin/Hebrew DD5.1 audio track, which is simply superb. The Passion Of The Christ constantly makes good use of the rear channels and the subwoofer and has a clarity amid the silences that makes it all the better. It is actually a pleasure to listen to the opening of The Passion Of The Christ and hear the very soft sounds in between the silences as well as later in the flashbacks and though what makes it good isn't always obvious - few room-spinning effects, for example, it is still a marvellous track. Finally, there are English subtitles and an English Commentary for the Visually Impaired but, sadly, no DTS track.
Re-Cut Version (121m45s): Four minutes and forty seconds shorter than the original cut, where exactly would you begin to cut The Passion Of The Christ to make it a PG-13. Well, it's clear that Mel Gibson began with the scenes of torture and carried on from there, excising anything that looks as though it might take the film towards an R-rating. Of course, given that its lead character spends most of the film bleeding, flayed and dragging a bloodied cross behind him, it was an utterly futile gesture, leaving Gibson to release his re-edited cut unrated. What we have remains a bloody telling of the passion, albeit slightly less so than before, but which would still test the constitution of more sensitive viewers. Whilst there is very little difference between the two versions, this, being the more bloodless cut, doesn't feel quite complete and will, I suspect, be rather an unloved version of the film.
Commentaries (4x): There are four here, two of which feature Mel Gibson. Much like the commentaries on the Extended Editions of the Lord Of The Rings films, these are broken up into Production, Filmmaker and Music Commentary with there being a bonus Theological Commentary that discusses the religious issues presented in the film. Of these, the Theological Commentary, which features Gibson, Gerry Matatics and Fathers William Fulco and John Bartunek is the most interesting, given that it looks beyond the actual film and into the gospels, the Catholic Church and how we, being humanity, have interpreted the actions of Christ, the apostles and the Romans to define the Christian faith. Most importantly, it offers very much more than simply an explanation of the mood behind the scenes, which the others are wont to do and so keeps one's interest over the two-hour running time of the film. Unfortunately, none of the other three are anywhere near as interesting, particularly not the Production Commentary (Stephen McEveety, Ted Rae and Keith Vanderlaan) nor the intermittent Music Commentary (John Debney).
Footnotes: These would be described as trivia on another DVD but with The Passion Of The Christ having a slightly more elevated opinion of itself, we now have Footnotes. Otherwise, they are the sort of thing that one might expect of onscreen production notes, listing the locations, what was involved in the making of the film and the various hardships of the cast as they struggled to get to grips with the emotions in the story and the Aramaic script. Interesting to dip in and out of, particularly in one's favourite moments in the film, but there's very little here that is not in the making-of on the second disc or on the commentaries.
By His Wounds We Are Healed (100m16s): The original DVD release, which was a bare-bones effort, always looked incomplete when it felt, with the film's origins in the gospels, its use of Aramaic and its huge financial success, like there was a behind-the-scenes story worth telling. This documentary goes some way to making up for that, beginning with Mel Gibson on the set of Once Were Soldiers talking about the making of a film based on the passion through to the writing of it, its casting, its production and a release that was widely welcomed. There are genuinely interesting moments in this, such as the casting of Satan, the stunning cinematography, how they engineered the tearing down of the temple, the trials of playing Jesus and, of course, the filming of the crucifixion. Mel Gibson is interviewed on the set during the making of the film as well as after its completion and though very few members of the case appear off the set, we still have a very complete feature on The Passion Of The Christ, taking the audience from its making to its marketing. Unfortunately, though, there are scenes of Mel Gibson wearing a Comic Relief red nose under the guise of Breaking The Tension, which is more offensive a sight than anything in the actual film.
Below The Line Panel Discussion (13m50s): And it is exactly that, a seated panel, without Mel Gibson but with Caleb Deschanel, editor John Wright and others, talking about the special effects, the cinematography and the making of the film. Much of what is included here is also in By His Wounds We Are Healed only with the bonus of members of the crew being involved in a discussion rather than being interviewed separately.
Deleted Scenes (2m09s, 2m26s): There are only two such scenes included here, one in which Pilate, as he does in the gospels, literally and metaphorically washes his hands of the responsibility of sentencing Jesus. This is followed by a further scene in which Jesus falls under the weight of the cross, which is supported by Simon, after which he tells the women of Jerusalem, "Do not weep for me but rather for yourselves and your children."
Through The Ages (11m57s): This is the start of a section on the disc titled The Legacy, which is less to do with the film than the passion of Christ, the Catholic church and the use of crucifixion during the era in which the Romans ruled what is now Israel. This first feature deals with how artists worked within the Christian church to tell the story of Christ and brings several art historians to explain how art developed alongside the church and how it changed against social mores of the time, which is summed by in saying that every age invents their own ideal Jesus.
Paths Of A Journey (9m24s): This short feature talks about the seven-mile journey along the Via Doloroso in Jerusalem and those who mark his passing every Friday afternoon by praying along the Stations of the Cross. Along the way, we have some discussion about the passion of Jesus and visit the locations, amongst others, where it is thought that Jesus fell, where he met the women of Jerusalem and, finally, where he was crucified, which is now within the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On Language (12m45s): Father William J. Fulco, who provided the Aramaic and Latin used in the film, returns to cover much of the same ground that he did in By His Wounds We Are Healed in describing the languages used in The Passion Of The Christ and how the cast and director handled them. As before, he talks about there weren't Aramaic words for everything in the script, which meant that he had to work backwards from Hebrew and Arabic. As before, though, Father Fulco is chatty, honest and happy to talk about the limits of his knowledge as regards Aramaic and Latin.
Crucifixion (17m27s): Continuing this series of historical featurettes, we now hear about crucifixion, not only in terms of how it was used by the Romans to keep conquered peoples under the rule of their law but also the torture that led up to crucifixion and the actual technicalities of the killing. Eventually, this leads on to the crucifixion of Christ, even to why Christianity uses the cross as its symbol.
Anno Domini (10m03s): In all of the gospel stories, the apostles tend to get overlooked, leaving this short feature being one of those to describe what happened to them after the death of Jesus. This doesn't cover all of the apostles but spends a little time of John, Peter, James, Thomas and Judas as well as Caiphas, Herod, Pilate and his wife Claudia Procles, Simon of Cyrene, Mary Magdalene - no mention of the Holy Grail...sorry Da Vinci Code fans! - and Jesus' mother Mary
Galleries: There are a total of ten galleries included here, which go from the Production Art, Technical Drawings and Storyboards to images of the Stations of the Cross, quotes from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the characters and actors and stills from behind the scenes. This section also includes two Trailers (1m52s, 1m45s) and two TV Spots (2x 33s) and, finally, the DVD Credits.
You will either have guessed by the reading of this review or by being a regular visitor to this site that I come, as a Catholic, with a certain prejudice towards this film. Perhaps because of that, or simply a fondness for seeing people in togas get crucified, hung and punished by the wrath of God, I have something of a weakness for biblical films, such as Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments and the unreleased-on-DVD A.D. but I do think this a great film, being an uncompromising feature that is as impassioned as one about religion ought to be. This two-disc DVD is merely how The Passion Of The Christ ought to have been released when it originally was but the amount of bonus material, commentaries and the preparation of the film go some way towards making up for it.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:15:16