© 2004 Ray Wong
Amid controversies, Mel Gibson produced and directed THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with his own money and much conviction. Regardless of our faith and religion, we must agree that the film is powerful and provocative. One can argue if it can be called “entertainment” at all.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST chronicles the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, culminating in his crucifixion and death (with a brief epilogue with the resurrection). Those who are familiar with the Bible would be familiar with the story. The film begins in the Garden of Olives, where Jesus must resist the temptations of Satan. Betrayed by Judas, Jesus is arrested and taken to Jerusalem. The Pharisees, led by High Priest Caiaphas, accuse Jesus of blasphemy and condemn him to death. They urge the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. Seeing no crime and reason to condemn the man to death, Pilate reluctantly agrees to the demands for fear of his own political future. The last half of the film details the beating and flaying of Jesus – possibly the most excruciating and brutal part of the film – the fourteen Stations of the Cross, and finally, his crucifixion and death at Golgotha.
Gibson’s vision is sensational. Though interspersed with flashbacks (the Last Supper, Palm Sunday, Jesus’ life as a carpenter, etc.), the film focuses mostly on the human story and less on the theologies. The use of Mary (Morgenstern) and Magdalene (Belluci) deepen the emotional gravity of the sufferings. Granted, Gibson does inject his own Catholic interpretations and artistic licenses (the long, sweeping shots, the prominence of Mary as the co-sufferer, Veronica with the cloth, the wine of mass, etc.), and granted, this is Gibson’s film, it is still interesting to note which “version of truth” he is presenting here. Non-Catholics or even non-Christians may have a harder time understanding the symbolisms and meanings, as well as the true motives and emotions behind these characters. One does need to go to Sunday school to fully understand the true scope of the story.
The biggest controversy surrounding the film: Is it anti-Semitic? I do not feel that Gibson has intentionally cast an anti-Semitic light on the film. However, I do think that his portrayal of Pilate as a weak and empathetic ruler against the ruthless and malicious Caiaphas and his clergies could contribute to the sentiment. To his credit, Gibson also portrays the Roman soldiers as mostly cruel bastards while many Jews in the crowd cry in compassion, including Simon who carries the Cross for Jesus.
Controversies aside, the film on its own does achieve significant cinematic grandeur. The cast is outstanding (one would question why Gibson cast mostly Catholic actors in the main roles). Caviezel (FREQUENCY) gives the best performance of his life as Jesus, albeit looking just a tad too handsome and divine like one of those Jesus portraits; his deep eyes movingly convey the anguish, love, compassion and pain. Morgenstern as Mary is heartbreaking, as is Belluci’s Magdalene. To achieve authenticity, the actors speak only in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. One small gripe though: Why did Gibson cast Catholic actors in the main roles, even the Jews? For example, Belluci’s Italian beauty is a distraction to me. Not very authentic, is it? The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is marvelous, evoking strong emotions with sweeping movements, haunting vistas, subtle hues of gray, blue, and red. The music is, unfortunately, typical of any biblical epics, but it does the job well in sustaining the film. Gibson is a talented and skilled director, reminding us that BRAVEHEART was not a fluke. The film is extremely violent and it is almost impossible to look at every frame at times. Like the first half hour of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the violence is justified for what the filmmakers are trying to accomplish – to provoke the kind of disgust, horror and pain within the audience itself. For that, Gibson has succeeded in bringing us a work of art that is sure to rouse passionate debates and personal reflections about inhumanities, suffering and intolerance. And that is itself a good thing.
Stars: James Caviezel, Monica Belluci, Maia Morgenstern, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Shopov, Jarreth Merz
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson
Distributor: Newmarket Film
MPAA Rating: R for graphic violence
Script – 8
Performance – 10
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 9
Total – 8.8 out of 10