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MOVIE REVIEW Hype aside, 'The Passion' offers much to admire, except brutality

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

How does a secular critic render a judgment?
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is arguably the most controversial film of our time.
Certainly no other recent movie has been so keenly anticipated, fervently embraced or emphatically denounced. There has been so much overheated news coverage -- both print and television -- that reviews are basically irrelevant.
Pity the secular critic forced to render a judgment based solely on artistic merit. It truly is a "damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't" proposition. Praise the film and you'll be accused of snuggling up to the Moral Majority. Pan it and risk eternal hellfire, or at least a flood of angry letters from disgruntled readers.
The best previous on-screen portrayals of Christ were Pier Paolo Pasolini's ultra-reverential "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" and Martin Scorsese's brilliant, controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ." In 1988, Scorsese was attacked by many of the same groups currently hailing "The Passion" as gospel.
Visceral impact
Truth be told, Gibson's movie is actually a lot closer in its visceral impact to "Last Temptation" than to such decidedly nonconfrontational Hollywood Biblical epics as "King of Kings" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." If Scorsese's version of The Passion (based not on the Scriptures but Nikos Kazantzakis' book) focused on the humanity of Christ, Gibson's take emphasizes Christ's divinity. Both movies were directed by devout Roman Catholics and made with the type of artistry and all-encompassing creative vision that had eluded most previous filmed representations of Christ's story.
John Debney's first-rate score even seems to have taken its cue from Peter Gabriel's haunting "Last Temptation" soundtrack. Forced to choose, I'd still opt for the Scorsese movie because it's the more contemplative and thoughtful work. Still, there's much to admire about "The Passion" for anyone willing to look beyond all the hype.
Unlike Pasolini's film or the recent "The Gospel of John," which were diligently faithful to Matthew and John's narratives, Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald incorporate all four Gospels into one "Passion."
Opening in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus (Jim Caviezel of "The Thin Red Line" and "Frequency") is praying, the film is principally concerned with the last 12 hours of Christ's life. (Short flashbacks to Jesus' earlier days as a carpenter and preacher are interspersed throughout the main action.)
After a brief guest appearance by Satan, who looks suspiciously like Death from Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," temple guards storm in and arrest him.
Trial, sentencing
During his arraignment before Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) and other Jewish high priests, Jesus finally acknowledges that he is indeed the Son of God. Charged with blasphemy, he's quickly shipped off to Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) for a swift trial and sentencing. Despite his deeply conflicted feelings about the battered and bloodied prisoner standing before him, Pilate ultimately yields to mob rule. Thus, Jesus begins his long march to Golgotha, where he is to be crucified.
Shot principally on location in the ancient Italian city of Matera (which convincingly doubles for the Holy Land), "The Passion of the Christ" has a commendable, painstaking authenticity. Even Gibson's decision to have the cast speak in "street Latin" and Aramaic works exceedingly well. What initially sounded like an affectation or stunt actually enhances the film's verisimilitude as much as the richly evocative production design and costumes.
Too barbaric
I'm less certain about the excruciating, virtually unwatchable brutality employed by Gibson in his quest for realism. While I certainly wasn't expecting a polite (read: bloodless) Sunday School depiction of Jesus' crucifixion, was it absolutely necessary to dwell on the preferred method of nailing hands to a cross? If nothing else, the elongated torture and sadism make the barbaric execution scene in Gibson's "Braveheart" look downright tame by comparison. Parents contemplating taking young children because of the religious theme should definitely reconsider that idea.
And what about those charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against "The Passion," mostly by people who haven't seen it? Well, Gibson makes no bones about pointing the primary finger of blame for Jesus' death at Jewish leaders like Caiphas. Of course, since the Jews and the Romans were only fulfilling a preordained prophecy, doesn't that make them essentially blameless?
Whether that particular nuance will be lost on general audiences amid all the carnage remains to be seen.
Money well spent
One thing's for sure. Gibson's $30-million-plus personal investment in his labor of love ("The Holy Ghost was working through me," Gibson has stated in interviews) is starting to look like money well spent. Who would have guessed that the most buzzed-about release of the new year would turn out to be a subtitled art film about Jesus Christ?