The Passion of The Christ

 You have to give Mel Gibson credit for doing a film that he believes so strongly in and with a subject matter that would not only be controversial but also divide the audience (although Americans seem to be more emotional about this film than anyone else). The word ‘passion’ in The Passion of The Christ refers to the Latin origins of the word which mean pain and suffering and not the modern meaning embroiled within romance.

Although claimed to be based on synoptic Gospels, the film seems also to base itself on the Catholic ritual of the 14 Stations of the Cross, which catalogue the suffering of Christ and has supplementary material from the visions of two nuns – 17th Century Mary of Agreda and the 18th Century Anne Catherine Emmerich.

The film opens in the Gardens of Olives (Gethsemane) where Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel) has sought solace after the Last Supper. It is here that he meets Satan (unnervingly played by Rosalinda Celentano) who tries to tempt and confuse him.

After resisting Satan, Jesus is arrested after he is betrayed by Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) for 30 pieces of silver and he is taken back within the walls of the city of Jerusalem. The leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy and he condemned to death.

Taken in front of Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) as the death penalty cannot be carried out without the consent of the local governor, Jesus is taken aside by Pilot who asks if he is a king.  After listening to the accusations delivered by the High Priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia), Pilot deems that he cannot find any reason to punish Jesus and orders that as a subject of King Herod, they must take him to be judged by him.

Herod, arrogant and bemused, returns Jesus to Pilate who realises that he faces a political conflict, decides to give the crowd the choice between releasing Jesus or a known murderer Barrabas. The crowd chooses Barrabas to be released and Jesus to be sentenced to death.

Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers who brutally flay him with barbed whips before returning him as a bloody and unrecognisable mess to Pilate who presents him to the angry crowd and asks as if this is enough? The Jewish leaders are unrepentant and demand that Jesus be crucified. Pilate washes his hands of the entire dilemma and orders his men to do as the mob wishes.

Burdened with a wooden cross, Jesus is forced to march through the streets of Jerusalem all the way to Golgotha, being beaten all the way by soldiers and taunted by the angry crowd.

Finally after struggling to Golgotha, Jesus is nailed to the cross where he undergoes his last temptation – the fear that he has been abandoned by his Father.

The Passion of The Christ is undoubtedly a powerful film, but at the end of the day it is just a film and a flawed on at that. The film does not have subtitles for all the dialogue and a key one is missed out, where Caiaphas says that it is better for one man to die to save a nation. Another of the many inaccuracies within the film is Pilate. Here he is portrayed as a reasonable and fair man whose hand was forced into doing a deed he abhorred, while in reality even Emperor Tiberius was shocked at his treatment of the Jews and that’s saying something.

Surprisingly the performances are nothing compared to the visual imagery. Jim Caviezel gives a fairly one-dimensional performance as do most of the cast. His Christ looks like the Christ of other movies bearded, scrawny and soulful – a stereo-typical Jesus. Maia Morgenstern as Mother Mary and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, do not do much beyond crying and looking sorrowful. Hristo Shopov as Pilate and other officers within the Roman Army are portrayed as humane men in charge of sadistic, drunken, brutish soldiers. No one is really presented beyond the realm of caricature and there is very little dimension to anyone’s delivery at all.

The film is undoubtedly violent and over-the-top so, with almost ¾ of the film dealing with the brutality of torture and crucifixion. A lot of the gory violence is done in slow motion and is blatantly obscene and had the subject matter been anything but Jesus, the majority of people would have called it nothing more than just a piece of brutal masochism. The resurrection, which could be said to be the more important aspects of the death of Christ, is done and dusted within a couple of minutes and is totally overshadowed by the brutality before it.

Director Mel Gibson has definitely concentrated on the visual rather than the verbal message and has managed to loose the impact of the real message as it were. The audience feels the pain of Jesus, but they would feel the same for anyone so mercilessly and endlessly beaten – so it becomes less about Jesus and more about brutality and gore. That’s why it hurts, it doesn’t really matter who he is and instead of being move by Christ’s suffering or being awed by his sacrifice, the violence overshadows it all, killing the message.

The ending almost ruined the whole film with action hero music swelling up, Jesus’s shroud deflating like Obi Wan’s after being cut down by Darth Vader, followed by Jesus stepping into the frame with CGI holes in his hands – the whole idealised imagery offsets the complete tone of the film and you almost expect him to fly around the Earth ala Superman. It’s bordering on laughable visually and is far too idealised, much like the image of Jesus found in many churches.

Speaking of visuals, much of the imagery within the film is gimmickry, with children’s faces morphing into feral demon beasts, the Devil moving into and out of scenes in slow motion (often with a demon child suckling at his breast) and one of men crucified alongside Christ having his eyes picked out by crows only after he verbally torments Jesus.

Many people have baulked at the subtitles, but seeing that the Jews speak Aramaic and the Romans speak Latin they are a necessary part of the film – imagine if Gibson had his original way and forgone subtitles altogether.  One has to commend Gibson on doing what he believed he needed to do and as this was always destined to be one of the riskiest projects in Hollywood. However one of the most provocative lines in the film was not subtitles. The line was uttered by the High Priest Caiphas who convinces Pilate to go ahead with the crucifixion by saying “His blood be upon us and our children”.

Personally the film didn’t move me, emotionally or spiritually, but it is a fascinating film and that is all it is – a film – a piece of entertainment. There is no sense of the Messiah though the direction or performance, and it could have been a film about an anonymous victim of a witch hunt. Mel Gibson has basically spent $30 Million on a sermon which might just touch the faithful and/or repulse the rest. Perhaps the title should have been The Passion of the Mel Gibson.

Score 6/10