Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 126 minutes
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It’s a subject that has no bounds. Everyone is fully aware of what this story is about because we’ve all heard the tale at one time or another, and now he’s back on the big screen again, and just as controversial as ever. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ” is a vivid, brutal and very stunning piece of work that takes you through what some believe was the last living days of Jesus of Nazareth. During this particular period of time, the film manages to cover Jesus’ capture, his torture and then his infamous death by crucifixion all within a nicely compact two hours. The film really holds nothing back and tries to be as graphic and shocking as possible, which seems to work given the kind of message Gibson was trying to make. It’s one persons telling of the last days of a religious icon, and whether you consider it to be fact or fiction… you can’t help but appreciate the vision and the enormous artistic effort that went into recreating it. With great direction and an even better cast… the film delivers a stunning performance that manages to impress, shock and inspire its audience, which is impressive in itself since everyone knows what’s going to happen in the end. The moment is captured so honestly, and so shocking that it’s bound to stir something in everyone whether it is love, hate, or appreciation for what is clearly a work of art. It’s a powerful movie that, while going a tad over the top with some scenes, is an interesting piece that regardless of your creed will leave a stirring impression. Not only does this film meet the expectation of controversy, but it also manages to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what a gifted director Mel Gibson really is.
At the center of the controversial film is James Caviezel (“Frequency,” “Count Of Monte Cristo”), who gives a career performance as Jesus of Nazareth. With all the make-up he has on to alter his appearance, James gives a passionate yet very subdued performance of what is obviously one of the most controversial and influential people in the history of humanity. It’s a role that took guts to accept, and you’ve got to admire Caviezel for not only taking on the role, but for portraying the man (and myth) so well. This kind of performance is very risky as it could either lift Caviezel to the next level and establish him or typecast him for the rest of his life and ruin what has been a very good career so far. I personally think his performance made this film as passionate as it was, giving clearly what I believe is an Oscar worthy performance (yes, it was that good). We are shown both sides of Jesus’ life, as his life (via flashbacks) are shown to us in small portions while marching towards his dramatic finish.
The rest of the cast is just as impressive, making this a very impressive ensemble rather than a one-man show. Many accuse this movie of showing little character, but in this instance less was certainly more as you could see the inner conflicts of so many characters in so short a time. There are a great deal of passionate characters within this film, and whether good or bad many are seen as flawed people who are unaware of the evils they seem to be committing. One good example would be the portrayal of Judas, the man whose betrayal resulted in the arrest and eventual death of Jesus. He’s not a cardboard character, but is instead shown as a flawed and conflicted man that later regrets his actions and even tries to make amends before taking his own life out of guilt. I liked how Gibson and the writers made him more out to be a man who made a grave mistake, rather than a sinister mastermind who was out to get Jesus, like so many other films have not hesitated to do. He is haunted by demons (and possibly his own guilt in the form of demons) and it was a fresh approach to the character that was interesting, compelling and one of many sub-plots within this short and detailed film.
To find other great examples of such character, one would have to look no further than the conflicted and mentally tortured performances of Monica Belluci (Mary Magdalene) and Maia Morgenstern (Jesus’ mother Mary). Both women are conflicted because they want to be there to support the man they love, but don’t want to watch the horror that he has to endure. The one part that had this writer shedding a tear were the scenes in which Mary did her best to support her son, only to break down on several occasions, unable to go on. Any parent can sympathize with this character’s situation, and shed a tear for the horror her own flesh and blood is forced to endure. Her strong character is a bold role for any actress, and Morgenstren portrays this conflicted mother perfectly, given the kind of emotion that you would expect from any parent if they were tossed into such a situation. Her performance makes up for some of the saddest scenes in the film, one that requires many tissues, but it’s this kind of fervor from Mary and the rest of the cast that gives the film its power, not its shock value.
Living up to the hype, “The Passion Of The Christ” is obviously the most controversial film since Scorsese’s “Last Temptation Of Christ” as it never hesitates to go all the way with it’s graphic nature… clearly making shock a major element of the film’s delivery. Gibson has never been a stranger to this kind of on screen violence as I remember his last directorial effort (a little Oscar winning film titled “Braveheart”) being just as graphic while at the same time exciting and extremely entertaining. The violence in that movie, while shocking, never seemed to distract the audience from his previous film’s story line, and I also didn’t think the brutal nature seen in this film took away from its respective story line either. I guess Gibson’s felt that this kind of gore was a necessary element in his telling of this well-known narrative. However, if you had a hard time sitting through movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” then chances are you’re going to find some scenes in this movie very, very hard to sit through.
I can say with a great deal of confidence that Jesus’ scourging is the most brutal whipping scene ever captured on film. I’ve been to many horror films and like to consider myself very thick skinned when it comes to scenes that show a great deal of blood. Yet there were some scenes that even I had a really hard time sitting through, so I can only imagine how people who are not used that kind of blood on screen would react. If you’re the kind of movie going person who isn’t very comfortable with the sight of blood on screen, then I would recommend skipping this film and maybe even waiting for a more tamer version to eventually release on television. And if you thought that disemboweling scene at the end of “Braveheart” difficult to endure, the crucifixion and especially the scourging make it pale in comparison. While many previous films about Christ have dealt with this particular moment of Jesus’ life with kid gloves, trying their best to be gentle and careful as it’s a moment that many are very sensitive about. Gibson goes in a completely opposite direction, holding nothing back. While some will accuse Gibson of again trying to shock the audience, I really can’t help but think he was accurate as crucifixion was and still is considered by many historians as one of the most brutal method of execution in the history of our species. Of course the scene is going to be shocking, it’s a very inhumane and cruel way for any person to die. How can you really sugarcoat something like that?
Because of many of the elements listed above, I cannot give enough praise to Mel Gibson and his crew for presenting us with this very interesting adaptation of the man so many already know. Mel Gibson proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that “Braveheart” was no fluke as each shot is filmed with a sharp eye for detail and is deep right down to its very core. The imagery and cinematography is stunning, with lush backgrounds within the temples that brought the story to life. The editing was also nothing short of fantastic as it proved once and for all to all the dragged out ‘epics’ that came out last year that you don’t have to break the three hour bracket all the time in order to make a good film. This movie manages to not only cover a lot of ground that could have easily ballooned to three or four hours, but instead it was well paced and cut down to a nice two hours and six minutes.
While the film’s score is at times over the top, overall it was touching piece that was very appropriate given the nature of this particular film. Another feature I found very remarkable was the break away from the traditional peeves one usually sees in ‘Hollywood’ religious epic. Jesus’ disciples are not the same clean, well-cut men who look like they are slumming from a more wealthy class. These men were all poor, living in a very poor community and their dirt and scruffs would suggest such dwellings. The picture never speaks a single word of English, another fascinating departure from the typical Hollywood biblical epic. Even though it would have been more accurate to use Greek, the film is spoken mainly in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. The film is not difficult to read off the screen. There is very little dialogue, and one can see why Gibson considered not using any subtitles at all. The lack of them wouldn’t have taken much away from the film, but it was still nice to know what everyone was saying… as it made the film a tad easier to follow.
Now I’m going to address the accusation many have made about this film. Some have gone out of their way to accuse Mel’s latest epic of being Anti-Semitic. I can clearly see why many people have their knickers in a knot over this film’s version of the events in question. The fact is, however, you can’t make a movie about Jesus’ death that doesn’t come across to everyone as not being Anti-Semitic, just like you can’t make a movie about the holocaust of the second World War that doesn’t make the Germans look like blood thirsty animals. Many nations are painted with a brush of evil by Hollywood at on point or another, so it’s a fine line that many have to be careful of and I honestly don’t think that Gibson crossed that line with this picture. While I can see where some people are coming from with regards to how the Jewish people are portrayed, I honestly think it’s something that can’t be avoided when dealing with this particular subject. While some Jewish priests are portrayed badly in this film and are clearly seen calling for Jesus’ death… there were others that were not. There was actually another priest of the same church that seemed to disapprove of Jesus’ persecution, and questioned the secrecy of his supposed trial. I think such scenes prove that Gibson wasn’t going out of his way to make the Jewish people look bad. There’s even one part where the character of Jesus himself goes on to say that no man killed him, that it was his own will to die and that no person could make him die. Comments like this would contradict any accusation that Mel is accusing the Jews of killing Jesus, since the character himself denies it in the film. If anything, this film was anti-Roman… as the guards who whip and carry Jesus up to be killed are the most vicious and heartless men in the movie. While the picture tries to show the Roman commander as a man conflicted with politics, the guards and the men leading Jesus to his death are seen as evil incarnate, much more than any other character in the film to the point where even the devil himself is portrayed better than the Romans.
Whether or not you believe in the story of Jesus is actually irrelevant. “The Passion Of The Christ” is made with such detail and talent that you can’t help but at least respect its presence and power. I’m not a religious person myself but I know good filmmaking when I see it and this movie is a work of art. I’m not a religious person and I thought the film was amazing, so I can only imagine what kind of effect this film would have on those who are extremely religious. Yet I feel the need to make this warning: this film is not for the weak of heart, nor should anyone under the age of sixteen be allowed to see it. This kind of graphic violence is definitely not for kids and might be too much for those who shock easily and are weak of heart. While this is clearly the most controversial film of the year, but I also happen to think it might also be the its most brilliant as well. So if you think you can handle the blood and torture, then I would recommend giving ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ a chance. While I may not fully agree with Mr. Gibson’s certain take on history, I can’t help but respect him for taking his own passion and putting it out on display for all to look at and critique. It took minerals to complete such a feat. For that, his efforts are much appreciated and well received.
Posted on March 1, 2004 in Reviews by Peter Lowry
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
- THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
- GIBSON NAILS DOWN NEW PROJECT
- EXCESS HOLLYWOOD: MAD MAX IV — HOLOCAUST ROAD
- DOGTOWN AND Z-VIRGIN MARY
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