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The Passion of the Christ

Religious people know better than to aspire to the honors of men. Good thing, too, because watching The Passion of the Christ might confuse you into thinking that Mel Gibson is bucking for all kinds of accolades. It's epic, it's bombastic, and it's extremely well-directed. It's also a clearly personal film for Gibson, a statement of his belief so strong that it feels like voyeurism sitting through the film.

Unfortunately, it also feels a bit like a snuff film, so unrelenting is the director in portraying the suffering of Jesus' (Jim Caviezel) last twelve hours. Also like a film of dubious distinction, The Passion of the Christ offers very little in the way of character development or plot. This is a film designed to appeal on a gut level, calling upon your emotions at the price of letting you think. At that, it's very effective.

And so, if you are a true believer, and think that testimonies of faith are laudable in and of themselves, and should be supported no matter what, read no further. Most of this review will not make you happy. In fact, some of you should have left after the first paragraph.

The biggest flaw with the movie is that despite its obvious meaning to the filmmaker, it's meant for those who already know the story. That's not everybody, and even if you do know it, you have to know it really well in order to understand who's who and why they're doing what they're doing. It also has, understandably, an extremely Catholic perspective, hence the blood and focus on the Crucifixion itself.

All the major points are here. Though the film follows the Gospel narrative fairly closely, going from Gethsemane to the Resurrection (sorry for ruining the ending), Gibson also flashes back to some of the key moments of Jesus' adult life. But for the most part, it's just light brushes with history, not helped by all the dialogue being in Aramaic and "street" Latin, though, man, it's a cool touch.

Sure, you see Judas (Luca Lionello) betray Jesus in the garden with a kiss. It's a moment memorialized in metaphor, but for some reason the screenplay, by Benedict Fitzgerald and Gibson, has no time to explain what led up to this point. If you want to understand why Jewish religious leaders of the time were so upset, look elsewhere. Gibson wants to show you the histrionics, but not the history.

For this, the film has already garnered a reputation of being anti-Semitic. Perhaps. Early on, a High Priest tries to dismiss the charges against Jesus, but is shouted down by his fellows. Veronica and Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz) give some aid as the Christ carries his cross up to Calvary.

More likely, it's going to be in the eye of the beholder. If you go in looking for anti-Semitic statements, they could be pretty easy to find. The film has only one source for adaptation because we simply don't have any other points of view on these events. The Romans get a better rap (according to the book); in particular, Hristo Shopov gives a fine performance as the conscience-stricken Pontius Pilate, unable to stand against the will of the people.

But let it be noted that it's not all of the people, for all the good it may do. Yes, Jewish leadership of the time gathered to condemn Jesus, and at times in the chaos of the film, it seems as if all of Israel is against him.

Like an angry mob itself, the film moves inexorably toward its climax, scarcely giving the audience a chance to breathe. Some will be moved by the constant violence, not content to just know that Jesus suffered. At times, it veers into being numbing. Certainly, The Passion of the Christ is the bloodiest film of the year. Freddy and Jason have to work awfully hard to top it, and yet many of this film's core audience would never go to a horror film. Try to ignore that pervasive smell of irony.

Two flashbacks offer both quiet and real emotional depth. While in most of those scenes, Caviezel ends up just quoting scripture, Gibson throws in a moment of Jesus practicing his carpentry at home. The real warmth Caviezel has as an actor glows in this sequence, shared with Maia Morgenstern as Mary. Between the two, in the span of a minute, we get the emotional high point we need to carry through a lot of the gore.

Morgenstern also has another showcase moment watching Jesus fall, and remembering him falling as a child. For all its bombast, the film does paint a human portrait - if you can see it under all the crimson.

Certainly, much of it plays like an action film. When the Pharisees come for Jesus in the garden, the fight that breaks out could easily have been directed by Michael Bay, full of slow-motion moves and replays from different angles. All the better, perhaps, to point out that "he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword."

Gibson has also veered from the Gospels by adding in some scenes with Satan (Rosalinda Celentano). While effective in context, and making sure you understand the film's viewpoint relative to Jesus' divinity, there is no doubt that Saturday Night Live will be appropriating that imagery by the end of March.

The Passion of Christ may horrify as many people as it enthralls. It stands as a towering achievement, but like Babel, the film reaches further than it can actually hold.


As a side note, this seems as good a place as any to recommend my new favorite interpretation of the story of Jesus, Lamb : The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. Yeah, the title may sound a little blasphemous, but that, too, is in the eye of the beholder. Truthfully, as a Christian, I got more food for thought out of this book than I did Gibson's flagellant film.

Derek McCaw

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