Wednesday, Feb. 25
"The Passion of the Christ" is the work of a Christian traditonalist. In depicting the last dozen hours in the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, Mel Gibson, who directs a script he wrote with Benedict Fitzgerald
, takes the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as literal truth. There is no allowance for metaphor or myth, no hint of contemporary interpretation. This is not "The Last Temptation of Christ", Martin Scorsese
's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis
' novel that speculates on the torments and self-doubts of Jesus. This movie is an act of faith.
And that is a two-edged sword. People will see what they want to see in a movie shorn of any point of view not in literal accord with the gospels. True believers will bear witness to holy writ. Others -- nonbelievers or even less literal-minded Christians -- will be troubled by the film's staunch adherence to a story line and characters that have been used by bigots to fuel hatred for centuries.
As the film arrives swathed in controversy over its near-pornographic violence and concerns about its potential to incite anti-Semitism, the opening weekend's boxoffice should surpass its reported $25 million cost. That combination of controversy, curiosity and conviction could continue the movie's good fortune for weeks to come.
The problem with focusing narrowly on the "passion" of Christ -- meaning the suffering and ultimate redemption in the final moments of Jesus' life -- instead of his ministry, in which he preached love of God and mankind, is that the context for these events is lost. The Crucifixion was not only the culmination of several years of religious teachings but the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to die for the sins of mankind.
True, many viewers know this "back story." Pity anyone though who comes to this movie without a knowledge of the New Testament. For them, a handful of brief flashbacks to earlier days will fail to do the trick. Yet even a Bible student might wonder why Gibson would choose to downplay the self-sacrifice and love that went into Jesus' submission to torture and death. The spiritual significance of the Crucifixion gets swamped in an orgy of violence visited upon Jesus' body. Indeed, it's doubtful any human being could remain conscious for his own execution were he to endure the level of physical abuse graphically depicted here.
This, then, is a medieval Passion Play with much better effects. Flesh is flayed in grotesque detail. Body fluids spurt in exquisite patterns. Slow motion captures any action or glance Gibson deems significant.
All the characters are portrayed in the extreme. Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is a weak and frightened political operative in a lonely outpost of the Roman Empire. His soldiers are half-witted sadists and buffoons. King Herod Luca De Dominicis
) is a foppish decadent. The Jews are a bloodthirsty rabble easily manipulated by the high priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia
) and other Pharisees, jealous of their political power and social control. (Gibson has removed a line, reportedly in an earlier version, in which one Jew shouts, "May his blood be on us".)
The two Marys, the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern
) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci
), are reduced to tearful onlookers. And, hard to imagine, the key figure here, Jesus himself (a game, blood-crusted Jim Caviezel), is such a punching bag for most of the movie that the filmmakers lose sight of his message. In early scenes and the flashback, Caviezel has the look and gravity to portray the warm and compassionate rabbi that Jesus was. But we get only these snippets of his humanity. (One bizarre flashback focuses solely on his former occupation, that of a carpenter.) More troubling is Gibson's decision to make Jesus into a victim of political intrigue, thus denying him his martyrdom.
Why do so many disciples follow this man? What does his promise of eternal life mean in the context of these events? Gibson's intense concentration on the scourging and whipping of the physical body virtually denies any metaphysical significance to the most famous half-day in history.
Technically, the film is a beauty. After a false start with music more befitting a horror film, John Debney's score acquires a chorus and builds brilliantly to the climax. Inspired by Caravaggio, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel
and costume designer Maurizio Millenotti
hew to a strict earthen palette of grays, browns, white, beige and burgundy. The play of shadow and light, especially the use of torches in interior scenes, presents stunning tableaus. Francesco Frigeri
's sets on the Cinecitta Studios lot and the use of the 2,000-year-old city of Matera beautifully capture the Middle Eastern world of that epoch without calling attention to the design itself.
Gibson's insistence that his actors learn the language of the period works very well. Using Aramaic for Jewish characters and street Latin for Romans, the movie puts us at a necessary remove to witness the biblical story. If only Gibson had chosen to highlight spiritual truth rather than physical realism.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenwriters: Mel Gibson, Benedict Fitzgerald
Producers: Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey
, Steve McEveety
Executive producer: Enzo Sisti
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Francesco Frigeri
Music: John Debney
Special effects makeup: Keith Vanderlaan
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: John Wright
Jesus: Jim Caviezel
Mary: Maia Morgenstern
Mary Magdalene: Monica Bellucci
Satan: Rosalinda Celantano
Caiphas, the High Priest: Mattia Sbragia
Pontius Pilate: Hristo Naumov Shopov
Claudia Procles: Claudia Gerini
Judas Iscariot: Luca Lionello
Running time -- 126 minutes
MPAA rating: R