The Passion of The Christ
Production Company: Newmarket Film Group
Director: Mel Gibson
Principals: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Rosalinda Celentano
Rating: R (sequences of graphic violence)
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMCom) -- After months of "trial in absentia," Mel Gibson’s daring and controversial film, The Passion of The Christ can finally speak for itself and be judged on its merits. And its merits are plentiful. Passion is possibly the most dramatically potent and emotionally charged biblical epics of all time. Writer and director, Gibson and his talented cast and crew have forged a film of rare power-but whether that power is spiritual or simply savage, will depend on the personal response of each individual viewer. And from what Gibson has said, that’s just what he was aiming for: a personal response. This film is all about things that are personal: Gibson’s personal artistic vision; the personal choices of the characters in the story; drawing audiences in for an up close and personal view of this harrowing event; the personal freedom to see the film or not; and finally, the very personal response of those who do. I have no way of predicting your response, but I can tell you about mine. The rest is up to you.
First, some basic facts about the film. This is not "The Greatest Story Ever Told" as constructed by Hollywood tradition. It’s not about the life of Jesus. It’s about his suffering and death. The film drops you into the middle of the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus (James Caviezel) is praying, and assumes you know why he’s there and what led up to that point. Secondly, the film’s dialogue is all in the languages of the period, Aramaic and Latin, supplemented by spare English subtitles. Finally, and most importantly, the film is violent. But not just violent, it’s gory, horror movie gory. If you cringed at the last ten minutes of Gibson’s own "Braveheart," ask yourself if you can stomach more than 90 minutes of graphic even sadistic violence against the condemned Jesus.
|Jesus (Jim Caviezel) in a scene from The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.|
According to Gibson, all of this was done to create a visceral, unrelenting and utterly believable film that would be experienced, not passively viewed. His goal was to make the suffering Jesus underwent real in order to show the depth of love it would take to endure such punishment for the sake of others. The sparse words from the Gospels tell us little about the extent of Jesus’ suffering prior to his crucifixion. They say he was "scourged" or flogged and that he was subjected to mockery and other violence. In the film, Gibson uses artistic license and some historical evidence to fill in the gaps. One result is a grueling depiction of the scourging that is destined, in my opinion, to be the most hotly debated aspect of the film. Crucifixion itself was a horrifying way to die-hence the modern word "excruciating" which comes from the Latin "to crucify."
For me, Gibson’s approach worked. From the depths of this great agony, I could appreciate the heights of His victory. From Jesus’ valiant struggle against the tempting Satan and His own doubts I gained a deeper understanding of the love that could say, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But for others, this graphic, unflinching approach may cross the line from edifying to repellant, or even numbing-evidence of Gibson’s career-long penchant for film-violence gone overboard. I personally found the violence in such acclaimed films as Reservoir Dogs and Face Off much harder to accept because of the lack of any redeeming context for the violence. I can certainly understand the complaints of mainstream critics who may not be familiar with how the death and resurrection of Jesus represent the culmination of his mission on earth. One prominent critic has called the film a "two hour death trip." But even for believers, this may be rough stuff. Gibson has said the message of the film is faith, compassion and forgiveness. I believe you can see that, but you need to wade through a lot of blood to get there.
Should the film have toned down the violence and included more of the ministry of Jesus? Perhaps. But its Gibson’s film, not ours. Although he intended to remain close to the Gospels, he is also up-front about the fact that this is his interpretation and his artistic vision. And that’s valid. The film is not scripture, but art, and every artist takes artistic license with what to show, and how to show it. Leonardo Da Vinci did it when he painted "The Last Supper," fleshing out his vast mural with his own artistic interpretation. So has Gibson, exercising his right as a filmmaker (not a minister, or theologian) to expand on the succinct narratives of the Gospels to fulfill his artistic vision. Some of these choices are debatable, such as the graphic violence, the devilish children who torment Judas and the constant presence of the ghostly, strangely androgynous Satan. But the real question is whether Gibson has used his artistic license to distort the message of Christ’s Passion. To me, he has not.
|Jesus (Jim Caviezel) sits with the apostles at The Last Supper in a scene from The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.|
I was also impressed with how even-handed the film was in its treatment of Jews. On balance, it’s the Romans who come across most savage. Instead of a film that demonized Jews, which I had read so much about, I saw a film that showed many Jewish leaders intent on quelling rising support for the threatening, upstart Jesus, but it also showed Jewish elders, even members of the Sanhedrin, step up to defend Him. The film showed a crowd of Jews calling for Jesus to be crucified. But we all know crowds can be cruel, and they can be manipulated. We’ve all been sickened by news of modern crowds shouting, "Jump!" to a desperate person perched on a ledge. The film takes pains to show the many sympathetic Jews who shout protests of Jesus’ treatment as he carries his cross to Golgotha. In possibly the film’s most stirring sequence, Simon of Cyrene (a Jew) is pulled from the crowd to help Jesus carry his cross. As the two men lock arms behind the cross, Simon becomes both compassionate and heroic, bearing the weight of the cross while supporting and comforting the stricken Jesus.
With so much debate about the context and content of the film, it would be easy and unfair to overlook its cinematic qualities. Gibson is a forceful storyteller with a keen cinematic eye. The film grabs you from the beginning and never lets go. As a director, Gibson is not subtle, and relies a little too much on slow-motion. But his ability to stage dynamic set pieces, like the trial before Pilate, creates an underlying sense of tension and energy that propel the movie, making its two hours move swiftly. Gibson’s use of flash-backs, including snippets from Jesus’ childhood and the Sermon on the Mount artistically enhances the poignancy of many moments and provides needed relief from the films tougher sequences. The most understated scene in the film-almost a reward for an emotionally exhausted audience- is the brief, serene final scene which unequivocally shows the risen Christ.
|Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and John (Hristo Jivkov) in a scene from The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.|
The cast, especially Caviezel as Jesus, and Maia Morgenstern as his mother Mary, is uniformly great, and the use of the ancient languages not only enhances the realism, but actually seems to pare the story down to it essence, and heighten the emotion. The authentic settings, stirring Middle Eastern flavored score and painterly cinematography all build to make this one of the most cinematically accomplished biblical films ever.
Which all raises the question, should you see the film? As I said, that’s up to you. I would caution anyone against underestimating the graphic nature of the violence. I would also discourage children from seeing it, or even younger teens, without their parents seeing it first. For those up to the challenge, this film could reveal emotional and spiritual riches, not just in its powerful retelling of the Passion story, but also within the hearts of those who see it.
If Gibson wanted to get people talking about the power and mystery of the Christian faith, just watch the news, listen at the water cooler or in the parking lot, and it’s obvious he succeeded. Even folks who won’t see the film are talking. Now is a good time for Christians to join the conversation.
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Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.