The increasingly frenzied controversy rustled up in recent weeks over
"The Passion of the Christ" has caught most all of the general public
by surprise, despite the very sad knowledge that a religious-themed
motion picture cannot be made in today's times without someone throwing
a baby fit simply because their beliefs do not coincide exactly with
the opinions of the cinematic work itself. Although the hubbub has
been notable on a historical level and single-handedly turned this
foreign-language art film into a box-office record-breaker (independently
made and financed for $30-million by Mel Gibson, it almost made back
the entire budget on opening day), it also turns out to be subjectively
unfounded. "The Passion of the Christ" is violent and blood-soaked,
but nowhere near the most graphically violent or blood-soaked I've
seen. The movie closely follows the words of the New Testament; for
those audience members who have a problem with its teachings, relax
and at least be satisfied that it is being faithful to at least one
widespread belief system. And as for those protesters screaming out
over supposed anti-Semitism, they clearly have missed the whole point altogether.
What one takes away from "The Passion of the Christ" likely will be
based on who they are, what they know, and what they think as they
make their way into the theater. The storytelling and characters,
vague and insular, do no favors for those with little knowledge on
the subject matter. You do not, however, have to be a devout Catholic
or Jew to appreciate and be affected by what filmmaker Mel Gibson
has accomplished with his dream project. Without following any certain
organized religion (I like to term my own personal religion as that
of "free-thinker"), I was moved by the undeniably powerful images
on display and found myself deeply sympathizing with the film's moral
of expressing unconditional love to all, despite the sins we commit
and our differences in the world. In the most polite terms possible,
certain religious sectors that lack open-mindedness and acceptance
could learn a thing or two from Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald.
Save for a handful of key flashbacks in his life, "The Passion of
the Christ" takes place wholly within the confines of the final twelve
hou rs leading up to Jesus of Nazareth's (Jim Caviezel) crucifixion.
Captured while seeking guidance from his Father in the garden of Gethesemane,
Jesus is feared by the self-righteous Pharisees, who are threatened
by his claim that he is the Messiah. Roman emperor Pontius Pilate
(Hristo Naumov Shopov) is torn. He does not share the Pharisees' extreme
viewpoint that Jesus should be put to death, but, fearing a revolt,
he finds himself allowing the torture and crucifixion of Jesus over
the more just execution of a confirmed murderer.
Other major characters figure into the limited timeline. Judas (Luca
Lionello) is so overcome with guilt after giving Jesus' whereabouts
away in exchange for money that it ultimately leads to his own suicide.
Apostle Peter (Francesco De Vito) denies knowing his teacher in a
selfish and dishonest bid to save his own life. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalen
(Monica Bellucci) and Jesus' mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern), are
devastated by the impending death of a loved one whom they can do nothing to save.
As admirable and technically staggering as "The Passion of the Christ"
is (more on this to come), it is far from a perfect motion picture.
The sporadic flashbacks offers too-fleeting glimpses into Jesus' life;
a loving moment he shares with his mother after crafting a wooden
table and his final speech during the Last Supper are devastating,
but most of the other past digressions are too simplistic to ratchet
much of an impression. Wide attention has been garnered from the film's
prolonged and gruesome depiction of Jesus' scourging and subsequent
crucifixion. While its portrayal is, indeed, detailed and graphic,
these sequences of torture (taking up roughly 90 minutes of its 127-minute
running time) overstay their welcome. So brutal and painstakingly
slow-moving is Jesus' scourging and death walk with the cross that
the viewer finally becomes immune to the violence and must question
if its wallowing on these scenes serves a definit e purpose or is
merely slasher movie-style exploitation. A wealth of footage could
have easily been left on the cutting room floor without having any
dire effect on its overall emotional weight.
Other sections are hauntingly beautiful and palpably threatening at
the same time. The opening scenes set in the atmospheric, fog-shrouded
garden of Gethsemane, and including Jesus' encounter with Satan (Rosalinda
Celentano), are frightening in how assuredly they burrow under your
skin. So is the final crucifixion and subtle climactic depiction of
his resurrection, so brave and superbly crafted that they impact the
viewer on both an emotional and spiritual level in a way the more
physically unsettling scourging lacks.
Bringing a level of truth and humanity to the proceedings is Maia
Morgenstern's breathtaking, tragic portrayal of Mary. Morgenstern
enlightens Mary with the believability of authentic motherly love
and regret that comes with having to witness your child's death 51;even
one she understands must come to pass. As for the work of Jim Caviezel
(2001's "Angel Eyes"), what is there to say except that his performance
is a powerhouse of difficult, exhaustive emotions. Physically, Caviezel
is flawless in his representation of Jesus' likeness, but he goes
one step further by also transcendently embodying his heart, his goodness,
his suffering, and his power to forgive.
Walking out of "The Passion of the Christ," the notion that most profoundly
stuck with me was how Jesus' death was just as foretold and his birth.
Jesus knew he had to die in order to carry out his Father's plan for
him, and he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of every
other living being on Earth. This is at the heart of the message "The
Passion of the Christ" shares—that one should be able to find it within
themselves to forgive and love everyone, even sinners and even their
own enemies—a nd so how anyone could call Gibson's filmic account
anti-Semitic is mindboggling in its confused narrow-mindedness. He
does not support bigotry, but criticizes its inclinations. "The Passion
of the Christ" is an epic motion picture, indelibly shot by cinematographer
Caleb Deschanel (2003's "Timeline") and scored by John Debney (2004's
"Welcome to Mooseport"), that may not have the force and conviction
to convert non-believers but may at least get viewers to open their
minds to its themes of love, acceptance, and self-sacrifice.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman