The Passion of the Christ
May 20, 2004
Starring: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Claudia Gerini, Maia Morgenstern, Sergio Rubini, Toni Bertorelli, Roberto Bestazzoni, Francesco Cabras, Giovanni Capalbo, Rosalinda Celentano, Emilio De Marchi, Francesco De Vito, Lello Giulivo, Abel Jefry, Hristo Jivkov,
Whether you saw The Passion of the Christ at the cinema or not, one thing you will certainly already know thanks to the British tabloid frenzy – that there’s a lot of blood and a lot of controversy to be found in Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the hours leading up to the ‘death’ of Jesus Christ. Any subject dealing with religion immediately gets the media and god-fearing Americans foaming at the mouth; one with delight and one with outrage. So, forgetting all the headlines like ‘Goriest Mainstream Movie Ever Made!’ and ‘Mel Hates Jews!’, viewed objectively is the film actually any good? Well, the answer is yes and no.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel brings a whole manner of familiar biblical paintings to life, whether it’s Jesus being betrayed by Judas in a moonlit clearing or – and I hope I’m not giving anything away here – the bloody hill-top crucifixion itself. And every beating, every whip slapping on naked flesh, every nail driven into Jesus’s body is shown with such graphic realism that even the most jaded gore-hound will be wincing in their seat. Kudos must also go to Gibson for keeping the original Aramaic language with subtitles rather than going the easy route and having his international cast speak English (Bellucci would be a bit of a sore thumb with her trademark French purr). Caviezel is the perfect choice as Jesus, both in appearance and charisma (remember his breakthrough role as a philosophical soldier in The Thin Red Line?) but as good as he is, he’s mostly required to flinch and moan as he’s beaten over the course of two sadistic hours.
Which leads us to the bad points. If you believe the bible is ‘the greatest story ever told’, then taking a small-yet-important chunk such as the crucifixion and focusing on nothing else, the film ultimately feels like the middle part of a longer, more complete story. Viewed objectively we never get a sense of why Jesus is so important in the first place – he heals a soldier’s ear early on but that’s about it – or why the Jews want him dead so badly. Said Jews obviously feel threatened by him, but because we haven’t seen their initial ideological confrontation, they just come off as blood-thirsty heathens who want the new bloke out of their city. We’re also required to believe that Jesus just let’s all the violence happen because ‘they (the soldiers) don’t know what they’re doing’, but perhaps that’s a religious hoo-ha rather than a directorial one, so we’ll move on quickly to…
…John Debney’s score which is pretty much what you’d expect: choral moaning and triumphant orchestral swells dominate, but so much of the film relies on the visual impact that you don’t realise just how effective his score is until the second viewing.
You have to admire Gibson’s naive change of tack – if you told someone in Hollywood ten years ago that Mel ‘Lethal Weapon’ Gibson was going to spend a large bulk of his own money on a film about Jesus Christ, you’d have been laughed out of town. And for a while it did seem that everybody’s favourite leading man had committed career suicide (‘The Passion Of The Christ’? Is that even grammatically correct in this day and age?) until the whole world fled to see the film for themselves, either because they were religious or just plain curious about the reported violence, and made it one of the highest-grossing movies ever made.
The film is powerful but uneven, brilliant but clichéd, beautiful but ugly. But first and foremost it got everybody talking and questioning, well, the meaning of life, which is an impressive achievement for any piece of art. It will stick with you, for better or worse. Let’s just hope next time Mel remembers to put in a first and third act.