The Passions of the Christ
review by Elias Savada, 27 February 2004

True Story

I awoke this morning troubled with the violently repugnant imagery and overwhelming, cruel power of producer-director Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, even though it has been several days since my one, and probably only, viewing of the film. The hype, the controversy, and now the release on Ash Wednesday of the Greatest Story Ever Told…according to Mel (who co-wrote the screenplay with Benedict Fitzgerald, a screenwriter adept at literary adaptations) has been a struggle to examine on a strictly literal or cinematic level. Friends who know I'm an occasional film critic have asked me my opinion. At other times, there has been smaller discussions within some of the critics' circles to which I belong. This is not a film to be dismissed lightly.

Nor is it a film that can be reviewed, or watched, like most others. Rated R, for "sequences of graphic violence," it's nearly endless, slow-motion, close-up observation of the pummeling, flagellation, and other flesh-rending attacks on the man who would be the son of God is never as violently poetic as Saving Private Ryan's opening battle sequence, but it is more than thrice as long. Parents are warned that they should not bring their children to this film (without at least viewing it once themselves); it's affect may be even more traumatic on younger, pre-teen minds.

Did I like it? No. It's a relentless, frightening, agonizing propaganda effort adapted from the New Testament (i.e., the Biblical gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) an influenced by Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), an Augustian nun and mystic. Did I say relentless? I meant RELENTLESS. The only respites during the film's last, ever-agonizing 90 minutes are a handful of flashbacks to calmer times in the life of Jesus, as a child and later grown, that director of photography Caleb Deschanel, a four-time Oscar nominee, shoots in a softer, catch-your-breath frame. Otherwise the torturous trek to the cross is so over-realistic (including dialogue only spoken in Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles accompanying) that that it will turn most devoutly Catholic patrons to emotional tears, and turn the stomachs of other nominally religious viewers. Why? Because in the course of a two-hour visitation on the scripture, you are presented with an agonizing vision of Jesus of Nazareth's last 12 hours leading up to and including his painful nailing to the cross. I'm praying that most of the Catholics who see the film remember that God (who, unlike an eerie Satan, is missing in action from the cast) planned the crucifixion to salvage humanity, and that Jesus, well aware of the ultimate salvation that lay ahead, puts up no resistance to his tormentors, the Jews or the Romans, who both share in the torture.

That the Jews, collectively, are once again blamed for the death of Jesus is not a point that can be handled in an easy-going manner, and there will be more than a handful of people who find the film abhorrently anti-Semitic. I am more concerned about how the film might affect simpler minds to do hateful things. While the Vatican has downplayed their role in the centuries-old debate about the Jewish involvement in the death of Christ, the tragedy of The Passion of the Christ might be in how it might persuade the wrong type of individual to act in an unexpected manner. Film can be a very persuasive medium for all the wrong reasons. Some kid watches Jackass the Movie and immature adolescents are imitating the outlandish, dangerous stunts in communities in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Florida. It's not a big stretch to believe that there will be some under-educated, even ignorant, viewer who will construe Passion as grounds to fight back against the Hebrews for the role they purportedly had in this tale of agony and, too little, ecstasy. Enough blood has already been shed.

There are no "based on a true story" taglines seen at the start of The Passion of the Christ, but many will accept this as the gospel. Remember, this is a propaganda film with the calculated power to evangelize. I'm not learned enough to make any claim on how "accurate" Mr. Gibson is to prevailing Catholic feelings, but the wide brushes of extended realism in which he paints this film will undoubtedly influence thousands. The Passion is ultimately a very personal effort to put a visual picture on a story that has riled theologians for centuries. Experts stewed in various religious backgrounds have often considered the death of Christ a Jewish atrocity and cause for centuries of persecution. Gibson makes no effort to whitewash. And while not your typical Hollywood production (although the crew and cast—Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as Mary, and Monica Bellucci as Magdalen—are highly professional), it is a high octane project that has stroked the established studios all the wrong ways and created such a contempt that all the major distributors declined to release the film. Gibson hired Newmarket Films (which distributed or platformed Memento, Donnie Darko, Whale Rider, Y Tu Mama Tambien, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Monster) to handling the bookings of the film, and opening day and pre-release private screenings alone brought in more than $27 million. Thanks to the power of the masses and the support of the Catholic church, the $30-million film is a guaranteed financial success (it became one on its second day of release), and the eventual DVD sales will make the winnings in the last Mega-Million lottery look like chump change.

This is the True Gibson Story version of the death of Christ, in all is re-created gory.


Directed by:
Mel Gibson

Jim Caviezel
Maia Morgenstern
Monica Bellucci
Hristo Jivkov
Hristo Naumov Shopov
Rosalinda Celentano
Luca Lionello
Mattia Sbragia

Written by:
Benedict Fitzgerald
Mel Gibson

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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