Screen Reviews

The Passion of the Christ

directed by Mel Gibson

starring Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Luca Lionello

Newmarket Films

Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked The Passion of the Christ will be a true test of faith for its Christian audience. Within 45 minutes, nonbelievers and those of weaker resolve will begin contemplating fleeing the popcorn-strewn pews, leaving only the most devout – or the most steely of stomach – to be absorbed in rapture.

Unfortunately, in The Passion’s case, the line between rapture and sadism is very, very thin.


Luckily, for a review’s sake, there’s no such thing as a “spoiler” for the story that just about everyone on the planet knows the rudimentary details of, so we can cut straight to the bloodletting. Sentenced to a severe beating by Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), Jesus (Jim Caviezel) – who’s already been beaten to a pulp and fallen off a bridge – gets a truly nasty caning. When his wine-drinking Roman tormentors realize that the man is still standing, out come a few sets of metal cat o’ nine tails. Gibson’s cameras linger as the blades cut and yank at Jesus’ flesh, in a drawn-out, minutes-long sequence – watched by Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) – that would nauseate Joe Pesci fans. And that’s just the beginning.


If you think that The Passion of the Christ will be controversial only for its alleged anti-Semitism, think again. There is more blood in this flick than 10 Hammer films, Sam Peckinpah’s directorial catalogue, and Pacino’s Scarface combined. Actually, those of questionable sanity could and probably will count how many blows and cuts Jesus absorbs in the same fashion as those who have counted the number of times the word “fuck” was uttered in Scarface. Some film-savvy viewers might find it disturbing that the gruesome Passion – a film that should absolutely NOT be seen by children, regardless of their parents’ good intentions or faith – somehow garnered an “R” rating, when Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film, The Dreamers was labeled “NC-17” for nudity and sexual content.

Blood aside, the burning question remains: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Well, let’s just say that some Jewish clerics – or Jewish onlookers, or Romans, or Jesus’ disciples Judas (Luca Lionello) and Peter (Francesco De Vito) – don’t look so good in Gibson’s version of Christ’s last days on earth. Head cleric Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) screams for Jesus’ crucifixion, and though there is clearly dissension amongst Palestine’s Jewish hierarchy and plenty of wailing by Jesus’ followers, no one around lifts a finger to save their Savior from his preordained fate.

In an interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson said that this is not an anti-Semitic film, a “passion play.” Though Catholicism, Christianity and Judaism have not always been bosom buddies (see: various Inquisitions, WWII), Gibson contended that to be an anti-Semite is contrary to Catholic edicts and Christian teachings. He acknowledged that there are misguided souls out there that are hell-bent on hating Jews, but denied that his film would ignite hatred, or fan any flames that were already burning.


Though many viewers will agree that the film is not anti-Semitic in nature, one has to examine Gibson’s interpretation of Christ’s condemnation. Gibson’s camp contends that the film is historically accurate. If Pontius Pilate was indeed more or less coerced into killing Jesus by some Jewish leaders and a hysterical mob, then Gibson is just relaying unfortunate facts. Gibson defended his portrayal of Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate to Sawyer, in essence saying that he didn’t need to go to great lengths to make Pilate seem wicked, that everyone knows that he was a bad man.

Bad man at heart or not, Pilate turns out to be the only fellow resembling a good guy in The Passion. After seeing the bloody man before him, Pilate chastises Jesus’ captors – namely, the evil Caiphas – for punishing the prisoner before a just trial. The governor – fearing another uprising and tormented by a quickly-escalating dilemma – soon finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Pilate refuses to try Jesus’ case, deferring to whimsical and whacked-out King Herod. When a laughing Herod decides not to kill Jesus and sends him back to Roman custody, Pilate somewhat acquiesces to the Jewish leaders’ demands, and orders a beating. When a terribly mutilated Jesus is later presented to him, Pilate is visibly upset at his soldiers’ brutality. But mutilation isn’t enough for Caiphas and his cohorts; Pilate then offers them a choice between crazy killer Barrabas and Jesus, and Caiphas and the gathered crowd elects to set Barrabas free. Frustrated, Pilate finally and reluctantly agrees to Jesus’ crucifixion.

And moviegoers will see all the aspects of Jesus’ final torture • the hauling of a 300 pound cross a couple of miles up a small mountain (long before this point, the Romans should have realized that they’re not dealing with a mere mortal), more beatings, the nailing to the cross, the screams, an eyeball-plucking crow, the crimson-stained sand.

Gibson had a fantastic advantage in making this movie – there was already a compelling script and dialogue on hand (actually, four or more scripts – the Passion is an eyebrow-raising amalgamation of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Script in hand, Gibson chose to spend more of his time and money on camera work itself. Filmed in Italy and subtitled in English (the ancient Aramaic and “street Latin” are spoken) The Passion of the Christ resembles an exquisitely filmed series of often blood-spattered iconic paintings, with lots of slo-mo and more than a little mysticism. Gibson’s Satan is a spooky, androgynous creep; “Mad Max” magnificently captures Judas Iscariot’s terrifying rollercoaster-ride to suicide; the super-Catholic filmmaker pans over Mary’s and Magdalen’s faces again and again. Though there is probably 90 minutes of bloodletting, Gibson does throw in some beautifully-filmed flashbacks from various characters’ points of view, flashbacks that are much too brief and far between.


Those recollections underscore another burning question. What exactly is Mel Gibson’s purpose in making such a horrific film? Surely, it won’t serve as a recruiting tool; The Passion’s violence may cause some to be wary of a religion so obsessed with a man’s torturous sacrifice. If Gibson truly wanted to spread the Gospel – or to avoid the need for blessed barf bags – he might have used his Oscar-worthy cinematography to concentrate on more peaceful and intellectually-stimulating avenues, such as Christ’s formative years, or the events leading up to his betrayal.

But, no, Gibson chose to create the ultimate passion play by re-creating the ultimate martyr’s sacrifice in graphic, bloodbath detail. After staggering out of theatres, some non-Christians may wonder, just what was the point of Jesus’ cruxificion? Was it to absolve mankind of its sins? Was it to fuel two thousand years’ worth of shame and guilt and war and hatred? Was it to re-establish God’s bona fides as the Supreme Being? Was it to make a very talented actor and filmmaker a pile of cash, and relieve him of some personal turmoil, all in one slashing stroke?

Burning questions abound; while they are being debated, let us pray that this overwhelming Passion doesn’t stir the wrong emotions in the more misguided of our brethren.

The Passion of the Christ:

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