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"A powerful, artistic expression of one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian religion."
"(Prefers) to stay focused on painful suffering and anguish to tell its story."
"And whether you agree or disagree, the passion was unshakably real."
The Passion of the Christ  

Cast

Jesus, the Christ: James Caviezel
Mary: Maia Morgenstern
Mary Magdalene: Monica Bellucci
Pontius Pilate: Hristo Shopov
Caiaphas: Mattia Sbragia
Judas: Luca Lionello
Claudia: Claudia Gerini
Gesmas: Francesco Cabras
Satan: Rosalinda Celentano
Review March 2004

"You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them." So says Jesus to his disciples before giving himself up and saving us all from sin. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that Jesus loved us so much that He willingly died in disgrace, suffering pain for our sins. But unfortunately, this crucial theme stays somewhat hidden, buried beneath the brutality and bloodshed that is "The Passion of the Christ." The film is a horrific depiction of Jesus' final hours, from the floggings and beatings to the hateful antagonism, all the way up to the painful Crucifixion. Yet within all of this graphical detail, director Mel Gibson breaks new ground, showing the Stations of the Cross from a more realistic, believable perspective. Though definitely not a film for everyone, particularly the faint of heart, "The Passion of the Christ" is a powerful, artistic expression of one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian religion.

The film depicts the final twelve hours of Jesus' life, beginning in the Garden of Olives. Here, Jesus meditates after the Last Supper and resists the temptation of Satan. And here, he is arrested by a group of Roman soldiers acting on information from the traitorous Judas Iscariot. Taken within the walls of Jerusalem, Jesus is beaten, spit upon, and accused by a large group of Pharisees. He is accused of blasphemy, and most specifically, acting as a fictitious king - The King of Jews. With his mother Mary watching, he is then presented in front of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Palestine, for judgment. However, Pilate can find no credible evidence to corroborate the Pharisees' story. And rather than act without cause, he defers to a higher authority, that of King Herod.

But the frivolous Herod refuses to pass judgment as well. He sees Jesus as more of a crazy man than a serious threat. And, in turn, sends the Nazorean back to Pilate for the final decision. Unfortunately, this puts Pilate in a quagmire. Fearing political repercussions and a possible uprising, Pilate realizes he must do something. So, instead of condemning Jesus to death, he orders his soldiers to inflict punishment in a public arena, but with explicit instructions not to maim him. With his mother and friends watching, Jesus is lashed and beaten until barely recognizable. Covered in blood and hundreds of scars, Jesus is presented in front of Pilate one last time. Yet even after all of his suffering, the Pharisees still demand an end to his life.

Unable to pass judgment, Pilate once again defers. But this time, he allows the people to decide. They can free one prisoner - the villainous Barabbas or the passive Nazorean. Led by Caiaphus, leader of the Pharisees, the people free Barabbas and condemn Jesus. Presented with a crown of thorns, Jesus is given a cross and ordered to carry it through Jerusalem up to Golgotha, where he is to be crucified. On the way, he is kicked and beaten by the Romans, he stumbles to the ground repeatedly, he shares the burden with Simon, and he is visited at various points by Veronica and his mother. Finally, at Golgotha, he is nailed to the cross and left to die. Overcoming one final temptation from Satan, Jesus fulfills his ultimate purpose - to save mankind from sin.

"The Passion of the Christ" is first and foremost, a concept piece. And it is untraditional in the sense of a structured story with developed characters. Sure, the story and characters are widely recognized in Christian circles, but the film doesn't attempt to enlighten or elaborate for those outside. Instead, it merely acts as a reproduction of Jesus' final hours as shockingly honest and graphic as possible. Adapted by director/producer Mel Gibson along with Benedict Fitzgerald, the screenplay is derived from the Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And although it is a faithful adaptation of the scripture, it doesn't give us any sense of who Jesus was, what the reasoning was behind his sacrifice, who Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot, and others were, and any other crucial details of Jesus' 33-year life. No, it does not enlighten with teachings or explanations, preferring instead, to stay focused on painful suffering and anguish to tell its story.

All of that said, I found the film to be completely riveting. Much like Gibson's "Braveheart," "The Passion" is a visual and audible marvel. Cinematically, Gibson utilized the camera craft of Caleb Deschanel, known for such magnificent works as "The Right Stuff" and "The Natural." To get the right look and feel, Gibson asked Deschanel to replicate the paintings of Italian Baroque artist, Caravaggio, whose works like "Supper at Emmaus" reveal a remarkable contrast of light and dark as the apostles react to the teachings of Jesus. The end result is a stunning portrait, from the opening scene in the Garden of Olives with moonlight and fog to the soft hues of the Last Supper to the sweaty, blood spilled journey to Golgoroth. Though oftentimes graphical in nature (Caravaggio's paintings were just as detailed), the images are powerful reminders of his sacrifice and are guaranteed to linger well after the house lights come on.

One of the most impressive elements of the film was the decision to use the language spoken at the time. I cannot emphasize how significant this is - hearing the scripture spoken in its native tongue, listening to Jewish characters converse in Aramaic (specifically Western Aramaic), and hearing Romans quarrel in Street Latin. It's what makes international films so real and yet, so mysterious. And particularly in this case, it adds an extra layer of authenticity that elevates the film from a Western reproduction into an ethereal or spiritual experience.

Although short on introductions, the film's strength lies in its conviction. Jesus' final hours of torment are captured in excruciating detail by James Caveizel, who endured seven hours of make up sessions daily, to replicate the scars and wounds the savior carried. Caveizel is outstanding as the Christ, showing purity of heart and unwavering faith in spite of misery. And his eyes tell the story, despite a lack of available dialogue. Yet, when dialogue is spoken, it turns out to be the most powerful moments in the film - those moments that flashback to the beautiful scenes of Jesus and Mary, the Last Supper, the saving of Mary Magdalene, etc. And it makes you wonder how incredible the film would have been if more of these moments were allowed to shine through.

Many, undoubtedly, will be appalled by the violent nature of the film. It's gruesome, barbarous, and somewhat sadistic. And the blood soaked, lacerated flesh of Jesus' body may be unbearable to watch, especially after the mid-way point. But the shocking brutality is not expressed without reason and I do not believe Gibson's purpose is to promote anti-Semitism or violence and hatred. Rather, through the grim details, one can understand the magnitude of the sacrifice and develop a better appreciation.

For me personally, it was an eye-opener. Raised as a Catholic, I remember explicitly how the Stations of the Cross were depicted, almost fairy tale like. And ironically, during auditions, all of the boys wanted to be soldiers, carrying the whips and chains. Very few wanted to be the savior of mankind. And somehow, through it all, the event lost its meaning. Now, watching this film's gory details, it's hard not to be affected. It's hard not to be moved. The crucifixion is much more real, unlike anything we've seen before, from 1927's silent film "The King of Kings" to George Stevens' classic, "The Greatest Story Ever Told." And while it is disturbing in many aspects, the best outcome the film can achieve is one of debate and further interest. Says Gibson, "One of the greatest hopes I have for this film is that when audiences walk away from it, they will be inspired to ask more questions."

The word 'passion' originates from early Latin to mean suffering after inflicted pain; in particular, the suffering Jesus incurred following the Last Supper up to the Crucifixion. Therefore appropriately titled, "The Passion of the Christ" is a moving, unforgettable experience that emphasizes that passion. While not for everyone, it is sure to generate a fair share of controversy much like Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ." For, to accept Christianity, one must accept the Passion. Not as a film, but as a belief. And in doing so, one person's perspective may differ from another's. Just like Mel Gibson's. The film is utterly subjective in this regard, utilizing violence and brutality to make a point - that Jesus' sacrifice was not a trivial matter. And whether you agree or disagree, the passion was unshakably real.



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