The Passion of the Christ
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E dir Mel Gibson
scr Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson
with James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Hristo Jivkov, Francesco De Vito, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Luca Lionello, Mattia Sbragia, Rosalinda Celentano, Luca De Dominicus, Jarreth Merz
release US 25.Feb.04; UK 26.Mar.04
04/UK 2h07

Via Dolorosa: Caviezel carries the cross (above) while Belucci, Morgenstern and Jivkov watch (below).

Flashback: Caviezel with Morgenstern (above), and at the Last Supper with De Vito and Jivkov (below).

The Passion of the Christ Movies about Jesus Christ tend to ignite almost everyone who watches them (and quite a few who don't). Mel Gibson's extremely personal film stays uncannily faithful to both biblical text and Catholic tradition, so to call this film anti-semitic is to say the same thing about New Testament (actually, Gibson toned down the Gospels in this sense). Meanwhile, it can be argued that the extremely graphic violence is only a hint at the historical accounts of how Romans treated convicts. But the story is the thing, and Gibson's makes it clear that Jesus goes willingly through this for a specific purpose.

The story follows the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus (Caviezel), as he's betrayed by his follower Judas (Lionello). The Jewish religious leader Caiphas (Sbragia), terrified that Jesus is undermining his authority, takes him to the Roman ruler Pilate (Shopov) for judgement. But Pilate doesn't want to get involved in a local scuffle. He thinks having Jesus brutally flogged will end the riot. But the crowd bays for blood, so Pilate relents and orders his crucifixion. Jesus' mother Mary (Morgenstern), as well as his closest followers John, Peter and Magdalen (Jivkov, De Vito and Bellucci), watch all of this in horror. While the spectre of Satan (Celentano) laughs with glee.

Gibson is obviously striving for authenticity, having the actors speak ancient Aramaic and Latin and filling the film with images that recall classical artwork and iconography. This dark, lushly textured visual style makes the film look like a baroque religious thriller, especially when combined with horrifically graphic gruesomeness. This is basically a two-hour movie about one man being beaten, tortured and executed by one of the most vicious methods in human history. But of course, Gibson has a point in all this.

He's telling a powerfully emotional story about redemption. While Caviezel has little to do besides writhe in agony and utter the familiar lines, he also has a solid intensity in his encounters with Pilate and Herod (De Dominicus), and even in his cat-and-mouse interaction with Satan. But it's the other actors who shine, especially Shopov's Pilate and Morgenstern's Mary, as well as Gerini as Pilate's terrified but compassionate wife. The interrelationships make the film extremely involving--the way Mary and John cling to each other, Peter's denial and hot temper, Magdalen's overwhelming grief and gratitude, Judas' guilt and confusion. These things are heightened by a series of flashbacks, most of which are rather too reverent but add strongly to the characterisations.

In the end, the film remains strikingly true to the Gospels without watering them down to make the story family friendly. But it's not literal or gritty, this is poetic filmmaking drawing on--and continuing--a long tradition of religious art. The spirituality will appeal to believers, while the humour, pain, inhumanity and overwhelming love should speak to everyone. But you have to endure a lot of brutality to get there.

cert 18 themes, graphic violence 26.Feb.04

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... Barb C, Colorado: "I'm still processing my emotional, mental and spiritual response to this film. Words just don't come. I would not recommend it for children; the flogging of Jesus is so very graphic and unrelenting. Will be thinking a lot more about this one!" (19.Feb.04)

The Passion of the Christ Ron C, Colorado: "It is a tough film. Very personal. You want to yell, 'OK, you made your point!' during the beatings. But I guess that is the point. I told the USA Today paper that I was anxious to see it for myself to make my own judgement. The only quote they used was when I mentioned that I didn't get who was being criticized by the press--was it Mel, was it Christ, was it Christianity? They also asked if I was concerned about the violence and I told them I don't remember any discussion about the senseless killings in Terminator (sorry Arnold) or Unforgiven (sorry Clint), so why all of a sudden are we afraid of violence? Is it because it is real? That didn't get quoted." (23.Feb.04)

Barbara B, California: "It is excruciatingly violent. In reality his flesh would have been laid bare with the intensity of the floggings but I guess that is artistic license. It is very Catholic in the handling of Mary and the communion flashbacks during his crucifixion. Satan's role also has a strong Catholic flavor but I liked the way Mel did it. It was very well done and Mel was able to get his point across. While I would not see it again I am glad I did not miss it. Reviewers here gave it 5 stars, two thumbs up, etc. At least most of them did. It will certainly generate questions and discussions about who Christ is." (27.Feb.04)

The Passion of the Christ Ruth Ortiz, Florida: 5/5 "This film blows you away. It lets you think how ungratful human beings can be. This movie is excellent for the entire family, even though some people think it is not appropiate for children. My question is why not? When these children watch movies with more bloody scenes, more violence and even worse the strong language that some movies have. So in my opinion they can watch a movie from a real life, that will give this children an idea how much Jesus suffered for all us." (9.Apr.04)

Alan, Melbourne: 2/5 "Despite the hype and the multitude of positive reviews, I saw little to like about this film. The performances were average in the main - the Jewish High Priest constantly reminding me of the King Tut character in the Adam West/Burt Ward TV series of Batman! The Devil scooting around in the background was Hollywood at its worst, but the single scene that did it for me was where a younger Jesus was busy building a modern-height table in the coutyard, and Mary commenting it 'will never catch on' -- oh please! Stick to low-level action movies Mel; don't become as twisted as your old man." (21.Apr.04)

Tara Stark, Lincoln, Neb: "I have always believed that the torture the Lord endured for us was far more than any Hollywood movie has ever portrayed and I think Mel did his homework on this one. The sad reality is that the movie probably isn't even half as bad or violent as what our Lord actually endured. Jim Caviezel made the suffering so authentic it was like you were acctually there. The part was phisically challenging as well. This is not mel's movie, its GOD'S movie and thank God someone finally stood up and didn't care what anyone else said and obeyed God and did it! I was led back to the foot of the cross, which is spiritually where we all need to be!" (10.Oct.04)

2004 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall