Sunday, October 5, 2008


Oscar winning "Braveheart" director Mel Gibson sets a whole new standard for Biblical epics in his "The Passion of the Christ" (**** out of ****), an inspiringly original but incredibly visceral account of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth between his arrest in Gethsemane and his crucifixion at Golgotha. Everything that everybody's told you about this two hour & six minute, sincerely made, moodily filmed, but sadomasochistic saga rings true. However, "The Passion" does NOT qualify as remotely anti-Semitic. Sure, it is blatantly Anti-Pharisee, but not anti-Semitic. Anybody who calls "The Passion" anti-Semitic is naïve beyond belief. The anti-Semitism accusation is so general as to be inconsequential. You can condemn the actions of a handful of men (in this case the self-righteous Pharisees), but you cannot condemn an entire race of people (in this case Jewish) for the actions of a heinous few. Indeed, several Jewish characters in "The Passion" come to Jesus' aid. Labeling "The Passion" as anti-Semitic is as ludicrous as describing The Bible as anti-Semitic. Were these sentiments not sufficient, the central message of Gibson's "Passion" pleads for the audience to forgive your enemies.

The violence registers off the Richter scale. The torture scene where the Roman soldiers compete to inflict the most damage on the Son of God gives new meaning to gratuitous violence. Okay, isn't violence in any form gratuitous? In this instance, gratuitous violence suits the situation, because the torture and crucifixion of Jesus were about as gratuitous as violence can get. Nevertheless, chances are you may not survive this torture scene, especially if you haven't seen a gory R-rated movie. The graphic crucifixion scene reminds us of the heartless savagery of public executions in New Testament times, too. Gibson must have spilled several gallons of Karo syrup mixed with red food coloring for this scene as well as the 45-minute flogging scene to emphasize the violence as it has never been stressed before in spectacles like "King of Kings" (1961) and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Perhaps the only movie to rival Gibson's "Passion" for its documentary realism is the obscure 1966 Italian art film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" that portrays Jesus as an activist.

The largely unknown cast adds to the authenticity. Actor Jim Caviezel's exploits as the cinematic Jesus have been well-documented in the news media. Indeed, he took an accidental lashing during the scourging scene and nearly passed out from the impact. Later, lightning struck him on the cross. Happily, throughout "The Passion," Caviezel delivers a nuanced performance that never overshadows his messiah character. Unlike most Jesus movies, "The Passion" gives us a Christ who looks and behaves as an ordinary individual. This Jesus isn't a blond, blue-eyed loafer with shaven armpits in an immaculate white robe. Gibson shows Jesus the carpenter finishing up a table. When his mother Mary (Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern) brings him a bowl of water, he splashes it on her in an example of a playful mother a son relationship. This unusual scene of Jesus clowning is a welcome relief from those sanitized and solemn depictions of Christ as a man with no sense of humor. Earlier, Caviezel gives us a glimpse of Jesus' humanity in Gethsemane when he chides his drowsy disciples for failing to stay awake. At the same time, this Jesus is no weakling. During his first encounter with Satan, Jesus stomps the Devil's snake into the ground and gives Lucifer a dirty look. By the end of "The Passion," Caviezel doesn't have to act and looks virtually unrecognizable under all the blood, gore, and crown of thorns. Aside from Caviezel, who’s acting credits include "Angel Eyes," "Frequency," and "The Thin Red Line," Gibson wisely cast no-name actors. As Mary Magdalene, a tastefully subdued Monica Bellucci of "The Matrix Reloaded" is the only other big-name Hollywood refugee. Hristo Shopov takes top honors for his thoughtful performance as the conflicted Pontius Pilate, while Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano of "The Other" makes a creepy, androgynous Satan. She is enough to send a shiver up or down your spine. Collectively, however, the actors who impersonate the sadistic Roman soldiers give the movie its gut-wrenching quality with their savage shenanigans, especially when they flip the cross over to beat the protruding nails sideways. These guys give new meaning to evil!

Loosely based on the Synoptic New Testament gospels as well as the book of John along with the Catholic Church's 14 Stations of the Cross, "The Passion" champions celluloid realism, but falls short of strict theological authenticity. Reportedly, Gibson also relied on the visions of two nuns: the 17th century Mary of Agreda and the 18th century Anne Catherine Emmerich. What "Saving Private Ryan" did for W.W. II movies; what "Pulp Fiction" did for crime movies, what "Star Wars" did for science fiction movies, "The Passion" does for Biblical epics. The late movie director Cecil B. DeMille, who made both versions of "The Ten Commandants," would stand up in his grave and applaud Mel Gibson for reinventing the genre. When the actors speak, they utter their lines in either Latin or Aramaic to give this chronicle a convincing sense of historicity. Don't worry, the subtitles are easily read. Ironically, for a movie about Christ, "The Passion" doesn't preach as much as you might expect. Instead, Gibson lets the visuals tell the story. He intersperses several flashbacks throughout, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper, but "The Passion" focuses largely on the agony of Christ. Other characters that appear in "The Passion" as they have never before been seen include Herod (played as a cretinous homosexual) and the despicable Barabbas (nothing like the Barabbas that Anthony Quinn played in the 1961 movie.) The script by Gibson and scenarist Benedict Fitzgerald of TV's "In Cold Blood" doesn't provide a literal transcription of Biblical events, but present a poetic reenactment on a heretofore reverential but imaginative scale. One of the more touching flashbacks shows mother Mary reacting to young Jesus falling down and hurting him (something never mentioned in scripture). Gibson inserts this flashback into a scene where Jesus falls under the burden of the cross while Mary watches. Certain scenes will give you goose-bumps, especially when the demonic children chase Judas (Italian actor Luca Lionello) into the desert where he commits suicide. In another scene, a door flies open, but the effect is such that you want to jump. In many ways, "The Passion" resembles a horror movie, until the last few minutes when the Resurrection occurs.

If you watch movies for recreation, "The Passion" may be more than you counted on seeing. If your faith drives you to watch "The Passion," you may find yourself sorely tested, particular when those Roman soldier wield their scourges. Whether you're saved or secular, "The Passion" remains a seminal movie for our times. Churchgoers will revel in its heightened realistic portrayal of an event that previous movies have been too lily-livered to show, while secular filmgoers can savor the archetypal sequence of events that Hollywood recreates on a regular basis for its own pseudo messiah heroes. Despite some minor technical flaws which you may miss because you're caught up in the action, "The Passion of the Christ" emerges as a cinematic revelation.

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