Passion of the Christ, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/10/05 13:12:32

"All the realism of the Crucifixion without any of that pesky context."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Not being Catholic, I don’t quite get how an entire movie about Jesus can leave out the teachings, the messages of love and peace, even the whole resurrection thing. But Mel Gibson’s much discussed, often controversial “The Passion of the Christ” does just that. It narrows its focus to the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life and, most importantly, the brutal, bloody punishment he received. This thorough examination of just how much Jesus suffered is an important part of Catholic study and ritual, and Gibson’s film is extraordinarily faithful in its detail.

But there’s the film’s ultimate problem: it’s so obsessed with how Jesus suffered that it often forgets why. The whole dying-for-your-sins thing is relegated to minor passages thrown in between all that whipping. The film opens with a quote from Isiah: “By his wounds we are healed.” “The Passion” shows us the wounds, not so much the healing.

Which is fine if you’re a Christian who comes into the film knowing the whole story, but what of outsiders with a curious interest in Biblical epics? What if, like me, you’re not a particularly religious person but still enjoy a good story? Well then, you’re out of luck. Gibson, knowing his movie would appeal mainly to serious Christians (and, more specifically, Catholics with a firm knowledge regarding the Stations of the Cross), never bothers to expand his screenplay (co-written with Benedict Fitzgerald) to fill in any gaps, the cost being a lack of a complete narrative. Gibson’s story jumps right into the thick of things and doesn’t bother stopping for explanations; anyone who knows their New Testament won’t have much trouble knowing which of the unnamed disciples is which, but for everyone else, most of the movie won’t quite click as a story. Who’s who? Gibson hopes you know but doesn’t care if you don’t.

Which brings us, as all reviews of “The Passion” must, to anti-Semitism. For months, the film has been steeped up in heavy controversy: is the film anti-Jew? Does Gibson tell his story in such a way that it angrily shows how the Jews murdered Jesus?

I’ve heard both sides of the argument regarding anti-Semitism in this movie, and I’m afraid both sides may be right, kinda. Proving that the film is not hateful of the Jews is the fact that it’s only Caiaphas (played by Mattia Sbragia) and his fellow high priests that condemn Jesus to crucifixion, mainly because his claims of being the Messiah were seen as a threat to their own ways - it’s a story of the powerful protecting their status quo and freaking out over possible new truths. This film isn’t a condemnation of the Jewish people but of authority and those determined to keep it. (Just watch all those Roman soldiers who abuse their power to disgusting extremes, taking sadistic glee in every whipping.) And hey, let’s not forget all those other Jewish folks that fill the story with acts of kindness, like the poor guy who winds up carrying Jesus’ cross.

But let’s say for a second that you have zero knowledge of the Jesus story, and you walk into this film with fresh eyes. The lack of background regarding Caiaphas leaves him looking like a big jerk who just really, really wants Jesus to die, and soon. The Jewish priest goes so far as to contradict himself in a villainous manner; he claims that Jewish law forbids execution, but repeats that death is the only punishment suitable for Jesus. A sign that the corrupt and powerful are eager to fiddle with the law for their own means, or a sign that they held no respect for their law? The film does not attempt a solution to this, leaving the door open to less admirable interpretations.

In addition, the screenplay lightens the burden on Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), allowing his character to be more conflicted in his decisions regarding Jesus’ death sentence, and therefore ultimately not the one responsible. But where’s the fair time given to Caiaphas? Why can’t we see what went on with his decision making, as we do with Pilate? With the Roman leader, we see the juggling of political troubles and personal convictions; with the Jewish leader, all we see is some guy who’s desperate for a crucifixion. Easy to see how some would cry foul.

The trouble with the film, however, isn’t about the existence or nonexistence of anti-Semitism. It’s about story gaps. As much as I loved the lush production values, the rich musical score (from John Debney), and Gibson’s dedication to detail (which includes the incredibly ballsy move to have everyone speak in Aramaic and Latin, a decision that ups the ante on every Biblical film that will follow), it simply does not work plotwise. “The Passion” is a beautiful film, but an empty one.

I understand Gibson’s choices. Passion plays have long recreated Jesus’ pain and agony, and so “The Passion” gives us the bloodiest, goriest, flesh-rippingest film your churchgoing grandma will ever want to see. Gibson focuses on every lashing, every punch, every stumble with the attention of a faithful Catholic. Jesus fell three times? We see all three. Simon Peter denies his teacher thrice? You might as well put up a scoreboard, counting off his denials.

To deviate from any of this, to opt not to show, say, the third fall when not all three are really needed dramatically, would go against Gibson’s plan. The filmmaker wants to show Christ’s final hours in complete detail, and he wants to do nothing more. And so the film works on a religious level. The faithful who take great interest in this section of the Bible will thoroughly enjoy this movie. (OK, “enjoy” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean.) Those interested in this part of Jesus’ story, Christian or not, will admire Gibson’s intentions, and may even find something of interest in all that grimy, gory detail. It’s worth a peek if only because it continues on a grander scale what the equally controversial (albeit for different reasons) “The Last Temptation of Christ” began: the deglamorization of the Bible, the realization that life in 33 A.D. was probably a bit dustier than you’d gather from earlier, cleaner Biblical epics.

And yet, as a movie, I cannot recommend it. Not only for all the story problems I’ve already mentioned repeatedly, but also because, well, it stumbles as often as it soars. As beautiful the film can be at times, it can also turn into a colossal joke. Just watch the early scene involving Jesus’ arrest. Gibson turns the whole thing into - and I wish I were kidding here - a slo-mo fight scene. Here we are in the middle of the Book of John, and we’re suddenly watching the disciples get into a knife fight with some Romans, played out like it’s a battle scene from “Braveheart II.” It’s remarkably silly in its bad taste.

Gibson shows a love for dopey slow motion matched only by Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” only tackier. Jesus’ life is reduced to a few spare flashback scenes, several of which feature overly dramatic slo-mo that borders on the laughable. (One shot, seen in the trailer, has a tough-walking Christ kicking up dust like he’s Clint Eastwood.) And all that bloodshed we soon get is shot with a lens that’s less reverential than it is delighted by how cool all that spurting blood will look in widescreen. (Jesus’ ripped flesh becomes a horror make-up artist’s dream. This could be the first Bible movie to get a write-up in “Fangoria.” Faithful in its recreation? You bet. But there is such a thing as too much.)

Then there’s the cast. For every memorable performance (Claudia Gerini’s brilliant turn as Pilate’s emotionally conflicted wife is everything the rest of the film should have been), there’s a bland one, none blander than that master of dull, Jim Caviezel. Ignoring that Caviezel reinforces the old Jesus-as-lilywhite-hippie image (for a story set in the Middle East, there doesn’t seem to be that many brown people around...), the charisma-free star also continues his streak of being an insomniac’s dream actor. This is Jesus the Bland, monotonously rattling off his foreign language dialogue syllable by unknown syllable, pausing to become Jesus the Lame Overactor once the violence sets in.

Could a movie based entirely on the Passion and nothing more work as a story? Absolutely. Just not this one. We needed more background, more character development, more plot. Even the resurrection’s dismissed in a throwaway final scene; Gibson explains nothing here, assuming that we all know how this story ends - but did he have to make the key moment on which all of Christianity has its basis seem so joyless, so apathetic? Without the resurrection, the religion’s about nothing more than a nice guy who died. You’d think that Gibson, having spent two hours showing us how much Jesus suffered, would’ve bothered a bit more with the outcome of that suffering.

Like I said, devout Catholics and other assorted Christians and religiously curious will like this film for what it is, and to them I recommend it. And yeah, it’s kind of worth seeing just to see what a failed epic looks like; here’s a film for the cinematically inquisitive. But for everyone else, those looking for a more complete look at the life of Jesus, or even just a decent story based on an old book, well, “The Passion” is too sloppy, too unfinished. I commend Gibson for trying. I only wish he could have succeeded as well.

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