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Passion of the Christ

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Passion of the Christ

Starring: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern
Director: Mel Gibson
Rated: R
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: February 2004
Genres: Drama, Religion

*Also starring: Monica Bellucci, Hristo Jivkov, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano, Francesco Cabras, Claudia Gerini, Ted Rusoff, Francesco Gabriele, Matt Patresi, Sergio Rubini

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

The wonderful critic David Thomson says in his "New Biographical Dictionary of Film" that Mel Gibson has "an irreverent sense of humor." With "The Passion of The Christ," Gibson seems to be responding as though to show his other side. The most publicized and controversial movie in years, "Passion" could have been narrated by Gibson at the very beginning where, with his "irreverent sense of humor," he'd say, "So you have arthritis so painful that can't walk? You've tried Viagra and Levitra and Cialis but you're still a wet noodle? You're in such agony from last night's boozing that you've sworn off the sauce? Now quit complaining. You want pain? I'll show you so much agony that you'll throw away your pills and rejoice in your good fortune."

The rugged Max Rockatansky (top cop Gibson goes on a high-speed revenge binch after the murder of his wife and child); the romantic hero of "Gallipoli" (youthful idealist meets a sad fate in World War I); the reckless con in "Mrs. Soffel" (the wife of the prison warden falls in love with the imprisoned Gibson); the roustabout in "Braveheart" (Gibson builds a grass-roots rebellion against the tyrannical King Edward I), and the role which gave him the most fame in the "Lethal Weapon" series (undercover cop as borderline psychotic) all have served to give Mel Gibson the feel for the rough and tumble of life in remote corners of the Roman Empire.

As depicted in Gibson's epic tale one which follows the classical unities of time (12 hours), place (Jerusalem and outskirts), and action (a single plot) "The Passion of The Christ" is epic in scope, a stunning bit of film-making which breaks from all previous renditions of the Gospels by concentrating on one of history's most infamous half-days. Gibson, as conservative a Christian as one can get without becoming a monk, illuminates the story of the torments of Jesus with characters who speak Aramaic (that language spoken by Jews of the time), and Latin (the all-but-dead tongue spoken by the Roman soldiers and governor of Roman Palestine). The subtitles are crisp, easy to read, and one of the director's few surrenders to modernism in that he originally wanted to eschew that well-established concession to an English-speaking audience.

The opening scenes are rich with foreboding. Jesus (Jim Caviezel), aware that God has chosen to use his violent death to wipe clean the sins of the world, is afraid and lets his disciples know that martyrdom would not have been his independent choice. Arrested by the Jewish police, he is escorted to Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia), a man whose power base is threatened by his prisoner's message of love, the need for a simple faith without ritual, a message which is gaining Jewish followers away from the rigid codes of the Pharisees. Caiaphas who has the ability to manipulate those who are still not convinced escorts Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), who refuses to punish a man he considers innocent, passes the buck to the foppish King Herod who passes it right back to Pilate. Pilate, concerned that a rebellion in his remote region would lead to his removal from power by Caesar, tries to pacify the mob by ordering a severe whipping. When Caiaphas demands nothing short of crucifixion, Pilate, both disgusted with the bloodthirsty mob and fearful for his own job, turns the prisoner over to the Roman soldiers for execution.

This segment of the film, which includes the regrets of Judas Iscariot who had told the high priests the location of Jesus in return for 30 pieces of silver (which he later throws back at Caiaphas in an orgy of self-hatred)-- concerns the political maneuvering that led to Jesus' condemnation. Either oddly or understandably depending on your taste in stories, critics have so far relegated the politics to the back-burner concentrating their attention on the severe punishment that Jesus endured at the hands of Roman soldiers, who by all rights should have nothing against the man. The soldiers are depicted as half-wits and drunkards, just the sorts of people whom we were assured in the opening scenes of Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" had the discipline and stoicism to turn back a horde of barbaric Germanic tribes.

During the remaining hours, the Romans giddy with the power to torment their prisoner for the pure sadistic joy not only force Jesus to carry the 300-pound cross (actually 150 pounds in this production) are seen as almost monolithic in their cruelty while even Caiaphas, whose fanaticisim results in the this explosion of violence is shown almost guilt-ridden for what he has done. Mary (Maia Morgenstein) appears now and then, both in flashbacks to happier days watching her son carve a table and as a weeping mother, obviously heartbroken to witness this orgy of destruction, while Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), the one metaphoric figure in this otherwise literal presentation of the Gospels, floats through the crowd, finally bellowing in disgust during the closing moments of the film depicting the Resurrection.

Though there's more violence in "Lord of the Rings" and in any number of Hollywood blockbusters going back even to the early Warner Brothers' cartoons, an audience can react as does a teen to a game on his X-box. There's nothing cartoonish about the lashings, at first by two muscular Romans, first with canes, then with cats-o'nine-tails. Ultimately not content with simply crucifying the man, soldiers continued the whippings all the way to Calvary.

The drama was shot in Rome's famous Cinecitta studios and in the 2000-year-old Italian town of Matera photographed by Caleb Deschanel most at nighttime as though to show the light fighting against the unrelenting darkness. Jim Caviezel, hardly a household name despite a sensitive performance in "Frequency" as man communicating with the past in order to save the life of his father, is not the most charismatic guy around, but does a creditable job with the Aramaic he is compelled to use throughout.

As for the charge of anti-Semitism: Gibson has successfully reenacted what he considers the fundamental truth of the Gospels: that while many Jews became followers of Jesus (after all, who made up the audience at the Sermon on the Mount?), those in power in the semi-autonomous Senate or Sanhedren, were prepared to resort to the ultimate punishment to stop the leader of a massive new following. However, what is important is how the audience will relate to the events shown. If "The Passion of The Christ" is shown in the Middle East where it is destined to be screened, some Muslims could easily interpret the story as proof that "the Jews" are up to no good. In the Western world, the possibility exists some will likewise see the story as confirming their own anti-Jewish feelings, while children, especially teen bullies, could exploit the film to continue their own sadistic agenda.

If people react irrationally after seeing "The Passion of The Christ," fault not Mel Gibson. The film is involving despite the diminishing returns of the floggings, a must-see not simply by true believers but by people of all faiths, no faiths, and feelings between.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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