The Passion of the Christ

Laura Clifford 
The Passion of the Christ
Robin Clifford 
Director Mel Gibson, a fundamentalist Catholic (fundamentalists reject the modernizations of 1962's Vatican II), explores the last twelve hours leading to the crucifixion of Jesus (James Caviezel, "High Crimes") in "The Passion of the Christ."

After all the debate about this film - whether it is anti-Semitic, why Mel doesn't renounce his father's Holocaust denials, the rationale behind its pre-release screenings, even analysis of its theatrical rollout - what Gibson has delivered is his own passionate vision.  Undeniably the work of a man of deep faith, Gibson's Passion Play may not convert unbelievers, but it is likely to be profoundly moving for those brought up as Christians. And yes, "The Passion of the Christ" is brutally violent, but this viewer never found it to be fetishistic or obscene, as others have charged.

"The Passion of the Christ" begins in the Garden of Gesthemane where the apostles fret over the disturbed behavior of Jesus.  Jesus, in turn, is softly taunted by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano, "The Order"), a truly creepy grim-reaperish androgyne, with the impossibility of his task. In quick order, the wheels are put into motion when Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) delivers his treacherous kiss, paid for with thirty pieces of silver by Jewish High Priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia, "The Order").  Caiphas, unable to issue a death sentence, turns Jesus over to Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) for heresy.  Pilate, whose wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini, "Under the Tuscan Sun") begs him not to harm the holy man, attempts to get Herod to deal with the Galilean, but Herod declares the man crazy, not guilty, and Jesus is returned to Pilate.  Pilate then hopes to quell the mounting rebellion by sentencing Jesus to a scourging, a task the Roman soldiers take to extremes, almost flaying the man to death.  When Caiphas still demands crucifixion, Pilate offers to free either Jesus or the notorious murderer Barrabas.  The crowd chooses Barrabas.  Christ tells Pilate 'It is he who delivered me to you that has the greater sin,' and that his death has already been decided.  At this point, Gibson's film begins to follow the Twelve Stations of the Cross.

Although the crowd which gathers before Pilate screams with bloodlust, it is at this time that apostle Peter denies Jesus three times.  The scene comes across not as anti-Semitism, but as mob mentality.  The depiction of Caiphas can be read as a denunciation of any politicized religious leader and it only makes sense that Caiphas, who arranged for Jesus to be arrested secretly, would have ensured a crowd supporting his view was present before Pilate.  When Jesus is paraded publicly through the streets, the Jew Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz), drafted by the Romans to help carry the cross, demands mercy for Jesus and leaves Calvary a shattered man.

Other critics of the film, who have described it as a bloodfest with no spirituality, should look to the subtle and effective editing choices made here (editor John Wright, "Rollerball"). As Christ is prodded and beaten, his point of view falls on details of his torturers - a nail being hammered, the foot of a Roman soldier - jumping off points for flashback memories of jovial affection with his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern, extremely moving) or the washing of the apostles's feet.  These juxtapositions reinforce Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, where he preaches the importance of loving one's enemy.  Another moment works on three levels.  As Jesus is surrounded while dragging his cross, we see his point of view remembering of the procession of palms from his mount on a donkey.  This recalls the decaying donkey from which Judas took the rope to hang himself after being driven out of Jerusalem by demon children.

Gibson is especially soulful in his depiction of Mary (who is supported by Magdalen (Monica Bellucci, "The Matrix: Revolutions") throughout).    Gibson imbues Mary's love for her son with such strong intuitiveness that she is able to kneel on the very stone over the underground chamber where Jesus is shackled. When Pilate's wife humbly offers linens to the two women at the scourging, Mary quietly begins to sop up the rivers of blood left behind on the stones after her son is dragged away and Maia Morgenstern joins Caviezel in depicting great suffering combined with spiritual acceptance.  Gibson's handling of Mary's meeting Jesus with his cross is made an overpowering depiction of a mother's love by the flashback that accompanies it.

Screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald turned not only to the New Testaments for their material, but to the accounts of the visions of 19th-century stigmatic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. It is Emmerich's material which states that the crucifixion nails were placed into Jesus's palms (the popular depiction, although his wrists would have been used in order to hold the body), adds the presence of demons (a concept Gibson incorporates with great skill) and describes Herod as effeminate.  Gibson's depiction of the Roman soldiers acting like a pack of sadistic hyenas (behavior rebuked by centurion Abenader (Fabio Sartor)), is also taken from Emmerich, who describes seeing demons goading the Romans on.

The film is stunningly photographed by Caleb Deschanel ("The Hunted").  Production, set and costume design all add to the feeling of authenticity (Gibson shot the film at Rome's Cinecitta Studios).  The decision to have the actors speak Aramaic and Latin strongly supports the illusion of witnessing this oft-told story realistically for the first time.

Mel Gibson has been self-flagellating himself on screen for decades and Jim Caviezel has been typecasting himself in Christ-like roles ("Angel Eyes," "Pay It Forward," "The Thin Red Line") for too long.  Perhaps this like-minded outpouring will enable both to move on. In their wake is a profoundly moving account of their faith.


I have a question for the nay Sayers and critical complainers of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”:

What is your major problem?

According to Gibson, when the Pope watched a special papal screening of the film he said, “It is as it was.” (Vatican officials later denied the quote.) When I watched “The Passion of the Christ” at a Saturday matinee showing I felt very much the same as the pontiff.

Negative critics of Mel Gibson’s powerful, unflinching look at the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life have accused the work of being anti-Semitic, sadistic, brutal and sensationalistic. My response to these critics is to pose this premise: The death of Christ, whether because he was the Son of Man or a crazy delusional prophet, represents the singularly most violent, vicious incidents of torture and mayhem ever chronicled. Gibson depicts this event in a no-nonsense, unrelenting way that effectively punctuates the images and beliefs that Christians have been taught for millennia.

From the very start of “The Passion of the Christ” my Catholic upbringing and Sunday school learning made the story immediately familiar with detail. From Christ’s temptation by Satan to Judas accepting the 30 pieces of silver and his betraying kiss to the “And on the third day…” epilogue, I knew the story intimately. What Gibson and his superior cast and crew have done is to breath life into something that, for most, resides in the fog of myth and religious belief. Be prepared, though, for the exhibition of man’s brutality to man from Jesus’ arrest and beating by his captors to his sentence, by Pilate, of flagellation at the hands of sadistic Roman soldiers to the long, arduous walk to Mount Calvary and Christ’s crucifixion. This is gut wrenching stuff and not for the faint of heart.

[Editorial comment: As I said, “The Passion of the Christ” does not pull any punches and is in your face in its depiction of Christ’s brutalizing and horrific crucifixion. It is NOT appropriate for young children. I was appalled at the matinee showing I attended upon seeing dozens of impressionable children in the audience. Parents may pooh-pooh this by saying that kids see violence on TV every day. Well, they do not see THIS kind of violence. Parents, please use your heads! If it were not for the subject matter, “The Passion of the Christ” would likely have received an NC-17 rating.]

This not to say that “The Passion of the Christ” is just about betrayal, mob madness and brutality. There is the frequent use of flashback to better, more peaceful times for Jesus, as when he playfully chides his mother for her innocent criticism of a table he has made. The inter-cutting of such past events as Christ washing the feet of his disciples, the Last Supper, his intercession to stop the stoning of Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and more help flesh out Jesus as the True Son who has come to sacrifice himself for mankind.

While the depiction of Christ’s final hours is THE story being told, Gibson and coscripter Benedict Fitzgerald skillfully interlay the point of view of Christ’s mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern), as she lets free her maternal hold on her son whose foretold destiny is about to be. “It has begun, Lord. So be it,” is her accepting response when she learns of Jesus’ arrest. This day has been prophesied for 33 years and, like it or not, Mary is ready. This subtle sideline is delicately handled and reps truly heartbreaking moments, one where she remembers a time when her son, as a boy, falls down and she rushes to his side. This is juxtaposed with her helplessly watching as Jesus falls while carrying the cross. Her suffering watching his suffering is powerfully portrayed with little, if any, dialogue.

This brings me to the language of “The Passion of the Christ.” Gibson announced, a while back, that he planned to have the film’s dialogue spoken in Aramaic (the language of the Hebrews) and Latin (the language of their Roman masters) without subtitles. Fortunately, this idea was put aside and subtitles are, in fact, used. Smartly, all dialogue is not translated for the viewer. When the Roman soldiers viciously taunt and punish Christ, subtitles are absolutely not necessary. The handling of these ancient languages by the large cast is seamlessly done and sounds and feels  like real conversation and not just recited lines.

The acting in this tough, unblinking view into the end of Jesus’ life on earth is first rate across the board. James Caviezal has the toughest role of all (time?) as he must make human the man who is ultimate icon to many of the world’s religions and their people. Both his convincing delivery of Aramaic and his enormous physical effort work to make you feel like you have seen the real spirit of the Son of God. His is an unforgiving role and Caviezal is capably equal to the challenge.

The supporting cast represents an embarrassment of riches with the plethora of fine performances. Most notable in a perf that will deserve to be remembered a year from now is Maia Morgenstern’s beautiful and heart-wrenching performance as Mary. The love and gentleness of the woman are palpably felt and her performance brought tears to my eyes over her sorrow. Hristo Shopov, as Pontius Pilate, tenders a sympathetic ring to his role as Christ’s judge who, helpless to the will of the Pharisee-led mob, washes his hands over their bloodlust and sadly declares, “Give them what they want.” Monica Bellucci gives a quiet, yet forceful, performance as Mary Magdalene. I always knew that the actress could look gorgeous even in sackcloth and ashes and, in “The Passion…,” I am proven right.

Mattia Sbragia, as the Pharisee leader Caiphas, can be singled out as the film’s bad guy as he leads the other Jewish leaders to incite the mob against Jesus, the man they had accepted as the Messiah only five days before. Christ’s blasphemy for criticizing the temple elders results in their turning their considerable influence to rid themselves of this usurper to their power base. Rosalinda Celentano puts an eerie, androgynous spin on her depiction of Satan. She soothingly advises Jesus at the start of the film that he can’t possibly be expected to shoulder his burden of saving mankind alone. Later, in mimic of Madonna and child, Satan wanders the mob carrying her/his demonic spawn. This touch of pure evil casts a pall over what is to come.

Techs are outstanding on all fronts. The brilliant Caleb Deschanel brings his masterful eye to the task of making torture and death artistic. Costume design by Maurizio Millenotti captures the period nuance of ancient Palestine from the ornately dressed Pharisees to the militaristic Romans and with particular attention to Jesus’ garb. Production design by Francesco Frigeri provides a realist setting for this most historic event. Makeup, provided by a multitude of artists, is unrelenting in depicting the physical ruin of Jesus. Score, by John Debney, is a fitting and haunting complement to the film.

The charges of anti-Semitism are squarely placed upon the Pharisee leaders and not the average believer of Jewish faith. The mob mania stoked by the Pharisees is supplanted with the sadness of the crowd as Christ, bearing the cross, moves away from the rabble and among the people he influenced (obviously the larger group).

In a world that has lost grasp of the real values in life, “The Passion of the Christ” is a timely piece that makes you reflect on the true worth of faith and love. It is a remarkable and powerful work that should be seen by any and all thinking human beings. I give it an A.

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