Passion of the Christ, The
Starring:
Jim Cavaziel, Monica Belluci, Claudia Gerini, Hristo Shopov
Directed By :
Mel Gibson
Grade
B

Synopsis: This film chronicles the "passion" of Jesus Christ, a term referring specifically to his crucifixion and the trials immediately preceeding it. The film covers a span of about twelve hours.

Who Will This Appeal To?: First off, this film is not for kids. It is an extremely graphic portrayal of the ravages of Jesus' body. It has violent and disturbing images…even many adults may look away. I don't care what religious message you're trying to teach your kids, don't bring anyone under 13 to this film. Secondly, keep in mind that this film is a detailed account of the last hours of Jesus' life according to the Gospels. It is very limited in scope. It does little to preach any sort of message, other than that Jesus was very devout. I do not think that anyone not already devoted to one of the Abraham-derived religions (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.) will be swayed to investigate further. Even among religious people, many will be divided about how they feel about the film. This story is well-chronicled over the years, and this particular film focuses on details rather than much exposition involving Christ's life or the times. What I'm trying to say is, this film has a pretty narrow audience of some religious people. Beyond that, I can't recommend that anyone will particularly appreciate it.

Evaluation: Right off the bat, let's get this out of the way. Is the film anti-Semitic? In my opinion, yes. Is it undeserved? Once again, my opinion, no. Most importantly, will it cause persecution of Jews and rioting in the streets? Surely not. The movie does indeed portray a very unflattering portrait of the Jews at that time. But this is not really any different from the portrayal in The Bible itself. As a matter of fact, this film follows the Gospels almost exactly. Much of the dialogue is culled directly from those works. There are indeed a couple of lines uttered by the Jews not included in the movie, which if they had been, would've presented an even more damning picture of them. As it is, the Jews are cruel and hateful towards Jesus, abusing him in every way and demanding his crucifixion. But there are a few things you must remember. The 'passion' of Christ refers specifically to his torture and sacrifice in the final hours of his life. There is a lot he did before this time (and many Jews who supported him) that are not shown in the two hour scope of this movie. You also would be helped with a little historical background. The Palestinian Jews were largely divided into four sects during the time of Christ. The Sadducees were from richer families, and included the hereditary priests who controlled the Jewish temple. The Pharisees were middle class and were largely scholars. The Essenes were the common folk. Then there were the Zealots, devout Jewish patriots, militant and resistant to Roman occupation. Jesus opposed the corruption in the temple, and was quite outspoken about denouncing the acts of the temple priests. There was also a long-standing prophecy that the Jewish nation would have a messiah who would lead them their kingdom. The Jewish people had been oppressed by various forces for years, made into tenants on their own lands. In this age of Roman occupation, many Jews saw the promised messiah as being a leader who would liberate them from oppression and give them an actual physical kingdom. But Jesus was a spiritual leader, not a military one, and his kingdom was in heaven. So the to the Sadducees and the Pharisees, he was more of a threat to their power and their objectives than anything. Jesus knew that being so outspoken against those in power would have ramifications, and he told his disciples when they came to Jerusalem that they would be hated. He told them at the last supper that one would betray him (Judas) and that one would deny even knowing him (Peter). He knew what was coming. This does not in any way pardon the Jews at that time for thirsting for his blood, but he's not the only 'prophet' who came to a bad end. There were many prophets and preachers on the city streets at that time period, many crazy, but some with followings. That's why the Jewish church put such an emphasis on heresy and blasphemy. 'Prophets' who contradicted the church's teachings and had large enough audiences were encouraged to stop preaching or move on.

The interesting contrast to the behavior of the Sadducees and some of the Pharisees, is that of Pontius Pilate, the unfortunate governor of that hotbed of rebellious activity in the Roman Empire. He goes quite out of his way to avoid crucifying Jesus. In the film, they make a point out of Pilate's motivations. He simply wants to avoid an uprising. He fears a revolt by Jesus' followers if he crucifies him. He knows there will be one if he doesn't punish him. He tries to act simply to pacify the populace. This is consistent with the accounts of his actions in the Gospels. You see, at that time, the Jews were largely responsible for policing themselves, except in severe cases such as those that demanded a death sentence. Then they had to go to their Roman governors. Pilate, upon finding that Jesus is a Galatian, sends him to Herod, the nominal Jewish ruler, and once Tetrarch of Gallilee. Herod was not well-liked or respected by many Jews, and was seen as a virtual Roman. But Pilate had deferred Jesus to Herod, so the priests took him there. However Jesus, perhaps traumatized, perhaps playing dumb, did not answer any of Herod's questions. Herod didn't see Jesus as a sufficient threat and refused to give the priests the death sentence they craved. So they took him back to Pilate. The Gospels say that Jesus was scourged (severely whipped) and then crucified, which is quite unusual. Gibson goes with a theory popularized by some biblical scholars that Jesus was first scourged as punishment, then crucified later when the priests still demanded a death sentence. This is typical of the way in which Gibson incorporates slightly varying accounts of the same events within the Gospels. It makes for a pretty coherent telling of what read like disconnected and abbreviated stories in the Bible.

Are there any inaccuracies in the film? (And by inaccuracies, I mean deviation from the source material; I do not mean to imply any factual basis to the story itself). The biggest departure would be in the way Gibson embellishes some of the surrounding figures to Jesus. Simon, (who helps carry Jesus' cross), Jesus' mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, as well as Judas and Satan himself are all given bigger 'roles' in the film than in the Gospels. Gibson extrapolates on these characters and shows their feelings and motivations at this time. For some viewers, the hardest to swallow might be the supernatural depictions of Judas being tormented by demons, and Satan taunting Christ in his final hours to try and weaken his resolve. While none of these embellishments are mentioned in the Gospels, neither do they contradict them, and they do generally service the story. The biggest departures from actual fact are academic in nature. Firstly, this film perpetuates the long-standing myth that Jesus had nails put through the palms of his hands. This was not the practice in crucifixion, as the bones in the hand cannot support the weight of the human body, and the nails would've torn through the flesh between the fingers. Crucifixion in fact entailed nails being hammered between the bones of the wrist. Additionally, men did not carry an entire cross as is commonly portrayed. The main post of the cross was left in the ground at the crucifixion site, and the men carried their crossbars up to it. These crossbars were placed on top of the posts to form a T, not the usual Latin cross portrayed. A sign listing the victim's crimes was commonly nailed to a stick extending above the criminal's head, giving the cross something akin to the more common appearance we've grown used to. Interestingly, Gibson uses the historically accurate depiction for the criminals who were crucified with Jesus, but compromises and retains the traditional image for Jesus himself.

The film-making itself is kind of a mixed bag. Gibson directs with great passion and flair, and to great effect. He uses slow-motion, close-ups, and special effects to draw the viewer in and get a gut reaction out of them. But ultimately, though the film is high quality all the way, it feels like a lot of flash and not much substance. The script is slavishly loyal to the source material, but that means that anyone familiar with the story won't see anything new. And most of the story is 'this happened, and then this happened, then this…', it's just a chronicle of events. While superbly acted, rarely do the actors have anything powerful to say. The lone exception is Cavaziel's Jesus, who emotes the obligatory lines at all the right times, but it just feels like a collection of a little book of Jesus' witticisms like that populating every bookstore. All this is drummed up by Gibson's go-for-the-throat directing style, but that above all makes this feel more like a music video than a film. The music swells impressively at the right moments when we get a slow-motion close-up of a graphic mutilation of Christ while Cavaziel screams and clenches his hands in pain. It gets a visceral reaction from most people, but after two hours of that, you wonder what was really said? Nothing.

Final Verdict: If you want a hyper-realistic depiction of Jesus' torture and death according to the Gospels, this is it. But don't expect much in the way of story or any real message other than 'Jesus died for our sins. He suffered so that we could be forgiven.' Perhaps gratifying for some people, but many will want to skip it.

It's All in the Details: Monica Belluci, recently in the spotlight due to the Matrix sequels and famous for her Italian beauty, is almost unrecognizable here as Mary Magdalene. Looking quite plain and serving mostly to comfort Christ's mother Mary, Mary Magdalene is commonly thought of as a prostitute, but in fact there is little in the Bible to enforce this view. What is known is that she followed Christ as he preached from town to town, and was there right up to the end.

- - Jeff Light

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