If an age produces the renditions of classic stories that reflect those times, then “The Passion of the Christ,” which is violent, contentious, emotional, extreme and highly proficient, must be the Jesus movie for this era. It is also gravely intense and the work of a man as deeply committed to his subject as one could hope for or, for that matter, want. Months’ worth of controversy have turned what Mel Gibson originally announced as a self-financed art film performed in two ancient languages into a picture that opens on Ash Wednesday in 2,800 engagements across the United States with expectations of a massive opening, based on general public curiosity and huge advance sales to religious groups. If this comes to pass, Gibson will have no trouble recouping his $30 million-plus investment and then some.
Pic’s notoriety might soon be mitigated for mainstream audiences by word of mouth centered on the prolonged suffering and very vivid gore; at the same time, many true believers, especially Roman Catholics, will be deeply moved, spelling a long theatrical life in a significantly reduced number of theaters once the high tide of the opening recedes, and plenty of potential internationally and in ancillary markets.
A few primary thoughts come immediately to the fore. First, you have to tip your hat to Gibson for putting his money where his heart and soul and mouth are, for putting self-expression before the bottom line to an extent that few major Hollywood figures ever have; the way Gibson undertook this long-gestating project represents a very pure definition of independent cinema.
Second, the Jewish temple leaders, led by high priest Caiphas (as the name is atypically spelled here), are unmistakably the architects of Jesus’ doom, as they are in the gospels, and are accordingly portrayed in an unflattering light. But to say that this makes the film itself anti-Semitic seems off-base and incorrect.
Third, if you liked Gibson’s torturous execution scene in “Braveheart,” you’ll love “The Passion of the Christ.”
Although numerous factors distinguish this film from previous screen portraits of Jesus Christ — the striking use of Aramaic and “street” Latin, its concentration on the final 12 hours of the subject’s life, its vigorous style and complete abandonment of Sunday School niceties — what dominates is the blood and gore, the astounding viciousness of nearly all the Romans and Jews, and the extent of agony. The barbaric treatment meted out to Jesus on his last day is unrelenting and universal, to an extent that sooner rather than later feels like artistic overkill.
Gibson clearly wants to put the audience through the wringer right alongside Jesus. But while the result is one of unremitting intensity, and a story that moves along surprisingly quickly given its heaviness, “The Passion” is also a film of little dramatic modulation; keeping the heat at high flame throughout makes the experience predominantly visceral rather than meditative. One comes away as much with a technical knowledge of how to crucify someone as with an understanding of how this itinerant preacher came to earn the rabid scorn and defilement that he receives here.
The moment Jesus is first seen, he is already anguished, praying to his Father under a full moon in the garden of Gethsemane that he might be spared the trials he knows soon await him. In short order, he is visited by a genuinely creepy vision of Satan, who tries to persuade Jesus as to the futility of his mission. Soon thereafter the temple guards arrive, led by Judas who was paid 30 pieces of silver by Caiphas. A rough struggle with the disciples is uniquely marked by the inclusion of a final miracle (reported only in the Gospel of Luke), Jesus’ restoration of the ear of a slave, Malchus, sliced off by a disciple.
At Jesus’ middle-of-the-night grilling by Caiphas and his fellow priests, the crowd is frenzied and even the holy men are brutal, slapping the prisoner and spitting at him. When Jesus, his right eye already swollen shut, finally admits that he is the son of God, Caiphas has heard enough; charging him with blasphemy, the priest packs him off to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for a speedy trial and sentencing.
Small supporting threads run through the rapid rush toward Jesus’ fate in the script drawn from all four Gospels by Benedict Fitzgerald (“Wise Blood”) and Gibson. Judas’ remorse over his betrayal culminates in a strikingly depicted suicide scene in which he hangs himself with a rope he finds on a rotting donkey corpse; Peter anguishes over his preordained denial of his master, and Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene contrive to follow Jesus’ painful progress throughout the night and on to the bitter end.
To break up the action and reveal Jesus in earlier days, Gibson slides in brief flashbacks, from a spirited glimpse of the handsome young carpenter practicing his craft and joking with his mother to delivering key lessons to his disciples. A few more such scenes would even have been welcome, both as relief and as revelations of his message and magnetism.
Pilate is very commonly portrayed as unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt, but never more so than here. Taking one look at the battered defendant before him, Caesar’s representative caustically inquires of the Jewish elders, “Do you always punish your prisoners before you judge them?”
After listening to the arguments and conducting a private interview with Jesus, Pilate declines to take any action against him, passing the buck to Herod, who has jurisdiction over Galileans. But this dissolute party boy thinks Jesus merely “crazy,” not seditious, and returns him to Pilate.
Prominent Bulgarian actor Hristo Naumov Shopov makes Pilate, after Jesus, the film’s most layered and intriguing character. Admitting to his wife (Italian star Claudia Gerini) that he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t condemn Jesus, and fed up after 11 years in “this rotten outpost,” Pilate is riven by conflicting pressures, some of which come from his wife, who is sympathetic to the persecuted Jewish firebrand. One of the limitations of Gibson’s narrow time frame is that it doesn’t allow for an explanation of how this has come to be so, unlike, for example, Nicholas Ray’s 1961 “King of Kings,” which showed Pilate’s wife falling under Jesus’ sway after surreptitiously attending the Sermon on the Mount.
Hoping to placate Caiphas and his cronies, Pilate orders a “severe” scourging of Jesus without killing him. But it’s as if they didn’t hear the latter part of the instructions, so enthusiastically do the soldiers go about their task. First with stiff canes, then with cat-o’-nine-tails equipped with sharp metal hooks that take chunks of flesh out with them, Jesus is lacerated within an inch of his life (and for about 15 minutes of occasionally interrupted screen time) until a halt is called.
But when Pilate puts the question of Jesus’ fate to the mob yet again, the answer, most enthusiastically enunciated by the temple elders, is still the same: crucifixion. In the clearest assignation of ultimate responsibility, Jesus, in a line out of Scripture, tells Pilate, “It is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin.” With that, Jesus is marched through the teeming streets of Jerusalem toward Golgotha in an over-the-top 20-minute sequence that, more than anything else in the picture, tries the patience and tests the limits of logic.
With Jesus practically dead on his feet and eventually unable to carry his cross, the Roman soldiers, who have already mocked him and crowned him with thorns, continue to whip, hit and push him with sadistic glee. The chortling, cackling and sneering of the grunts is far overplayed, given that the common Roman soldier, unlike the Jewish authorities, had nothing personal against this man and was just, in the end, doing his job. The guards’ exaggerated boorishness pushes the film itself into grossness at this point.
Given what’s come before, the fact that every facet of the crucifixion is shown in full explicit detail can come as no surprise, right down to the lead guard becoming disgusted at how Jesus’ first hand was nailed to the cross and taking hammer in hand to show how it ought to be done. Another charming bit has a raven perch atop the cross of one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus (the two men appear there abruptly, without explanation), then suddenly pluck out one of his eyes.
Still, during 15 minutes of screen time of Jesus on the cross, the film builds through a combination of abject suffering, lessons of love conveyed at the Last Supper, darkening weather and the chanting, drumming, choral ecstasies, full orchestral soarings and sometimes otherworldly sounds of John Debney’s active and inventive score, to an audacious visual and spiritual coup delivered the moment after Jesus expires: As seen in a vertiginous overhead shot, a large single drop of liquid falls to the ground next to the cross. It is God’s tear, and it sets off a violent earthquake that splits the Jewish temple in two and gives serious pause to everyone in its proximity. The message has been delivered loud and clear.
Similarly stunning, for its brevity, poetic simplicity and clarity of intent, is how Gibson conveys the Resurrection and what it portends. It’s done in a minute or less and couldn’t be bettered as a silent thunderclap of an ending.
Filmed in the spectacularly ancient Southern Italian town of Matera as well as in Rome studios, pic boasts a muscular and beautiful physicality. Caleb Deschanel’s luminous widescreen cinematography, vet production designer Francesco Frigeri richly evocative sets, costume designer Maurizio Millenotti diverse creations and John Wright’s supple editing all contribute importantly to a rich visual experience.
Although few will be able to truly judge the use of language in the film, it’s exciting to hear these famous figures speaking, for the first time onscreen, in the languages they may well have used nearly 2,000 years ago (some have argued that Greek would have been the lingua franca between Romans and the locals at the time, but the press notes indicate the filmmakers considered but rejected that option). In any event, the actors have managed the unusual assignment handily, never struggling with their diction.
Asked to bear the brunt of ghastly torture and covered with blood, dirt and sweat for most of the running, Jim Caviezel promisingly suggests what he could have done with a full-scale film about Jesus’ life only in the brief flashbacks, in which his smile, warmth and directness of communication indicate a strong connection to Jesus’ spiritual qualities. With the exception of Shopov’s Pilate, other characterizations are one-dimensional by definition, with thesps obliged to make their impressions physically and through expressions of creative anguish. In this, Maia Morgenstern as Mary, Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, Luca Lionello as Judas and Francesco DeVito as Peter are notably successful.
Ultimately, viewers well versed in the full breadth and depth of “the greatest story ever told,” those steeped in Christianity either from childhood or current faith, will probably constitute the most responsive audience to Gibson’s obsessive and feverish elaboration of Jesus’ sacrifice. Those incapable of filling in the huge blanks concerning what led up to the tragic day being dramatized will no doubt react much more variably. The passion according to Mel is potent stuff, but rather like a full course of bitter herbs without as much as a taste of honey.