For what now seems like an eternity, we’ve been subjected to a multitude of media wags and religious leaders worldwide stirring up the old cauldron of controversy regarding Mel Gibson’s new directorial feature, The Passion of the Christ.
Many stated, without actually sitting down and watching a frame of the film, that it was anti-Semitic, historically inaccurate and so graphically violent that whatever message the film was trying to convey would be completely obscured.
Now the era of endless speculation and rumour has thankfully come to an end and the film has arrived in cinemas. Does the film prove inspirational, or does it indeed promote anti-Semitism and dilute Jesus’ messages in a pool of blood?
The film opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus (James Caviezel) has gone to pray after the Last Supper. After resisting the temptations of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) and being betrayed by Judas (Lucia Lionello), Jesus is arrested and taken back to within the city walls of Jerusalem where the leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy, resulting in a condemnation of death.
Christ is brought before the Roman Governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), who listens to the accusations levelled at him by the Pharisees. Realizing he is confronting a political conflict, Pilate defers to King Herod in the matter, only to have Herod return Jesus to Pilate, who gives the crowd a choice between Jesus and the criminal Barabbas. The crowd chooses to have Barabbas set free and to condemn Jesus.
Normally I try to avoid commenting on any controversy that may surround a film. However, I do feel it is important to address the issues that have unfairly dogged Gibson and his film for the past year.
Is it anti-Semitic? I didn’t think so. Yes, the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, played by Mattia Sbragia, and his followers are responsible for having Jesus arrested and they do call for his death. But the Romans are the ones who carry out the barbaric torture and crucifixion of Christ. The actions of a select few individuals do not and should not speak for an entire race or religion, neither then, now or ever.
If further proof is needed that the Jews were not solely responsible, look no further than the following quote said by Jesus during the film, “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down on my own accord.”
The concerns over the film’s violence, as with the anti-Semitism fears, prove to be completely overblown as well. While I will concede that the film is both graphically violent and quite bloody at times (parents may want to see the film before deciding on whether or not their children should), I also feel that what is shown and portrayed onscreen is completely justified and tastefully done. The violence and blood in this film is nowhere near as bad as many people are making it out to be. Those who feel it is apparently never sat through Kill Bill, Volume One.
Hot button issues aside, the main question remains – is the film worth seeing? It absolutely is. In adhering closely to the Gospels, Gibson has made a brutal, unflinching and unforgettable work of art that inspires debate and encourages viewers to re-examine and re-evaluate what Jesus’ sacrifice means not only in general but also in regards to their own everyday lives.
Gibson, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Benedict Fitzgerald, is straightforward in its narrative and quite mindful of Christ’s messages. Every so often, Christ has a flashback to a pivotal moment in his life on Earth, such as the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount and in perhaps the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, memories of better times with his mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern).
Through these flashbacks, Christ’s messages of love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and peace are established and reinforced later on when he is being beaten within an inch of his life at the hands of the Romans. It’s a tough task to make sure that neither the message nor the brutality are shoved down the viewer’s throat, and Gibson’s skilled directing does a great job keeping things in check.
The visual flourishes that Gibson, with the help of ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, comes up with linger in the memory as much as the film’s message. The visual representation of Satan and the children who taunt and chase Judas are effectively disturbing. Equally as effective, but in a moving way, are the images of Mary and Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) wiping up Jesus’ blood following his scourging and an excellent scene of a single teardrop from the heavens hitting the Earth when Christ finally dies on the cross.
The excellent cast and crew add strong support to Gibson’s vision. The cast is led by standout performances by Caviezel as Christ and Morgenstern as Mary. Everyone does a fine job delivering their lines in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew without losing the emotional power of their performances.
Technically, John Debney’s rousing score, John Wright’s smooth editing, Francesco Frigeri’s production design and Deschanel’s Oscar-worthy photography (among many, many others) all help make this film as top of the line as you can get. Although the film was budgeted at only $25 million, the final product looks like at least double the amount was spent on it.
The Passion of the Christ is not a film whose message incites hatred, nor is it meant to be a film created for one individual group of people. Much like Jesus himself, the message and the movie are for all mankind to experience and hopefully draw from. Jesus was a man whose message was love, compassion, tolerance and hope, yet he was misunderstood and condemned for his “heresies” – just like this movie.
It’s sad how little we’ve changed in 2,000 years.