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Cross to Bear


The Passion of The Christ

Mel Gibson, Italy / USA, 2004

Rating: 2.5



Posted: February 26, 2004

By Laurence Station

The moviegoing public should breathe a collective sigh of relief. Mel Gibson has taken the last half-day of Jesus' life and condensed it to a two-hour movie. Considering the painstaking degree of period accuracy he strives for, we can be thankful he didn't film a twelve-hour account of his Savior's time on Earth. (And people thought The Return of the King was too long.)

What Gibson does deliver is a brutally up-close-and-personal examination of just how much punishment the human body can withstand. As played with ultra-masochistic fervor by James Caviezel, Jesus is pummeled, scourged, spat upon, whipped through the streets of Jerusalem and, ultimately, nailed to a cross and left to die via asphyxiation. It is not, to put it lightly, a pleasant sight. And that's exactly how Gibson wants it. The audience is visually bludgeoned by just how great and agonizing Jesus' suffering was. There are no allusions, no shortcuts to the hill of Golgotha outside the city walls. This is one passion play drenched in more blood than the crowds at the infamous Roman Colosseum witnessed at its Grand Guignol height.

Clearly, the death of Jesus is a passionate topic for many, and Gibson's interpretation of the events isn't intended to please everyone. As such, we get a pretty good insight into the director's take on what happened over two thousand years ago in Palestine's holiest city. Jesus is captured in the Garden of Gethsemane late at night by temple guards who've been tipped off by a very conflicted Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello). Jesus' followers flee. The Jewish High Priests, or Sanhedrin, led by Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), consider Jesus a rabble-rouser who threatens their authority. Unfortunately, they have nothing to pin on him. Fortunately for them, though, Jesus claims to be the Son of God -- a capital offense, especially if you don't have the right messianic connections. Caiphas wants Jesus executed, but has to get permission from Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) first. Pilate is the beleaguered Roman governor of Judea, a real backwater burg that isn't exactly advancing his career. Pilate waffles on the issue of condemning Jesus to death, torn in part by the fact that his wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) is convinced Jesus is holy. Pilate doesn't want to rock the political boat, either. If he doesn't keep the province in line, he could lose more than his title and position. At the insistent urging of Caiphas and an unruly mob, Pilate literally washes his hands of the entire affair and orders Jesus crucified.

Throughout, an androgynous, creepy Satan (Rosalinda Celentano, sans eyebrows) slithers in and out of the proceedings, mocking and tempting Jesus at every turn. On the flipside, the film's greatest example of humanity comes in the form of Maia Morgenstern, who plays Jesus' mother Mary. The sight of a heartbroken mother watching her son suffer unbearable punishment is genuine and extremely effective. Monica Bellucci's Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, is mostly wasted.

We do get key flashbacks during the trial, torture and execution of Jesus, primarily dealing with the Last Supper and happier times at home with Mother Mary. The heart of the film, however, is the sadistic assault on Jesus' body. Every sin ever committed appears to be present and accounted for via the innumerable lashes covering Jesus' wracked frame. Defenders will say people must see for themselves the tremendous suffering Jesus underwent in order to save us all. Fine, but wallowing in gore is not the most effective means of making a point. Gibson could have cut the number of lashes, beatings and taunts by a third and still conveyed a potent message regarding sacrifice and redemption.

The biggest problem, however, is the very nature of the passion play, a form born during medieval times. By not examining the full spectrum of Jesus' life on Earth (birth, teachings, passion, crucifixion and resurrection), there is no larger context against which to understand why he suffered so horribly. Obviously, the last few days of his life are the most dramatic, but to presume everyone who witnesses the film understands the backstory is presumptuous, to say the least. The cycle of Jesus' life contains teachings of tolerance and goodwill toward all people. If we're just given the gruesome aspect, what are we to take away from it? Don't rock the boat or this will happen to you? That's exactly the message the Romans were attempting to send with crucifixions in the first place. There's no celebration of life here, no counterbalance to the cut flesh and broken bones, and that is the film's great failing.

From a purely technical aspect, The Passion is impressive. Caleb Deschanel's photography is stellar, from the eerie blues of night to the dusty yellows of early day. John Debney's score is dramatic without being overplayed. The acting is committed, though the bestial turn by the majority of Roman soldiers is a prime example of excess to the point of caricature.

Mel Gibson has created a Passion that will certainly appeal to those who believe suffering is the key to salvation. And for a director who's made his fortune as the star of incredibly violent movies, it would seem he's finally found the perfect vehicle to slake his Herculean bloodlust, critics be damned.

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