The Passion of the Christ

on February 25, 2004 by Wade Major
If it is true that great art is meant to stir great passion, it is also true that the first casualty of passion is objectivity. Such is the paradox that has historically plagued the arts, particularly where matters of religion and politics are concerned. And while the movies have managed, throughout their first century, to generally sidestep such conflicts, it was only a matter of time before a film like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" would bring them to the fore.

It is hardly overstating matters to say that never has a film been subjected to such heated debate and discussion prior to its release, almost all of it evaluative on historical or theological grounds. Clearly, a consideration of greater social ramifications is warranted--public interest alone has made it essential--but to ignore the fact that this is first and foremost a work as exceedingly personal and intimate as any by Van Gogh or Picasso is to risk critically misunderstanding its purpose and value.

Personally financed at a cost of more than $25 million, "The Passion of the Christ" is Gibson's third film as a director and the first in which he does not personally appear. It is also a natural extension of messianic themes explored in his previous films--"The Man Without a Face" and "Braveheart." The familiar narrative breaks down into five clearly defined sections involving Christ's suffering and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his judgment by Jewish and Roman authorities, his brutal scourging at the hands of Roman soldiers, the agonizing cross-bearing trek to Golgotha, and, finally, his crucifixion and its aftermath. It is arguably the most famous 12-hour sequence in all of recorded history, traditionally referred to by the medieval term that gives the film its name: "passion," meaning "suffering." But as often as these events have been portrayed in the past, it is difficult to resist the feeling that Gibson's film is the first to depict them precisely as they occurred. Whether or not that is truly the case is beside the point--it is the feeling of authenticity that matters most, a stunning attainment of verisimilitude that triumphs in the face of countless other Jesus movies and centuries of sanitized Sunday school teachings.

The Passion of the Christ Much of the effect derives from a painstaking attention to detail, beginning with the choice to shoot the film in two dead tongues--Aramaic and Latin--and encompassing the collective efforts of world-class artisans like cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("The Right Stuff"). That these astonishing technical contributions have been all but ignored by both detractors and defenders seems, in a strange, backhanded way, to almost confirm the efficacy of the achievement. It is likewise impossible to overlook the remarkable international cast, all of whom were asked to convey familiar emotions in unfamiliar languages, sometimes even without any language at all. Jim Caviezel's Christ is a mesmerizing study in contrasts, the first screen Jesus to convincingly capture both the man and the god. In the selfless discipleship of Maia Morgenstern's Mary and Monica Belluci's Mary Magdalene, the film finds a powerful counterweight to the often unbearable scenes of torture and brutality, their eyes never less than consumed with love and compassion even when witnessing the fruits of unspeakable hatred. The most dramatically compelling figure in the film, however, is Bulgarian actor Hristo Naumov Shopov's Pilate--a man torn between duty and desire, principle and pragmatism, conscience and expediency, faith and politics. Shopov's evocation of such struggles is sublime, poetically understated, magnificent to behold.

But it is Gibson himself, as director, who most energizes the movie, breathing life into the dusty annals of scripture and investing them with an almost indescribable, elegiac beauty. It is not the graphic depiction of violence that elicits such strong emotions but rather the careful juxtaposition of these scenes against flashbacks from Christ's life and ministry. In a very practical sense, they offer audiences mental and emotional relief from an otherwise intolerable ordeal. But their thematic function is even more vital, underscoring the meaning of Christ's suffering in such a way as to leave no question regarding the film's message and intent.

This, unfortunately, is where objectivity necessarily runs aground. Because the film is, by design, incomplete, its impact will vary from person to person, depending on the extent to which each individual is able or willing to fill in the blanks. Faith alone will suffice for true believers who will see the picture as a validation of God's love through Christ's atoning sacrifice. Non-believers who do not accept Christ's divinity, particularly Jews sensitive to any negative representation of their own, will understandably find it hard to focus on anything but the sinister portrait of Judaic clergy. That this aspect of the story is Biblically faithful may not provide them much comfort--the four Gospels have certainly needed little additional help in justifying Christian bloodshed against Jews (or even Muslims and fellow Christians) throughout the centuries--but it should serve to redirect the debate. In all crucial respects, "The Passion of the Christ" is painstakingly true to its source material, neither editorializing nor embellishing upon what is taught each week in thousands upon thousands of churches across the globe. If there are issues to be had with Gibson and his film, then they are issues to be had with the body of Christianity. Faulting him for being true to his beliefs and exercising his most sacred prerogatives as an artist is a frail and facile response from those who should know better. Gibson is no less entitled to his view of Christ than Martin Scorsese or Pier Paolo Pasolini were to theirs. Indeed, those who would fixate on such minutiae as whether or not the Roman soldiers would have spoken Latin or Greek (ignoring the fact that in most previous film accounts they speak English) are engaging in the most disingenuous kind of fault-finding. Attempts to cast the film in the broader historical context of Jewish persecution are particularly onerous, overlooking not only the countless other mitigating factors in that history, but subsequent centuries of enlightened social and theological progress without which this very debate would not have been possible.

Where both Christians and Jews risk misreading the picture is in their belief that it may conceivably serve some external agenda, positive or negative. The view that this movie, much less any movie, could possess the power to evangelize or incite misses the simple fact that it is a work of reflection, not projection. It is an opportunity and a challenge for viewers to confront themselves, to question their religious and secular perceptions and to dialogue with those whose views may differ. Sadly, few of the film's detractors appear to have yet embraced this opportunity as a positive. One need not agree with Gibson or share his faith to appreciate his proficiency in expressing it, yet many have resisted doing so. Critics who have historically clamored for more "personal" films in response to "soulless" Hollywood commercialism now stand silent in the face of what may well be the most personal, soulful picture ever made. Nary a peep even from the usual chorus of "artistic rights" defenders for whom such freedoms are presumably sacrosanct. Just what, then, does this say about the Gibson's critics? That they are human, like everyone else. That they are beset by doubts, biases and prejudices like everyone else. That whether they care to acknowledge it, "The Passion of the Christ" was made for them... and everyone else. Starring Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Claudia Gerini, Maia Morgenstern, Sergio Rubini, Toni Bertorelli, Rosalinda Celentano, Hristo Jivkov, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Luca Lionello and Francesco De Vito. Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson. Produced by Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety. A Newmarket release. Religious drama. Aramaic- and Latin-language; subtitled. Rated R for sequences of graphic violence. Running time: 126 min

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