The Passion of the Christ
2004, R, 120 min. Directed by Mel Gibson. Starring James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano, Mattia Sbragia, Claudia Gerini, Luca Lionello.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 27, 2004
Mel Gibson’s vanity project may well turn out to be the single most lucrative film of all time if ticket presales are any indication. Much has been made of the film’s alleged anti-Semitism and relentless, visceral violence, but even after seeing the film twice (the first time was at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of Harry Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon, with no less than Gibson himself in attendance), I’m having trouble separating the movie from the deluge of hype that surrounds it. Gibson’s film sticks to the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ (Caviezel) and is as streamlined a biblical telling as you could ask for, with virtually no setup (Gibson rightly assumed we know how it ends) and only a tiny handful of flashbacks to illuminate the life before the death before the life. Using actors virtually unknown to mainstream audiences and having them speak their lines in the original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin may have seemed like the idea of an egocentric wing nut when Gibson first announced the project (he was roundly laughed at by press and peers), but – with the all-important addition of subtitles – they render Jesus’ final hours in a wholly new light, albeit an almost unbearably horrific one. Historical accuracy was clearly the directorial watchword throughout, and this is where problems creep in: The Passion of the Christ trumps The Greatest Story Ever Told but comes perilously close to being The Greatest Snuff Film Ever Made. Knowing the incendiary passions surrounding the film and its subject, I do not say that lightly. This film is ultraviolent in the extreme – beyond the extreme, even – and Gibson, in his own passion for unflinching realism, almost short-circuits his production through sheer gory bravado. When the scourging of Jesus by the Romans is rendered as fetishistically as it is – the sequence goes on and on and on, with a bloody spray dousing Romans and bystanders alike and long, lingering shots of Jesus’ flayed and shredded flesh – it may reinforce the realism, but it also smacks of exploitation and cinematic ballyhoo. It also raises the question of whether a film based on the pivotal moment of one of the world’s major religions can be too realistic. All I can tell you is that Gibson’s fealty to the inherent barbarism of the times is painful to watch, and just when you thought there couldn’t be any more devastating horror, Jim Caviezel, in a performance that’s nothing short of miraculous, no pun intended, goes all bloody again. The cast, peppered throughout with small gems like Rosalinda Celentano’s Satan and Luca Lionello's doomed Judas, is breathtakingly in sync with Gibson and his vision, and there’s not a single flawed note in the whole of their performances. That said, the film’s 500-pound gorilla that will likely never go away – is it anti-Semitic or not? – is more troubling. The Jewish high priest Caiphas (Sbragia) and the Pharisees are out for Jesus’ blood and then some. Pontius Pilate (Shopov) comes off as a harried bureaucrat whose hands are tied by both Rome and Caiphas and who does everything he can to not crucify the heretical Christ. It’s not the most flattering depiction of Jews I’ve seen. Still, The Passion of the Christ is something of a masterpiece, terrible to behold, unfit for children, certainly, but very much the work of a director in the throes of his own distinct passion.