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Film Review: The Passion of the Christ

Title: The Passion of the Christ

Director(s): Mel Gibson

Screenwriter(s): Benedict Fitzgerald & Mel Gibson

Studio: Icon Productions Released: 2005

Runtime: 2h 2m

Starring: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Christo Jivkov, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Toni Bertorelli, Hristo Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Fabio Sartor, Rosalinda Celentano

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ is an artistically rich and at times graphic depiction of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus Christ (James Caviezel). Viewers who hate subtitles may find it annoying, but Mel Gibson’s choice to do the film in Aramaic and Latin pays off. Even though I know no Aramaic and very little Latin, the film being in the languages of the time simply gives it a certain authentic texture. Some argue that Greek was likely used when the Romans communicated with the Hebrews, but that is beside the point. In English, it would be banal no matter good it looks.

The film, particularly the opening sequences, makes brilliant use of saturated colors, the cold blue of the Garden of Gethsemane along with the ominous red of the conspiring Jewish high priests at the temple sets the mood. The momentary slow-motion shots of the high priests’ servants and Judas’s kiss of betrayal assist in heightening the suspense. Regardless of speed, many shots imitate and reflect the paintings or other artwork that presumably inspired them. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the film is so artistically compelling, it combines gritty reality with what could be Renaissance art.

Gibson spurns the historical-epic approach and the film flows well, following a compact narrative. If anything, it can be longer. Generally, it follows the Gospels but there are liberties taken as expected. For example, we briefly see Jesus dragged to the high priest and put on trial. This is one aspect of the story which the film does not dwell on. According to the Gospel accounts (taken collectively), Jesus was first taken to Annas, then to Caiphas before a public trial early in the morning. The film condenses this to one trial, then shoves Jesus to the dungeon before being sent to Pilate in the morning. No doubt this is done to maintain a decent pace, but something a little more accurate would not hurt the drama.

Although the Gospels collectively provide the sequence of events of the Passion, all four accounts are somewhat scarce with “the little details”. For example, the Gospels do not refer to the abovementioned dungeon. This is taken from the private revelations to St Anne Catherine Emmerich, a German Augustinian nun, as recorded in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich. (There are other mystics who have seen, to varying amounts and degrees of detail, the Passion or parts of it, and I am uncertain to what extent the screenwriters consulted such material.) According to her account, Christ was tortured in the dungeon during this time. No doubt this is skipped over for pacing purposes or perhaps to save the violence for later.

Many other details, even if they are vague, are taken from mystics such as Emmerich, including the brutal scourging scene. The Gospels succinctly inform us that Jesus was “scourged” and then moves on. We have some knowledge of the ancient world, of course, but the image from the Shroud of Turin and some details from mystics along with the brilliant makeup and CG makes the scene captivating. It should be noted that the outfit that Mary (Maia Morgenstern) wears is based on that of an Augustinian nun in acknowledgement to Emmerich.

Ultimately, the film is also a devotion, following the Way of the Cross (or Stations of the Cross) which starts from Pilate’s sentencing with Mary as the viewpoint character. However, in this film, Jesus falls down more than three times as the traditional devotion states. To help put Christ’s suffering into perspective, there are flashbacks throughout the text. Some are presumably the writers’ conjecture (like Jesus’s hidden life), whilst others are from the Gospels. Most of these flashbacks revolve around the idea of forgiveness. In some ways, it also gives the viewer some visual and perhaps emotional relief from the intense violence. These flashbacks include Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) touching Jesus’s feet after he stopped the mob from stoning her. This is another artistic liberty as Mary Magdalene was not the woman about to be stoned, but since this film is about Jesus’s sacrifice for us, the choice is thematically understandable. We also see The Last Supper which again shows or reminds the audience the purpose of Jesus’s Passion and Death.

The “weirdest” parts of the film are the occasional appearances of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano). He is hardly mentioned in the Passion accounts of the four Gospels. His appearances in Gethsemane and at Judas’s side, although presented in a theologically sound manner, are obvious liberties. Emmerich does mention Satan regarding the aforementioned but not much beyond that. I suppose the film needs a “bad guy” and Gibson deliberately presents the devil as a freaky androgynous figure. It is interesting that he appears when Jesus’s suffering is more intense, and only Jesus and Mary can see him.

To those who know the story well, the performances, although good, may seem almost two-dimensional because it’s just what one would expect given the events in the relatively short timeframe. To the cast’s credit, they had to learn Aramaic or Latin and still act convincingly (although many being Italian no doubt know some Latin to begin with). One distinguished performance is that of Hristo Shopov as Pilate, an intelligent man with authority but not impervious to human frailties. Mattia Sbragia as Caiphas gives a strong performance as he has no few lines. I particularly like Fabio Sartor as Abenader the centurion. He has a subtle but strong screen presence. He plays well the loyal Roman commander with a sense of decency, consistent to the tradition that Abenader was a goodhearted man who subsequently became one of the early converts. His reactions, the way he and Pilate exchange glances, all the nuances speak volumes. Sartor and Shopov seem to have good chemistry.

Overall, the art production, including of the sets, the locations and the way it is lit and shot really make one feel like an eyewitness. And yes, Mel, I noticed Jesus answers Pilate in Latin. Nice one. Despite the artistic liberties, The Passion of the Christ is a strong and gripping piece of art.


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