If there was ever a doubt regarding Mel Gibson's ability as a filmmaker behind the camera in creative control, "The Passion of the Christ" is the apex and will win converts. If not to the Christian religion then to the belief that Gibson is knows how to make movies. From the opening shot in the dense, foggy forest to the closing scene that ends with a ray of sunlight, "The Passion" is an uplifting experience.
At 126 minutes in length, I can tell you that the film is no easy ride. But it's a must see and I recommend the film from two angles. If you're a believing Christian, this will be a faith-affirming endeavor. Plus the least you can do to justify wearing that cross around your neck is to see (at least from Gibson's perspective) how Point A (the trial) connects to Point B (the crucifixion).
For non-believers, "The Passion" is simply a masterpiece of a film on all technical levels: James Caviezel is brilliant as Jesus and his costars also give notable performances as well. John Debney's musical score is at par with Hans Zimmer's track to "Gladiator," a similar time that predated the English language. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is amazingly surreal and brings the surrounding environments to life. Mel Gibson seals the deal with skilled, artistic direction--knowing exactly how to set up the next scene and when to cut to a flashback.
The story is painstakingly accurate to the Gospels with minor deviations. Roman leader Pontius Pilate is a lot more conflicted in the film and comes off more empathetic than he probably was as a known Jew-slaughterer, and Caiaphas along with the other Jewish high priests pushed a little harder for Jesus' crucifixion with no compromise. To balance possible anti-Semitic feelings, Gibson glorifies the role of Simon of Syrene, a Jew who helps Jesus carry the cross.
For the folks not interested in the religious contexts, Gibson creates a deliciously evil Satan character, and the scene with the demonic children is something right out of a horror film.
The film's path takes us from Gethsemane to Golgotha, starting with the initial hearing before Ciaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the Sanhedrin which is where many complain the film is anti-Semitic. Yes, Ciaphas and the other high priests want Jesus crucified, but the order must come from Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the Roman leader. Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) observe the proceedings in horror as they are comforted by John of Zebedee (Hristo Jivkov).
Gibson knows just when to resort to brief flashbacks to provide us a temporary escape from the brutal torturing. We get a glimpse of the Last Supper and the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches messages of hope to his followers. Even as the Roman soldiers tear into every inch of his body with their instruments, we never get an impression that Jesus regretted his destiny.
It amazes me how critics could praise slapstick/comical violent films such as "Kill Bill" which celebrates every type of torture and disembowelment possible, whiling calling "The Passion" unnecessarily violent. In "Kill Bill," a head gets chopped off and we rejoice with applause. A woman loses her arm and rolls around in her own blood and we laugh "cause it's funny."
There's nothing to laugh about in "The Passion of Christ." The pain and suffering feels real. It is real. To endure it is to prove you can stand the test of pure filmmaking in its finest form. When a movie accelerates your heart-rate and its content has you feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, it is no longer a movie.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review that it's the most violent film he's ever seen. I find that hard to believe as he's seen many more movies than I have, and I know there are more violent films out there.
What makes "The Passion" so graphic isn't the actual violence that we see but the prolonged suffering that Jesus endures. But this is Jesus we're talking about! This is the guy who tells his followers to love your enemy. At the point in the film where he was being brutally whipped and nailed the cross -- when critics cried "brutally relentless" -- Jesus was asking his Father for their forgiveness. "They don't know," he cried out. "They don't know."
To be sure, the film is intense. We see whips and canes strutting shards tearing through skin in real-time, and only during the most excruciatingly painful moments does the camera shy away. I was personally looking forward to seeing the spike go through Jesus' foot, but the spike going through his hand was more than enough. No one ever said the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ was a birthday party.
But it's a message that was apparently not received by dissatisfied critics and moviegoers. "How dare Gibson concentrate so much on the violence! Why did the torturing take up most of the film's running time?"
To say "The Passion" is a depressing film or will leave you 'restless' is ridiculous. The critics who’ve lambasted the film for being overly gory are foolish. The last shot of Jesus isn't one of pain, suffering or blood-soaked carnage. He's clean, convinced and determined. It's a happy ending. It's a feel-good happy ending.
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