Friday, April 14, 2017

Movie Review: THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)


Director: Mel Gibson
Genre: Drama
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Christo Jivkov, Francesco De Vito, Claudia Gerini, Hristo Shopov, Luca Lionello
Runtime: 127 min
Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence
Purchasing Links: DVD, Blu-ray

Read the review after the jump.


Review by Popa Razvan

I am a Christian, or at least I was born a Christian. I grew up being taught everything there was to know about Christianity, but even now, as an adult, I still don't really know where I stand on all of it. I wouldn't exactly call myself an atheist, but the details of what exactly I believe in are quite muddled. Just like the famous Relationship status on Facebook, my own Faith status would read "It's complicated". Mel Gibson's faith, however, is much more straightforward, as evident not only from his controversial "The Passion of the Christ", but also last year's "Hacksaw Ridge", which earned him his first, and well-deserved, Best Director Oscar nomination since his win for "Braveheart".

"The Passion of the Christ" is a depiction of the final twelve hours of Jesus' life. It opens with the night Jesus (Jim Caviezel) was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and follows Him through the numerous tortures He is subjected to, ending with the crucifixion and a very brief representation of the Resurrection. The film also follows Jesus' mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and his apostle John (Christo Jivkov), who are always at his side throughout the ordeal.

The Passion of the Christ starring Jim Caviezel

While Gibson claims to have largely used the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a basis for the film, there is another source that served as the more definitive source of inspiration. Many scenes from the film are depicted almost entirely as in the book "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ", which contains visions of the stigmatic German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich as written by the poet Clemens Brentano. The book was subject to controversies of its own, as even the Vatican can't attest its authenticity, concluding that it's impossible to determine how much of the book represents Emmerich's actual experiences. Even so, having read the book, I can say that even as fiction, it's really disturbing and powerful fiction, containing some incredibly vivid imagery of those last twelve hours in Jesus' life that are nothing short of a full-blown apocalypse, and an intriguing meditation on faith. It's easy to see why Gibson was so attracted to the material.

No doubt you've already heard about the over-the-top levels of violence in this movie. It's been called by many a "snuff movie" and "torture porn", and it's certainly accurate up to a point, but focusing only on the violence is a misunderstanding of what the movie is about. As far as the Biblical narrative goes, Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross in order for the sins of all humanity to be erased and he did so willingly, fully aware of all the pain he would have to endure in order to save us all. The sins of the world are no doubt a considerable burden to bear, so I assume the level of suffering must reflect the magnitude of what Jesus was destined to accomplish, which is why, over-the-top and hard to watch as it may be, the violence in this movie makes sense. It also gives it one hell of an emotional impact as the horrific display of violence makes you think about it more than other movies where violence is depicted in a glossy manner and is mostly devoid of consequences. Faced with incredible cruelty and wounded beyond the pain threshold of any human, Jesus has the strength to forgive through his love for all humanity, and that is a message that far outweighs the gore.

Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ

It's also quite realistic. Just browse the news on the Internet and you'll constantly find unthinkable atrocities. Humans are capable of horrible acts of violence, and in a historical time when violence was the order of the day, imagine what a Roman torturer would do to you, a life with no value to the Empire that stands accused of a crime. On those terms, I feel that scenes like the scourging are fairly accurate.

The film also provides brief flashbacks of Jesus' teachings throughout. It's interesting how Gibson triggers these moments in a way that serves as a peaceful antithesis to the moments of violence. The film is definitely not as informative as Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 "Jesus of Nazareth" miniseries, which is still the definitive film on Jesus' life, but it provides a much more detailed narration of the Passion, including the fourteen Stations of the Cross (or at least thirteen of them, one was left out in a deleted scene), which have never been fully depicted in any other film that I know of.

The Passion of the Christ Jim Caviezel Image

Then, of course, there are the allegations of anti-semitism. I personally never found anything anti-semitic about the film. Gibson doesn't portray the Jewish people as evil. Apart from the temple priests, who manipulate the mob and pressure Pilate into giving Jesus a death sentence, there are many other Jews in the film who help Jesus, or sympathize with his suffering. The priests are elements of human corruption. They don't represent a people, but an institution with a certain degree of authority. They are addicted to the power they wield and see Jesus as a threat to their status quo. Their actions against Jesus are simply politics, and nothing more. It's the universal story of people with power who abuse it. Remove the fact that they are Jews, and they could very well be of any religion, or race. They are a template of people corrupted by power, who desire nothing but more power, and will stop at nothing to hold on to it.

The technical aspects of the movie are impressive for an independent film that cost $30 million of Gibson's own money to produce. The cinematography by veteran director of photography Caleb Deschanel is incredible, giving every scene a painting-like quality, and John Debney's score is epic and moving, magnifying the emotional punch of several key scenes. Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their work in this film. A third Oscar nomination was given for the makeup, which is also well deserved. Another great choice made by Gibson was to film all the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin, languages spoken in that time and place, which adds to the authenticity of the historical setting. It's much better than hearing everyone faking a British accent, and a daring decision, considering how U.S. audiences were generally thought to avoid subtitled films, which was thoroughly contradicted by its $370 million domestic box-office.

Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern and Hristo Jivkov in The Passion of the Christ

Caviezel and the great Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern deliver amazing performances and the rest of the international supporting cast is pretty effective, as well. Some of the relatively unknown actors are surprisingly good here, particularly Bulgaria's Hristo Shopov as a tormented Pilate who is caught between a moral rock and a political hard place, and Italy's Luca Lionello as Judas.

"The Passion of the Christ" is not the historically accurate portrayal that many would have hoped to see. It's a filmmaker's passion project, no different from Martin Scorsese's very personal "Silence", or "The Last Temptation of Christ", and despite of all the controversy and polarized opinions, it still shines as a work of artistic integrity, an incandescent showcase of faith and devotion.



  • A solid work of unfiltered artistic integrity
  • Gibson's direction and attention to details
  • Unlike any religious film you've ever seen
  • Powerful performances
  • Dialogue in Aramaic and Latin add to the film's authenticity
  • Excellent score, cinematography and makeup

  • Too violent for most people



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