**/**** Image A Sound A
starring James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Claudia Gerini, Maia Morgenstern
screenplay by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson
directed by Mel Gibson
by Walter Chaw The danger of a film like The Passion of the Christ is the fervour with which people will declare that it is unadorned "truth," will imagine that writer/director/hands-that-pound-the-nails-into-Christ Mel Gibson has somehow pointed a camera through a porthole into 33 A.D.--will forgive the piece any number of otherwise unforgivable cinematic sins, any abundance of opposing historical and canonical evidence, for fear that their discomfort with the picture might be read as blasphemy and that their ignorance of the minutia of scripture will be revealed. It is the sort of fearful, hysterical, insular, self-righteous groupthink in which the rabble Gibson blames for Christ's death engages, and the ironies embedded in the film and its reception don't end there. It seems ridiculous to remind that the film is no more and no less than Gibson's interpretation of the last twelve hours of Christ's life. The question worth asking is before this film, how many of its defenders looked to Gibson for guidance in cosmological (or any) issues? How it is that making a film in our cult-of-celebrity culture gifts any filmmaker the credentials of theologian pundit? Mel's on the cross, he blames the Jews (and now the critics) for putting him there, and his whole career begins to coalesce as a parade of martyrs.
One moment in the middle of this guignol lands with a power not born of sadism and rage (Gibson's sadism and rage, not the Romans' or the Jews'): Christ (Jim Caviezel) falls as He's carrying his cross to Calvary and his mother (Maia Morgenstern) runs to His side, overcoming her fear and revulsion by remembering a time that she ran to comfort Christ as a child. It's the only time in the film save the first few minutes where Christ can be referred to with a lower-case pronoun--the only time that the humanity within the divinity is on display. In truth, our only genuine accessibility to this greatest story ever told is through that promise of humanity. That was, after all, the point, at least to the extent that I ever understood the point. But even this moment is no more or less effective than a slap to the face, provoking a visceral reaction that isn't revulsion this time around, but empathy. The image of a mother running to her child in peril makes most of us feel something--even if you don't know the mother and have only a passing familiarity with the child. A lot of people will bring with them the idea that they have something more than a passing familiarity with the Christ represented by Caviezel and Gibson in this film, and bully for them--it's just not in the text of the film.
The film opens with Christ in a cool blue Gethsemane, lensed by Caleb Deschanel as a dreamscape capable of supporting a manifestation of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), some sort of Miltonic Sin that births serpents as she squats on the twilit grass--and the film ends (not including an oblique epilogue suggesting the Resurrection) with that same Satan howling at Calvary as man's sins are washed clean. I know what's happening in the film because I have a passing familiarity with the Christian mythology. I know, for example, that Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) was a whore even when the film fails to tell me so; I know who Peter (Francesco De Vito) is, that historically speaking Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) was a vicious dictator, that the Sanhedrine may have been acting in the interests of preventing Pilate from decimating the Jewish population in the pursuit of one man... But The Passion of the Christ doesn't tell us these things--it suggests that Caiphas's (Mattia Sbragia) hatred is bottomless and that he is effectively solely responsible for Christ's crucifixion, that Pilate was a well-meaning bureaucrat caught between a rock and a hard place, that King Herod was a demented homosexual (I don't know if Mel hates Jews, but I'm pretty sure he hates gays--Braveheart is the blueprint for this film in any number of ways), and that Christ was killed because he said things about living and dying by the sword.
The Passion of the Christ is full of passionate intensity, sound and fury, signifying nothing. Decorated with ghoulish, surgical details of the indignities visited on His body, it's a theological discussion with an artist interested in constant, repetitive, deadening, table-punching declarations of how Christ died for our sins. (The first invitation to communion, cut with shots of flesh rendered and blood spouting, reminds of Antonia Bird's own ode to ritualistic cannibalism, Ravenous.) I admire the hell out of Gibson for making a film this naked: it's a work of divine madness (something of a cross between Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew and his Salo: 120 Days of Sodom--the gospel according to de Sade) really not for anyone except Gibson and people who spend a lot of time deriding films that are this borderline-exploitive that don't also have the good fortune of revolving around their saviour. Some will find the gore ecstatic and will be exhilarated at their ability to fill in the giant gaps in the narrative without considering that mouthing the words to a familiar tune doesn't mean that you hear the music--that is, in fact, if any music is actually being played at all. The suture is artificial and attained in the easiest possible way besides. In this way, The Passion of Christ shares a lot of the problems of Alejandro González Iñárritu's similarly evasive 21 Grams.
Charges of anti-Semitism have been ladled over the film, but the real problem with the piece is its lack of discernible purpose. Without an understanding of what was so dangerous about this Christ person, about who Christ was in context, the instinct to find reason for the film's crimson atrocity results in a consideration of the only two characters who are developed at all: Caiphas and Pilate. The former is the embodiment of evil (the second one in the film after the largely symbolic Satan), the latter something of a tortured hero, who, as the only character besides Christ to experience substantive fear and doubt, becomes associated with Christ and Christ's dilemma. A scene before Caiphas and a mob of bellicose Jews finds Christ reassuring Pilate that "No power would you have over me if it hadn't been given to you from above" and that his was "not the greater sin"--suggesting His own dilemma of being forced by a higher power to give up a mortal coil He appears to have cherished, continuing by reminding of an earlier scene where Pilate confides in his wife that he may have to throw Christ to the Sanhedrine wolves to avoid another uprising that would result in his Caesar "relieving" him of duty, and finally making a none-too-subtle suggestion that Caiphas is deserving of the greatest burden of guilt. I don't believe that Gibson is anti-Semitic (even though Simon (Jarreth J. Merz) loses his yarmulke at Calvary and never retrieves it--a more convincing argument for a subtle anti-Semitism than Caiphas's comic book characterization)--but I do believe that The Passion of the Christ has an imperfect hero (Pilate), a perfect villain (Caiphas), and a MacGuffin used as Nietzsche's rope in a perverse, confusing tug-of-war (Christ). The Passion of the Christ is so literal that it actually has very little to do with Christ and everything to do with His betrayal, trial, torture, and execution.
Freed from societal context, The Passion of the Christ has moments of power and moments of puerility. Its rending of flesh literal and philosophical, the picture is almost unwatchable for its gore and its slo-mo excess, which finds key scriptural moments underscored in slow-motion. But, of course, it will never be free of societal context, and so it exists as a terrifying artifact of a culture grown so fervid and sanctimonious that a strange, violent film made by an extremely wealthy religious eccentric has become the locus for worship and paranoia in equal, unhealthy, antagonistic measure. The Passion of the Christ is preaching to the choir and doing so in shorthand. I believe in Gibson's passion, I just don't believe in his Passion. A shame that the path towards any conversations about this film is ultimately paved with all those good intentions. Originally published: February 25, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Distributed theatrically by indie startup Newmarket Films (which doesn't have its own video arm yet), The Passion of the Christ arrives on DVD from separate labels north and south of the U.S. border. Though we received only the Canadian disc from Warner division Equinoxe for review, there is nothing to indicate that it utilized a master unique to that of Fox's stateside release. (The Equinoxe disc even borrows the Fox template for its cover-art breakdown of the DVD's tech vitals.) Whatever the case, the 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen* transfer looks sumptuous, although some of the more flamboyant costumes are vulnerable to shimmer and flesh tones occasionally have an unappealing cinnamon cast for which artificial saturation of the film's muted palette is possibly to blame.
A veritable Superbit title, the disc apologizes for what it lacks in supplementary material (there's not even a trailer) with a choice of listening to an Aramaic/Latin Hebrew 5.1 mix in DTS or Dolby Digital. The two formats sound nearly identical until the post-crucifixion earthquake, which is a tad more floor-shaking in DTS. John Debney's score and angry mobs trickle into the surround channels with surprising--perhaps disappointing--restraint; English subtitles, meanwhile, are optional in order to give the viewer a choice between standard subs, closed-captioning, and no on-screen translation whatsoever. (The film is so inferential anyway that it plays remarkably well without any metaphrasing.) A Special Edition is reportedly in the works, but this stellar movie-only presentation should content those who think of The Passion of the Christ as a holy object first and a manmade one second.Originally published: August 16, 2004.
*Also available in fullscreen. Note that only the back of the packaging indicates which version is which.