The Passion of the Christ

(2004) ** 1/2 R
127 min. Newmarket Films. Director: Mel Gibson. Cast: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Shopov.

DreamWorks advertised the film Gladiator with the tagline "A Hero Shall Rise." Though director Mel Gibson and distributor Newmarket Films hardly need any help in advertising The Passion of the Christ, this bit of movie propaganda popped right back into my head as I watched the final moments of Gibson's film. With John Debney's score turning rather abruptly from choir-washed melancholy to a militaristic drum roll, a grimly determined Jesus (naked, with gaping stigmata) rises up and out of the static frame. Roll credits. More than spiritual awe, this oddly orchestrated moment seems to imply that the Christ is not only back, but with a vengeance (boy, the Sanhedrin is really going to get it! Jesus Christ will return in "The Passion of the Christ 2: Zombie Avenger") more than it reaffirms the divinity of the obviously superhuman martyr. Or maybe I'm reading too much into Gibson's stylistic dialect. Like most Jesus films, The Passion of the Christ adheres to the popular tastes of its time; since this is an era of color-corrected, 5.1-surround-sound, pseudo-spiritual action epics, Gibson zealously tells his tale in action-movie language. When in Rome...

As you no doubt already know, The Passion of the Christ, with a minimum of greater context mostly accomplished through shuffle-play flashbacks, focuses on the last twelve hours of Jesus's life. Jesus is arrested, beaten to within an inch of his mortal life, tried, dragged around, beaten more, sentenced to death, dragged around more, beaten more, crucified, and as aforementioned, rises again. Along the way, Gibson efficiently dispatches with familiar details (here a thrice-denial by Peter, there a pitstop with Herod) to focus on man's unholy judgment of the Messiah and the unrelentingly brutal punishment inflicted on him.

As Jesus, Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo, Frequency) admirably immerses himself, with method fervor, in the suffering which is the film's principal content and theme. Jesus's body is hideously scored, flayed, and impaled, and Gibson spares no post-production overtime in making the blood gush, pool, drip, and fly, frequently audibly and in slo-mo. Certainly, Christ's suffering should not be sugar-coated; in fact, the inherent violence of it should be emphasized. But a little gore goes a long way, and Gibson's approach needlessly overemphasizes the violence. As a child, the contemporary Jesus films I watched (particularly John Krish & Peter Sykes's Jesus) left an indelible enough impression of the horror of crucifixion; a child seeing The Passion of the Christ would likely think of nothing else for weeks, or perhaps years, which I suppose makes it the most potent Christian recruitment film ever made.

And yet The Passion of the Christ deemphasizes Jesus's teachings. Though the soundbites we get are incisive, they vary in effect. When Jesus tells his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), "See, mother, I make all things new," the line serves narratively as foreshadowing, theologically as an expression of salvation, and dramatically as an achingly personal moment. If the whole film could have struck such a balance, even non-believers could wholly appreciate the film as a movingly dramatic construct; as it is, Gibson's film feels like going to the theatre to watch a severely trimmed Hamlet which throws in the most famous lines but plays out only the last scene's balletic orgy of violence.

No review of The Passion of the Christ would be complete without addressing the question of anti-Semitism. The truth is in the eye of the beholder, and Gibson's critics aren't entirely wrong to raise the point. The line deemed most offensive by preview audiences--"His blood be on us, and on our children"--has been downplayed by, at least, removing the accompanying subtitle. I would argue that that line, though potentially inflammatory, is more equivocal than one which remains, one of the few lines Gibson uses to represent Christ's teachings: " one goes to the Father but by me." By omission of so much other theology, the line stands out as a thrown gauntlet from the Traditionalist Gibson: you're either with us or without us. But let's face it: this is not so much a film as a religious film; did anyone think it wouldn't take a stand on the one true faith?

Gibson etches Jewish high priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) in darkly sinister shorthand while elaborating on the moral dilemma of Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov); Gibson also depicts Jesus letting Pilate off the hook (" is he who has delivered me to you who has the greater sin"). Though long-standing traditions in the telling of the story, these choices imply a greater ultimate responsibility for Jesus's death lies with the priests and the bloodthirsty Jewish "rabble." But if such historicity is dubious, Gibson also elaborates on Jesus's torture at the hands of gleeful Roman soldiers and, in what may be the film's most purely effective dramatic episode, tenderly depicts the sympathetic gestures of Simon of Cyrene (a spot-on Jarreth Merz), who is clearly identified as a Jew.

Gibson pauses to recall the simpatico relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalen (a deglamourized Monica Bellucci), as well as the downward slope of the character arc of Judas, played by Luca Lionello. In the latter case, Gibson again overplays his hand, this time with a horror-movie aesthetic. The children who torment Judas, as well as a baby later cradled by the androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), are revealed to be feral, milky-eyed, devilish perversions of nature. Other than the flashes of Satan, Gibson's most prominent stylistic flourish is the single, computer-generated drop of rain (the tear of God?) which accompanies the Christ's passing. The terrific cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does fine work, from the blue-bathed opening in the Garden of Gethsemane to the bitter end, and dead language fans, who may turn out to be the film's primary secular audience, will enjoy the film's commitment to subtitled Aramaic and "street" Latin.

Cynics might see Passion, heavily marketed to the media and the public, as a sure-fire return on an investment (Jesus suffered for your sins; you could at least watch his movie!), but Gibson's film seems as sufficiently sincere as it is dramatically incongruous. Repeatedly, the film asks the question "Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?" but the film began with the answer, on a plain black title card: " his wounds we are healed." Clearly, no audience is in this for the suspense. The Passion of the Christ works best as a piece of Roman Catholic art, a "stations of the Cross" with human models and painted in light, a series of Passion-play tableaux for those "in the know." This guaranteed blockbuster is for the faithful, who are faithfully weeping and sharply catching their breath in theatres around the country.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Lossless 5.1

Street date: 2/10/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The Passion of the Christ debuts on Blu-ray in a "Definitive Edition" that includes the original theatrical version as well as the "edited for graphic depictions" version "Passion Recut" (4:41 shorter, blotting the bloodiness a bit). The picture quality is spectacular in this hi-def upgrade: colors are rich and true, detail is excellent, and the image lacks any digital noise. Every nuance of the soundscape is preserved in a mighty impressive DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 mix.

This two-disc set is loaded up with bonus features, including no less than five commentaries: commentary for the visually impaired, commentary with director/producer/co-screenwriter Mel Gibson, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and editor John Wright, production commentary by producer Stephen McEveety, visual effects supervisor/second unit director Ted Rae and special make-up and visual efects designer Keith Vanderlaan, theological commentary by Gibson, language consultant and Aramaic/Latin translator Father William Fulco and theologians Gerry Matatics and Father John Bartunek, and a music commentary by composer John Debney (selected scenes). Disc one also includes a Footnotes trivia track that's optional during playback.

Disc Two, which is a standard definition DVD, houses the rest of the bonus features, beginning with the definitive documentary "By His Wounds, We Are Healed: Making The Passion of the Christ" (1:40:22). The doc covers script development, the use of ancient languages, locations, design, casting, Gibson's direction, Deschanel's photography, makeup and visual effects, post-production, marketing, and the film's meaning to the filmmakers; we also get to see Gibson on set in a Patch Adams nose (in the chapter called "Breaking the Tension"). Interviewees include Gibson, producer Bruce Davey, McEveety, screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, Fulco, Deschanel, casting director Shaila Rubin, Maia Morgenstern, Jim Caviezel, costume designer Maurizio Millenotti, Monica Bellucci, makeup prosthetics Christien Tinsley, Vanderlaan, Rae, Wright, Debney, lyricist Lisbeth Scott, supervising sound editor Sean McCormack, supervising sound editor Kami Asgar, supervising sound mixer Kevin O'Connell, sound designer Matt Temple, foley artists Vincent Guisetti & Pamela Nedd Kahn, ADR supervisor Renee Tondelli, dialogue mixer Scott Millan, effects mixer Bob Beemer, foley mixer Kyle Rochlin, Paul Lauer of Motive Entertainment, Bob Berney of New Market Films, and A. Larry Ross of Ross Communications.

"Below the Line Panel Discussion" (13:51) is a post-screening Q&A featuring Deschanel, Wright, Debney, Vanderlaan, Rae, McCormack, Asgar, and O'Connell.

Deleted Scenes are “Pilate” (2:08) and “Don’t Cry” (2:25).

"Through the Ages" (11:58) gives some historical context to the intersection of religion and art. Participants include IMAGE Journal editor Greg Wolfe, icon painter Alfonse Boryscwicz, and authors Wayne Forte and Mitchell Merback.

"Paths of a Journey" (9:24) is a guided tour of the path of the Stations of the Cross.

"On Language" (12:46) delves into the ancient languages heard in the film.

"Crucifixion: Punishment in the Ancient World" (17:28) allows crucifixion historian Dr. David Terasaka, Excavating Jesus author Dr. Jonathan L. Reed, and The Crucifixion of Jesus author Dr. Frederick T. Zugibe to discuss the history of crucifixions.

"Anno Domini" (10:04) expounds upon the place of Jesus' disciples.

Galleries include Production Art, with “Costume and Set Design” (30 images), “Technical Drawings” (15), and “Storyboards” (78 across four scenes). Historical Texts presents 142 Biblical images. Art Images breaks down into 14 “Stations” (151 images). Characters and Their Actors serves up biographies for James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Luca Lionello, Jarreth Merz, Francesco De Vito, Rosalinda Celentano, Sabrina Impacciatore, and Hristo Jivkov. Unit Photography provides 33 production stills.

Last up are "Theatrical Trailer G," "Theatrical Trailer R" and two TV Spots. No one will be arguing this isn't a definitive edition of The Passion of the Christ, so fans can proceed with confidence.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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