Is nothing Sacred?

If you go to the movies to be entertained, distracted or amused, then “The Passion of The Christ” (Newmarket Films) is not your kind of film. You’re signing up to watch a man be beaten, tortured and killed in extremely graphic detail. It’s a film made to provoke and upset, disarm and engage. To that end, it is remarkably successful. Regardless of one’s position on the life and work of Jesus, “Passion” evokes enough sympathy for its subject, taps deep enough into the root of human pathos, that it would be difficult to leave the theater feeling nothing.

The life of Jesus has been committed to film many times in the past, but with the exception of Pier Paolo Passolini’s 1964 “The Gospel of St. Matthew,” they all sentimentalize their subject, shroud him in mysticism and skip over the harshness of the end of the story. Not so with “Passion.” Mel Gibson, who directed, produced and co-wrote the film, has managed to weave together all four gospel narratives, along with a few apocryphal sources, into a reasonably faithful, excruciatingly graphic and surprisingly human narrative of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. Anyone not at least vaguely familiar with those events would do well to forgo the film entirely, as it doesn’t really provide any background.

The film was shot entirely in Latin and Aramaic and has incredibly meticulous art direction – which, when combined with the fact that Jesus isn’t a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Anglo-Saxon – gives the film a look of gritty, dust-blown realism. As mentioned before, it is also unflinchingly violent. The camera never pulls away from a blow, never spares the viewer for an instant. During the 30-minute-plus sequence in which Jesus is flogged, the audience is forced to watch as Roman soldiers tear the skin off Jesus’ back with whips, laughing as the blood sprays in their faces. While graphic, however, “Passion” is not excessive or indulgent.

Most films about Jesus draw their power from the supposition that the audience has a deep connection to the subject, and so the films work exclusively on that level, if at all. “Passion” is different. The film’s emotional impact hinges on the determination with which Jesus marches toward his own death, and to convey that, the audience must understand his suffering. While the religious aspects of the story are still readily apparent, Gibson doesn’t hide the doubt, the fear or the agony of Jesus; instead, he allows him to be fully realized, and all too human.

For the most part, the acting is surprisingly fine, despite being done entirely in dead languages – when there’s any dialogue at all. James Caviezel gives a surprisingly subtle performance as Jesus, preferring a slight grimace or a weary glance to the overstated grand gestures that usually accompany the role. Also of note, Hristo Shopov delivers an unusually morally ambiguous Pontius Pilate to counter Mattia Sbragia’s equally poignant and wonderfully cruel Caiphas, the high priest who has Jesus arrested.

Some have feared that the film would blame the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jews and spark a wave of anti-Semitism. If you walked into the film believing that the Jews killed Jesus, the film would not be able to convince you otherwise, and you might be able to twist a few scenes into serving as evidence for point, but you’d seriously have to stretch it. One can read hate into anything with enough effort and determination. This film is no exception, but it does not in any sense blame a group of people for the death of Jesus. Instead, it looks to something in human nature, glimpsing it in the fleeing apostles, the mad chanting of the crowd and the sadistic laughter of the Roman guards – the cowardice that makes cruelty possible.

Periodically, the camera cuts to Jesus’ point of view, with long tracking shots of the crowd that has gathered around to watch him suffer and die. The crowd, Jews and Romans alike, is often portrayed as the villain in “Passion,” jeering, gawking, waiting for a man to die and delighting in his pain. At the end of each of these sequences, the camera cuts back to Jesus’ face, and for an instant, he looks at the camera. He asks an uncomfortable and subtle cinematic question with that glance, and it sums up much of the horror and the power the film holds.

“Passion” is not a perfect film by any means. It can overplay its hand at times, and some of the extra-biblical passages may frustrate purists and confuse those unfamiliar with the source material. But it’s an earnest, engaging film that’s not afraid of its own weight. That alone makes it the best rendition of the life of Jesus ever made, and perhaps the only one that has anything to offer to non-Christian viewers.

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