Film reviews

The Passion of the Christ, Dir; Mel Gibson, Cert; 18

After so much hype and controversy surrounding this religious controversy magnet, I was beginning to believe it was all yet another marketing ploy for mediocrity. However, Mel Gibson’s previous film as a director, Braveheart, as over-baked as it was, proved to the world that he could certainly handle a historical epic and Oscar rewarded him for this. We have waited nine years for another director’s outing and it is a far cry from the mediocrity the media would have you believe.

The first thing that struck me about this film was the way the viewer is thrown straight into the world of the Bible as if you’re already clued-up on it. I pressed on with my basic Sunday school knowledge to find that there was very little substance in the plot. Jesus, played with a quiet dignity by Jim Caviezel, is betrayed by Judas and is arrested for blasphemy. He is then taken to Jerusalem, put on trial, punished and condemned to death by crucifixion. That is the film in its entirety. However what the film lacks in plot, it makes up in storytelling. Bear in mind that Gibson originally wanted to release the film without the English subtitles, letting the performances and visual impact speak for themselves without clunky dialogue. Yes, this is basically a silent film. It does have dialogue (authentically Aramaic and Latin), sound and a lovely original score by John Debney but the rich cinematography tells more about the narrative than the dialogue does; much like the quiet moments in Sergio Leone’s westerns. This is something quite special indeed.

One of the main aspects and criticisms of the film, both positive and negative, is the violence. Never before have I seen such graphic and brutal bloodshed in a mainstream film. It is far from subtle. The camera never shies away from the aggression either. Pontius Pilate, nicely underplayed by Hristo Shopov, is indifferent about what to do with Jesus. After a long talk with the accusing crowd, he asks for him to be taken away and punished. We then must endure the whole procession of Jesus’ punishment, from the initial chaining up, right down to a lot of close ups of his wounds being inflicted. There is never a moment where you feel there is a barrier of the cinema screen separating you and him. One of the many negative reactions to this liberal carnage is that Gibson has just made something for pure exploitation. It almost is that but it avoids going a step too far. The generous sprinkling of blood is there for two reasons. The first reason is that this is what the scriptures actually say; it is realistic and true to the original source. The second reason is to show how much this one man suffered without saying a word, without complaining or making excuses. He is being killed for the sins of the world without taking revenge – an acknowledgment of pacifism. The film’s full emotional impact comes from the long moments of violence. This is where the Sunday school connections end.

There are some amazing tranquil moments told in flashback, often in the middle of a very brutal moment which can be quite jarring at times; Jesus and his disciples at The Last Supper; Jesus as a carpenter having just built a table. One poignant moment comes when our protagonist is forced to carry the entire cross to Golgotha but stumbles and falls as his mother runs to help him. This is intercut with a flashback of Jesus as a small boy falling over innocently and shows a tender moment of motherly love that sprouts from a scene of painful torture. There are plenty of moments for sadness mainly from the copious shots of close-ups of onlookers and their reactions to Jesus’ pain. Moments such as these really help bring forward the emotions that the film strives for and achieves with ease.

The supporting cast, particularly Maia Morgenstern’s weeping Mary and Rosalinda Celentano’s androgynous, otherworldly Satan are extremely good. The original score is marvelous, the cinematography beautiful, the setting authentic. Mel Gibson has made a film that is all storytelling and no story. It is a moving and often shocking piece of work that will divide critics and audiences. It is also an important film as it is a step forward in the taboo area of religion, particularly in art. 9/10

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