late 20s black male; frustrated screenwriter who favors action,
comedy, and glossy, big budget movies over indie flicks, kiddie
flicks, and weepy Merchant Ivory fare
MOVIE BIASES: Controversy aside, I hear this has gut-wrenching
violence and I have a weak stomach.
MAJOR PLAYERS: Jim Caviezel (Frequency), Monica Bellucci (The
Matrix Reloaded), and co-writer, producer, director Mel Gibson
thing is certain: Jesus Christ has a lot of fans. At least
that's my thought as I stand in a line out to the PARKING
LOT at 11 AM in the morning. Unless you've been trapped in
Michael Jackson's basement fun room the past six months, you've
probably heard something of the controversy swirling around
Mel Gibson's unabashedly brutal and religious film - most
of which has occurred sight unseen of the movie. As a religious
Switzerland, I am going to do my neutral best to inform you
that, yes, there is a lot of "Passion" here. But
it's even more than you may think - or want.
Sold out to the Hebrew high priest Caiphus (Mattia Sbraga)
by his disciple Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello), Jesus (Caviezel)
is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and dragged before
trial by the somewhat powerless Roman governor Pontius Pilate
(Hristo Naumov Shopov). What follows is Jesus' last hours
on Earth, which includes numerous savage beatings, the baring
of the cross to Calvary, and being nailed to that cross, all
while fending off a taunting Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) and
trying to keep it together for his Father's salvation.
In the midst of all of the controversy (I'll get to that later),
the actual film itself may get lost. As if an Oscar win for
"Braveheart" wasn't validation enough, Gibson knows
what he's doing behind the camera. Aided by stunning cinematography
from the Oscar-nominated Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot), Gibson's
film is intense in almost every way. Visually, he gets us
started with a palpable sense of foreboding in the opening
fog-shrouded garden scene intercut with Judas' humiliating
sellout to an all-too eager Caiphus. There is no denying Mel
shot the heck outta this movie, many of the most effective,
intriguing shots coming from Jesus' point-of-view, even when
he's being dragged upside down. The musical score of wails,
chants, and yawningly plaintive songs in foreign tongues could
serve as an aural telling of the action on its own. Filmed
in the dead languages of Aramaic and Latin yet subtitled English,
Gibson's choice was a wise one, as the remoteness of the speech
helps set time and place just as well as any set piece does.
And then there is the brutality.
isn't even a word justifiable enough of the stomach-turning
violence captured in this film. As Jesus suffers through an
exhaustively long beating sequence, so too does the audience.
The only comparable experience I can remember is the forty
minute opening Normandy invasion sequence in "Saving
Private Ryan," but this movie punks even that. At least
in "Ryan" it was just that one scene of excessive,
prolonged physical cruelty. In "The Passion" it
is EVERYWHERE. The Roman soldiers are bestial, drunken idiots
who take a cartoonishly grotesque pleasure in imposing pain
and humiliation, making any scene dealing with authority or
punishment an entrée into Rodney King-like police brutality,
exponentiated. Jesus getting nailed to the cross is simply
And Gibson will tell you that's exactly the point. By enduring
the pain and suffering Jesus did, you're supposed to get a
feel for how much he sacrificed to die for humanity's sins.
By the time the Romans were done beating him the first time,
crucifixion was a blessing. Okay, Mel, I get it - it was bad.
Very bad. So bad that people in the audience were crying,
openly, like Mary (Maia Morgenstern) does the entire film
as she shadows her son with Mary Magdalene (Bellucci) from
station to station in his circuit training of degradation.
Fused with such bloody, powerful images, "The Passion"
is hard to look at and not be moved. As Caviezel's stoic glutton
for punishment Jesus struggles more and more, flashbacks to
an earlier, teaching Jesus aren't nearly enough to balance
out the carnage and inhumanity of the present. There is a
lot of beauty in what Jesus preaches. But how many slow-mo
shots of a bloody and torn up Jesus falling down do we need?
Also rhetorical are some of the issues surrounding a picture
like this. Organized religions, while uniting people in a
belief system, also have the power to divide. Rarely does
a movie come along like this where one's preconceived biases
will translate their viewing experience of it. For those who
clamor that this movie is anti-Semitic, sure, you can derive
that if you want to interpret it that way. Gibson had to know
he would be toeing that line when he decided to give protagonist
Jesus a strong antagonist (what every good story needs) in
the baleful, willful Jewish high elite leader Caiphus. Never
mind the good Jews who come to Jesus' aid, of whom there were
several. People are going to see what they want/are conditioned
to see. Same thing for those who will undoubtedly claim that
the movie is racist (yes, we know; Jesus was a black man but
that's a whole other article), or anti-Roman, or anti-this
denomination of Christianity or anti-that denomination, etc.,
etc. This movie, much like biblical texts such as the Bible
and the Koran that attempt to guide organized religions, will
be readily misinterpreted and misconstrued to fit peoples'
biases, agendas, and insecure fears. Movies, like all art,
are subjective experiences, granted. What I cannot stand is
when people take art in any form and, instead of criticizing
or dealing with what is there, try to rewrite it to fit their
own desires. Get ready for a whole lot of slanted "reviews"
coming from people who, unlike THE REEL DEAL, do not disclose
their own biases.
"You cannot go where I am going," Jesus says to
his disciples at the Last Supper in this movie. You're darn
right, I'm not - at least not again. I will never watch this
film again. If it comes on cable, I will change the channel;
if it's my in-flight movie, I'll just take a nap. I hope Mel
gets his money now (he financed the $25 million production
out of pocket) because I have a hard time believing "The
Passion" will make anyone's DVD library outside of diehard
religious zealots and slasher movie freaks. Sure, it's compelling
as a one-time experience, so involving and intense it was
the only time I've been to a Magic Johnson theater and not
hear one of "my people" talk at the screen or have
a cell phone go off. But I can't have such a disgusting, intense,
and draining experience in my home. It's extremely well done,
I won't deny that. But it's like my mom having a shot of Tequila
- it burns going down but one and she's done.
Overdone? Absolutely. Powerful? Positively.
It's pretty hot, go give it a shot - but only one shot.