Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Christo Jivkov, Luca Lionello, Hristo Shopov
(126 minutes, Color)

In this day and age, any director who tries to make a film about a religious icon is destined for controversy. They can't even do as much as announce their intention without groups of people denouncing their so-called "disrespect" or banning their film before it even enters production. Jesus, especially, is a touhcy character amongst movie-goers. Too divine a characterization is met with disbelief and protest from people who label the film as "propoganda" designed to convert and evangelize. Too human a portrayal is singled out as blasphemous, as was the case with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. So when Mel Gibson announced his intent to make a film detailing only the last twelve hours of Jesus's life, people instantly scoffed and prepared the hateful condemnation. How could a man known for playing the action hero with limited directing experience possibly tackle a task so daunting as the end of the life of Jesus Christ?

Further skepticism arrived when Gibson announced that the film would be in foreign languages: Italian-based Latin and Aramaic. Gibson believed correctly that such a subject could not be approached in the vernacular, much less in English. It would destroy the film's credibility. Just entering the project, however, Gibson recieved little support. In 2002 the man behind Braveheart and the face of Lethal Weapon said this about his pet project: "This is a film about something that nobody wants to touch, shot in two dead languages. In Los Angeles they think I am insane, and maybe I am." Production came and went without a studio backer. Early clips that were released showed an incredibly bloody Jesus being flogged while cloaked Jewish officials watched without remorse. Allegations of anti-semitism ran rampant. In New York the film was deemed "unhealthy for Jews everywhere." 20th Century Fox backed out of the movie. When distribution and release became imminent, Gibson was on his own.

Lucky for all of us that Gibson thrived under pressure. His independent company, Icon Pictures, financed the movie and its distribution. In retrospect, it seems the accusations of anti-semitism created more publicity than Gibson could buy. Before release the movie's title had to be changed. Originally just The Passion, the film gained "of the Christ" because the previous title was already liscenced with the MPAA. After an uphill battle, the movie opened in theaters in February of 2004. When released the movie was an instant hit, making almost $100 million in just its opening weekend. People were enthralled by the movie's grace and power, but also alienated by its graphic violence, which soon became the new center of the movie's buzz.

Today it remains one of the most widely seen and talked-about movies of the decade, and with good reason. The Passion of the Christ is the type of movie some people wait their entire lives for: original, artistically flawless, and emotionally powerful and devastating. When I watched it for the first time, I honestly didn't know what to expect. I'd heard my Christian friends talk about how the movie changed their lives and faith. I'd heard many people renounce the movie as "deplorable," "shameless," and even "disgusting." Some praised the movie for its realism, and others, even many evangelical Christians (the movie's primary audience), condemn its explicit content. The weekend of Easter the movie was on display in my local library, so I took it home and watched it that night.

The movie's authentic atmosphere is instantly recognizable, even before the first Aramaic words leave the actors' mouths. This is partly due to John Debney's haunting score, which begins subtlety in the Garden of Gethsemane. There's something else, though, that's tough to put your finger on: tension that builds from the first seconds of the movie. There are no opening credits, and the movie's title isn't seen onscreen until its end. It starts immediately in the garden at night, and the audience is instantly with Jesus, next to him, begging his Lord for support through his last hours. As the first few minutes progress, we see Judas Iscariot betray Christ for thirty pieces of silver. The silver isn't merely handed to Judas, it is thrown at him. Gibson's camera follows it in slow motion as it soars through the air and lands on the stone ground with sharp and clanging noise. Judas scampers to collect all of the glistening coins. The camera slowly follows several events in the movie's first half hour, from seemingly insignificant movements (such as a torch burning or soldier stepping) to Jesus healing the severed ear of a Roman soldier. At first I thought the slow motion was being overused, but as it became less and less frequent and I stepped back to consider the movie, I realized that Gibson was using it to place the audience firmly in Jerusalem with the action. He wants to make it clear that he isn't simply telling this story, he's forcing you to experience it. Jesus and his followers aren't cinematic or from some Sunday school video. The centurians are sadistic and cruel. The final image of Jesus on the cross is hardly similar to one found on a crucifix: Gibson's Jesus is dirt-covered, sweaty, and drenched in blood and gore. The Passion of the Christ is placed firmly in grit. Gibson shies away from nothing.
Gibson directs Jim Caviezel as Jesus.
Jesus is captured and brought before the Sanhedrin and eventually Pontius Pilate. His initial punishment at Pilate's hands, whipping and then flogging, is shown in the movie's most famously violent sequence. It is true, the camera never looks away from Jesus's suffering. At one point a flagellant gets stuck in his side, and the Roman soldier inflicting the torture has to work to yank it out, tearing chunks of flesh with it. Just when you think the flogging is over, it begins again. Such relentless depiction was deemed unnecessary by many viewers and critics, who think it detracts from the movie's message. One critic, David Edelstein, labeled the movie "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre." Surely, when watching the violence play out, it feels like every minute is an hour. There were several times I instinctively looked away from the screen upon the impact of various blows. If Gibson wouldn't have included the violence, however, his movie could never have reached the same level of power. His intent in making it was to honestly convey what Jesus endured before being crucified. The movie is entirely violent and difficult to watch. Jesus's teachings and miracles only get minute screen time in important but brief flashbacks. The fact that 90-100 of the film's 120 minutes are explicitly devoted to the torture and execution of Christ caused many to turn away from the movie. When viewing it, however, it's impossible not to see that the movie is a labor of love. During the crucifixion scene, Gibson's hands nail Jesus to the cross. He said, "It was me that put him on the cross. It was my sins." The level of personal integrity and devotion Gibson brings to the movie keeps it from being anywhere near a routine, superficial retelling of Jesus's death. It's not easy to watch (one must be prepared for crunching bones, screams of agony, and ripped and frayed flesh), but no one can say the movie isn't sincere.

Another interesting touch Gibson brings to the movie is that he places it firmly in spirituality. The Devil is a character in the movie, portrayed as a pale hooded spectre. Though played by a woman, the Devil has no gender in the movie. It is simply there, omnipresent, hounding Christ on his way to the cross, and tempting him in the Garden. This is what makes the charges of anti-semitism in the movie so baseless. Gibson made it clear that his movie exists in a spiritual realm, where things are decided by the ultimate Good and Evil. The Jews truly decided nothing, it was God's will that Jesus came to Earth for the sole purpose of dying. The Jews are not the antagonists of the movie.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, The Passion of the Christ offers a thoughtful, original take on the end of Jesus's life. One doesn't have to believe in Jesus as the son of God to experience the movie on its brilliant aesthetic and artistic level. The movie's design is flawless in every way, and the performances are knock-outs all around, especially Jim Caviezel as Christ (who embodies the Savior with both human charisma and divine knowledge) and the beautiful Maia Morgenstern, who brings otherworldly grace and sorrow to the Virgin Mary. One of the movie's most devastating scenes follows Mary as she sees Jesus struggling under the weight of his cross. He falls and his crushed by the weight, and she instantly recalls a time when, as a toddler, Jesus fell and she raced to help him. She, without thinking, races to help her dying son, but is kept at arm's length by Jesus himself, who must accept his fate. Though the supporting performances aren't the main focus of the film, they are so powerful that watching the film without subtitles is a more purely emotional experience. The language lends authenticity, but the performances more than speak for themselves.

The Passion of the Christ puts the audience through the experience of Jesus's death for the sins of the world. It is an incredibly emotional and personal film, and it's majesty and breathtaking artistic integrity command respect and place it among the most influential movies of the 21st century.

The Passion of the Christ is rated R for sequences of graphic violence. The movie is absolutely not for kids, even if seen with parents or in a religious setting. It is the most abundantly, albeit necessarily, graphic and violent movie I've ever seen. Due to the film's financial success, Gibson re-released a cut version of it with some of the most graphic violence cut. The new, less-violent version still recieved an R rating from the MPAA. I would recommend kids waiting to see the full, uncut movie, but the cut version can be found in special DVD editions of the film.

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