Gibson’s ‘Passion': a gory, violent film

By on March 4, 2004

Few films in recent years have elicited as much controversy and polarized sentiments as Mel Gibson’s uncompromising latest feature, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Many critics are quick to note the film’s extremely violent content, and some find Gibson’s handling of the gore to be fetishistic. Is the film anti-Semitic, as some of its detractor’s protest? That verdict depends, of course, on your socio-politico perspective.

The portrayal of the Sadducees, the wealthy ruling class led by high priest Caiaphas, is less than laudatory-but you could fault the source material as much as the director.

“The Passion of the Christ” is certainly a work of art. It is also the bloodiest hagiographic epic this reviewer has ever seen, but that is an observation and not a criticism. For the novelty of its controversial value, this film will rank alongside Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

As the title implies, director Gibson’s focus is on the “passion” of Jesus- a word that implies not only love but also pain and suffering. Here Gibson’s agenda is clear: when Christians say that Christ died for our sins, this is what is meant. In that sense, the film is superficial in that it reveals little about the teachings of this enigmatic figure, and instead capitalizes on the brutality of his punishment.

An audience expecting a spiritually enlightening experience will be disappointed. Anyone who brings their children for the dogmatic message is certifiable.

This is not a film for children, and many adults may have difficulty digesting the bloodletting extravaganza paraded onscreen.

Gibson’s insistence on foreign dialogue is a success, adding a layer of mysticism in the poetic tongues of Aramaic and street Latin.

The film opens in the Garden of Gethsemene near the Mount of Olives, shot beautifully by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel in blue hues and musky twilight, is meant to evoke the association of a Caravaggio painting.

Bathed in an ethereal beam of light, Jesus (James Caviezel) endures the verbal abuse of a dark robed androgyne (Rosalinda Celentano)-presumably Satan-as he awaits Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and his seizure by Roman soldiers.

Gibson does not bother to establish any kind of historical context, which hurts the picture because the capture of Jesus at night is significant. Why not take the rebel rouser during daylight? The answer is because the Romans feared an uprising in the Jewish peasantry- a crucial fact not evident in the film.

One could nit pick the historical inaccuracies all day, but the true triumphs and faults of the film are in Gibson’s technical choices. First and foremost, Gibson is a very conventionally minded, formalist filmmaker.

His film has attracted a large amount of negative press and hype for its subject matter alone, not its execution. There is nothing particularly innovative or inventive about his narrative grammar. Outside of the subtitles, it plays like any other typical Hollywood production. Conceived as film about Jesus’s final twelve hours, that is exactly what you get-no more, no less.

Gibson’s gratuitous use of slow-motion shots often belabor the point. The overrused effect sometimes borders on cariacature, like when Judas’s blood money is thrown to him in a slow-motion arc. These choices certaintly did not impress the desired effect on this viewer- at times, I felt like I was watching “Braveheart the Bible.”

There is a general rule in cinema: if the score calls attention to itself, it has failed its purpose. The presence of John Debney’s bombastic score often distracts from the visuals and drowns out any potential emotional energy a scene meant to convey.

The music prevents any kind of contemplative mood; this is the type of film that would have benefited from the silence. Imagery this powerful can speak volumes for itself.

Appreciation of this film will differ greatly. By the climax of the film, I was less moved by the experience of the film overall than I was impressed by my endurance. This was not meant to be an easy viewing experience, and in that respect it has succeeded greatly.

Sadly, the film collapses in its final moments thanks to Gibson’s ham-handed direction which insists that the sky crack, the ground shake and the temples quake. This may make intriguing scripture but it is hokey, flaccidfilmmaking.

And the final shot-of Jesus’s resurrection-is so silly in its presentation and out of place that it is practically self-parody. “The Passion of the Christ” is a genuine labor of love and faith, but when all is said and done, it is just a movie- and that may be it’s greatest and most excusable fault. In the end, it makes a better conversation piece than rousing cinema, but how many films are there that can claim at least that?


About Dan Newton