Movies by Matt: The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ If one were to measure the quality of a movie solely by the passion with which it was made, Mel Gibson’s labor of love “The Passion of the Christ”, out in theaters now, would be one of the finest films in existence. However, passion does not always equal greatness. Filmed entirely in Latin and Aramaic, with English subtitles, the two-hour long film traces the final twelve hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, condemned to death by Roman governor Pontius Pilate. A firestorm of controversy has surrounded the release of this film, as allegations of anti-Semitism have plagued Gibson and his film. This humble critic is neither willing nor able (750-word limit!) to engage this controversy, though whatever anti-Semitism may exist in the film seems to emerge purely as a result of the necessity for a villain (Caiphas, High Priest). The film does craft regret in Caiphas, however, as well as blame in the weak acquiescence of Pilate. Thus the claims of anti-Semitism, if not completely false, are definitely suspect on closer viewing. The film is one of unbelievable brutality—nothing in the history of cinema, save possibly the first forty minutes of the WWII epic “Saving Private Ryan”, can compare with the pure horror of this movie. Not for the faint of heart under any circumstances, the film’s bloodshed renders the viewer speechless and retains a fidelity to the Bible that borders on insanity. While the horrific images may disgust some, it did give this viewer an emotional pause that other films often fail to reach. Gibson’s loving craftsmanship and cinematography also reflects his utter passion for the material and draws the viewer into the story. However, what the film gains in the vigor of the plot and camerawork, it loses in character development. Jim Caviezel’s Jesus, an immortal tragic hero, is heartbreakingly silent, the cries of his anguish never resonating beyond our level of horror at his torture. Caviezel, covered in blood throughout the film, is pitch-perfect at revealing Jesus’s pain, but because of the script’s shortcomings, we never see Jesus, except in a few flashbacks, as anything but a religious martyr. Monica Belluci is equally gripping as the silent, weary-eyed Mary Magdalene, her dark orb-like eyes constantly filled with sorrow and powerful faith in Jesus. Her face is gray and painful throughout, her words spoken strongly and with the conviction of a woman whose mind cannot comprehend the hatred of Jesus’s persecutors. Again, however, the script’s apparent lack of faith in the actors prevents Belluci from reaching the emotional heights for which the viewer might hope. Furthermore, her dour face, like Caviezel’s anguish, never reaches the viewer’s deepest human levels, and even becomes somewhat tiresome as we become increasingly immune to its horrific grayness. The real revelations in the film are its two largest supporting roles, Mattia Sbragia as Caiphas and Hristo Naumov Shopov as Pontius Pilate. Sbragia’s contemptible character is beautifully crafted, hatred emanating from his very soul as his cries for crucifixion startle even the most numbed viewer. For Sbragia to master such intense emotions is a tribute to his work as an actor, and he reaches heights of passion and depths of regret that are unmatched by any character save Shopov’s Pilate. Shopov is amazing as the ambivalent Pilate, whose struggles with rebellion and religious intolerance leave him torn between his own life and the life of an innocent man. His decision is central to the film and his face, words, and glances at his wife (played by Claudia Gerini) make the viewer believe that his struggle is real, his emotions true, his anguish positively horrible. Despite the solid acting in the film, the script prevents us from identifying with the characters’ problems and emotions; the viewer is left awed by the brutality but numbed to it as well, and Gibson’s overuse of Matrix-like slow motion sequences changes an epic tragedy into a modern-world sermon. The intensity of the film is well appreciated, but the point of the film is so in-your-face that Gibson’s pontification about love and Judas’ betrayal seems forced and condescending. Melodrama is a major part of the film, with constant screaming, moaning and flagellation that becomes almost routine. Although the violence and passion is affecting and urgent, its overuse detracts from that urgency so that by the end of the film the viewer is not inside of the film but watching from a distance, like reading a history text rather than experiencing the history itself. Overall Grade: 4+