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Published March 26th, 2004 | by Adrian Mackinder

The Passion of The Christ Review

Classification: 18 Director: Mel Gibson Rating: 3/5

Before I write about this film I want to explain a little about the dilemma I faced when doing so. I was raised a Christian until I was about 11 when I decided that I didn’t want to write a poem about God and Jesus in order to get my Bronze Arrow badge at cub scouts. Just as Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg all those years ago, this precocious little so and so made a clear protest against a faith that, even then, he considered to have many flaws. For the record, he was then taken round the back and soundly beaten with a sockful of pennies for being such a pretentious berk

But the plot thickens further. My interest in religion grew over the years and I wound up taking a degree in theology and comparative religions at university, during which time I studied the gospels and interfaith dialogue at length. When I heard that Mel Gibson was making a film about the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, I took this to signify a bold, personal quest for Gibbo to make an ‘authentic’, dedicated adaptation of one of the most potent events in the Christian scriptures and I have been greatly anticipating a chance to see the finished film. It is this baggage that I bring to the film, of which I am totally aware, and so I shall try to write about it without travelling deep up my own posterior, lost in the stuffy quagmire of academic semantics. Judging from that last sentence, I’m obviously not trying hard enough.

Trouble is, it’s not as easy as that. Of course, The Passion must be judged on its merits as a piece of filmmaking, but part and parcel of a film’s worth, aside from the cinematography, acting and so on is the theme and message that lies within. Taking all this into account I can firmly say that The Passion is not only one of the most reactionary, potentially damaging films made about the Jesus story I have ever seen, but it is also a surprisingly clichéd, average piece of melodrama that beats you into submission with it’s brutal and seemingly relentless violence.

First off, the plus points. It is very well acted and while it is impossible to know what it would sound like to hear these dead languages spoken, the entire cast uniformly delivers its Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin lines with fluidity and conviction. Particularly impressive are Maia Morgenstern as Mary and Hristo Shopov as Pilate. Of course the focus however is on Jim Caveizel as the big JC, who masterfully conveys the kind of quiet dignity and conflicting emotions that you’d expect from a man who knew he had to endure intolerable suffering in order to complete his mission. In addition, the sound editing is excellent and there are a couple of nice shots by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

So what’s wrong with it? Well, Gibson’s main problem is that he has made a two-hour film that covers a story where not much actually happens. That is, Jesus is arrested, beaten and crucified. So, we have to endure an overlong journey up a small hill that seems to go on forever and it is not helped by Gibson’s fondness for using slow motion, which frankly is very tired when used in profound moments of religious cinema and makes the whole thing rather boring. The musical score does nothing to elevate this film either. While it meets all the requirements of an ‘epic’ soundtrack – sweeping, choral and bombastic – it manages to be surprisingly forgetful and generic, ready to be filed away for future use in a dozen film trailers to come.

As for the controversial violence, it is indeed relentlessly brutal, but it’s impact is reduced by the fact that Gibson made it so prolonged and heavy-handed. It pounds you into submission but after a while you become so desensitised to it you stop feeling the impact. Caviezel is convincing as a man taken beyond the brink of suffering, but he doesn’t bring anything different to the role that hasn’t been done from that of Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth, or even Willem Defoe in The Last Temptation Of Christ.

Lastly, all the things you may have read about it being anti-Semitic are true. The Passion is riddled with the kind of lazy elements that have been the thorn in the side of the Catholic Church for about two thousand years. When I heard this film was being made, perpetuating the notion of the Jews as Christ-killers, I thought that if this film is done correctly, that is, if this is a faithful retelling of the events in the New Testament, then sadly it WILL be anti-Semitic.

The Passion Narratives, particularly the gospel of John, are inherently anti-Semitic, largely due to the fact that when they were written down, decades after the death of Jesus they were done so with the intention of separating this new sect of Jesus followers from the rest of the Jewish people and to a lesser extent not to piss off the Romans who were throwing them to lions every other Thursday. This anti-Semitism is something that makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable and is often overlooked, but it’s undeniable that for two millennia the death of Jesus has been portrayed as the merciless act at the hands of a Jewish rabble, baying and jeering for blood while Pilate looked on in appalled astonishment, washing his hands of the whole thing. All these elements are present here, despite the fact, uniformly agreed upon by Jewish, Christian and secular theologians, that Pilate was a merciless tyrant who tortured and killed Jews at the drop of a hat and that the Jews couldn’t have put Jesus to death because they had no authority to crucify anyone – it was a Roman punishment and if the Jews really wanted to do so they would have stoned him to death.

Also, the notion that Jesus was some entity separate from the Jewish people who despised him and what he was saying has largely been dismissed as inaccurate. It is now generally agreed that Jesus was born, lived, taught and died a Jew, his Rabbinical teachings inline with those taught by the Jewish faith. Throughout The Passion, we see a load of gurning Jews, appalled and furious at the ‘shocking’ nature of what Jesus taught, their faces distorted in grotesque masks of hatred, while Pilate is portrayed as a noble man whose hand is forced by manipulative, scheming Jewish officials.

Overall this is a remarkably unremarkable film, lacking in subtlety and enshrouded in that depressing sense of Catholic guilt which Gibson no doubt wrestles with every night. Thanks Mel. And well done for setting back the public image of the Catholic Church about fifty years. But then what do I know – I never even got my bronze arrow at cubs.

Also read Ed Colley’s review of the Passion of The Christ.

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