Film Reviews


By • Feb 25th, 2004 •

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Newmarket Films / Icon Productions
Running time — 126 minutes / MPAA rating: R

I strongly object to several disturbing movements altering the face of Christianity: (1) The feminization of Jesus Christ. (2) The slow but steady shunting aside of Jesus as the focal point of Christianity. Influential scholars loudly proclaim St. Paul the true architect of Christianity. Most significant, however, is (3) the powerful movement to declare a new papal dogma: The Blessed Virgin Mary as Co-Redeemer! Mary’s official title would be: “Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God.” (NEWSWEEK, August 25, 1997).

Mel Gibson returns Jesus Christ to Christianity.

Mel Gibson brilliantly uses the powerful medium of film as a visionary pathway. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a transformational conversion experience that makes film no longer soulless entertainment lulling the masses on weekends. It brings Jesus’ terrifying end visually to life using this era’s most potent tool, not “words” but “images”. Gibson is this millennium’s Saint Paul.

Why focus on the suffering of Jesus? Significantly, because it happened and it has been shunted aside as disagreeable. It was a bloody, messy death. Tens of thousands of slaves and condemned men were crucified by the Romans. The victims rotted on crosses. Historians know the brutality of a scourging. We pray that the Holocaust is never whitewashed, so why sanitize crucifixion?

For centuries mystics and saints meditated on the passion of Christ for one compelling reason: Intense concentration on Jesus’ suffering ignited an unparalleled religious experience (exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata while meditating on Christ’s suffering.) In fact, it is now scientifically understood why: Such mental practice affects the limbic system. The dynamic visualization of suffering is a powerful trigger for the reptilian brain. Today, using images of tortured people and close-ups of flayed flesh, cutting-edge scientists are studying brain-mapping with sophisticated fMRI equipment. Brutal images have dramatic effects on brain chemistry.

Gibson, the harbinger of a malaise that can only be described as taedium vitae, is using THE PASSION as an agent for cathartic conversion.

This is masterful filmmaking by a skilled director. Every image evokes drama and intense conflict foreshadowing a dreadful end. Gibson creates an authentic atmosphere for his story. It is his vision. It is his creation. The chaos, the anger, the poverty, and the street violence are all visually stunning. You feel as if you are walking in the crowded streets.

The film chronicles Jesus’ last 12 hours for a very good reason. The time for conversation and ideological gamesmanship was over. Here lies the birth of Christianity. Gibson gives each character room to express emotion and conflict without words. This is a stunning achievement. We are completely engaged in all the characters on screen. Every face in the crowd is important. Hearing the characters speak in their own language is a very wise, important factor in understanding the clash of cultures. There is such a deep commitment to the material that one can imagine that this very well might have been exactly as it was.
I did not see THE PASSION as being anti-Semitic.

The choices director and co-writer (with Benedict Fitzgerald) Gibson made are fascinating. Beginning at the flashpoint, in the garden at Gethsemani, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is tormented by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano). In Jesus’ world, Satan was a dominant presence acknowledged as reality. Jesus is betrayed with a kiss by a deeply conflicted Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello). Judas actually attempts to turn back before identifying Jesus. He is brought before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), a troubled, harsh ruler forced to keep peace in an outpost of the Roman Empire he has absolute contempt for. He is clearly not interested in petty disagreements between the Jews. He must obey Caesar’s directive to keep order, yet ceding to the demands of the Pharisees only will compromise his position and strengthen theirs. The manipulator of the drama, the high priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), is driven by his position of privilege. For him, Jesus was a troublesome menace.

While criminals and slaves are crucified according to Pilate’s whim, he questions the motives of Caiphas. Perfunctorily, Pilate sends Jesus to King Herod (Luca De Dominicis) who dismisses the preacher as not worthy of his regard. Jesus’ sway over the people has challenged the authority of the Pharisees. They want to get rid of him but they are powerless since only Pilate can sentence a man to death.

I understand that Pilate was supposed to hold down uprisings, but Jesus was not the only “Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” (to use John Dominic Crossan’s tribute) preaching reform. Jesus lived in a time filled with apocalyptic prophets, healers, magicians, exorcists, and would-be messiahs. Jesus threatened the Pharisees authority over the people.
The scourging of Jesus is harrowing; yet, historical accounts I have read deemed it far more savage. Not only flesh, but organs were ripped. Death by crucifixion was intended to be horrible. Public cruelty had proved quite effective. Why mask it now? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge the true nature of Jesus’ death? Would everyone be more comfortable if we just re-wrote the New Testament and said Jesus bumped his head, fell down, died, and three days later woke up?

Caviezel’s performance is breathtaking and original; in fact, Gibson excels here bringing all the actors to peak performances. Regardless of the backlash against THE PASSION, and the clever phrases meant to mock it, this film is a revelation. It is peerless.


(1) For James Caviezel, who was struck by lightning on the set of THE PASSION: From “Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men” by Holger Kalweit, Chapter Four: “Lightning Shamans”: “Surely the most dramatic form of shamanic initiation is by lightning bolt.” “The Greeks believed a person stuck by lightning was in possession of magical powers, and in tribal cultures throughout the world lightning shamans are often venerated and feared as the mightiest of shamans.”

(2) “As the Romans soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.”

“The scourging prior to crucifixion served to weaken the condemned man and, if blood loss was considerable, to produce orthostatic hypotension and even hypovolemic shock. When the victim was thrown to the ground on his back, in preparation for transfixion of the hands, his scourging wounds most likely would become torn open again and contaminated with dirt. Furthermore, with each respiration, the painful scourging wounds would be scraped against the rough wood of the stipes. As a result, blood loss from the back probably would continue throughout the crucifixion ordeal.”

“Not uncommonly, insects would light upon or burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, ears, and nose of the dying and helpless victim, and birds of prey would tear at these sites. Moreover, it was customary to leave the corpse on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals. However, by Roman law, the family of the condemned could take the body for burial, after obtaining permission from the Roman judge.”

All quotes from “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” by William D. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, Mdiv; Floyd Hosmer, MS, AMI. Published as an appendix in “Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs” by Rev. Antonio Gallonio.

(3) Christopher Hitchens’ “The Gospel According to Mel” in Vanity Fair, March 2004: “If Christian orthodoxy is valid, then Judaism is futile: a pointless hanging-about for the arrival of the Messiah, who has already shown up. Why not just admit this, instead of whining with Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League about negative stereotypes and all the rest of the self-pitying babble? If the Jewish leadership had any guts, it would turn on those who taunt it with “Christ-killing” and say, “Yeah, all right, since you keep mentioning it, we did you a favor. Judas too. Where would your faith be without us?”

(4) To John Dominic Crossan: Your comments about THE PASSION on “Primetime Live” were preposterous. People haven’t stopped talking about Jesus and his crucifixion for over 2,000 years. You insult everyone by assuming we do not know what in the world Jesus was doing and why he was crucified. My large body of literature on Jesus includes your book “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” (which a Los Angeles Times article critically said “demoted” Jesus). If the man, the miracles, the message, the death, and the resurrection were all made up or at best mythologized, why hasn’t anyone since then come up with a more compelling story to capture the imagination of mankind?

Director: Mel Gibson
Screenwriters: Mel Gibson, Benedict Fitzgerald
Producers: Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, Steve McEveety
Executive producer: Enzo Sisti
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Francesco Frigeri
Music: John Debney
Special effects makeup: Keith Vanderlaan
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: John Wright

Jesus: Jim Caviezel
Mary: Maia Morgenstern
Mary Magdalene: Monica Bellucci
Satan: Rosalinda Celantano
Caiphas, the High Priest: Mattia Sbragia
Pontius Pilate: Hristo Naumov Shopov
Claudia Procles: Claudia Gerini
Judas Iscariot: Luca Lionello

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