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Posted March 3, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

by Tom McCurrie

In the 1950s, Hollywood used to release a religious movie every other week -- THE ROBE, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, BEN-HUR, the list goes on longer than those Forty Days and Nights of Rain. But soon Biblical films seemed out of fashion. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) turned Jesus' life into a stultifying bore, while LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) satirized it so hilariously audiences couldn't take the Holy Scripture seriously as a movie subject for years.

But the Biblical film is back with a vengeance, as Mel Gibson's powerful THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST proves. Gritty, realistic and graphically violent, this is a bracing tonic to all those bland, sanitized portrayals of Jesus, one intense enough to grab hold of even the most jaded of audiences.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

One of the reasons PASSION works so well is because of the script, written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald. Movies (and drama itself) work better with a unity of time, place and action. This keeps the story from seeming too episodic, which in turn reduces emotional engagement. PASSION wisely focuses on a small portion of Jesus' life, the last twelve hours to be exact. These twelve hours are also the most gripping, as they show Jesus' torture and execution at the hands of the Romans. Structurally, the escalating tension is another plus, as we move from Jesus' show trial, to his more and more brutal beatings, to his final, excruciating death by crucifixion.

Adding to the intensity is PASSION's realism. Now this doesn't just mean the sets and costumes, which, of course, are first rate. I mean the film literally becomes a documentary on how to kill a man, through beatings, canings, scourgings, more beatings, and finally crucifixion. Gibson lingers over the torture scenes, not cutting away or selling the violence through sound effects as most movies tend to do today. This makes Jesus' demise so realistic it becomes overwhelming. The use of Latin and Aramaic, the actual spoken languages of the time, add to the authenticity and make the suffering on screen even more palpable.

However, Gibson makes sure to leaven the horrific tortures with flashbacks of Jesus with his mother Mary, with his disciples and with anyone who is willing to listen to his Love Thy Enemy teachings. This brings a warmth and humanity to a picture that might well have been too harrowing to watch otherwise. (Jim Caviezel's charismatic title performance aids immeasurably in this regard.)

In fact, to me the most devastating scene in the picture doesn't involve torture and bloodshed. It's when Mary flashes back to her son falling as a child when she sees him falling under the weight of the cross as an adult. But this time, she can't help and comfort her son, a profoundly human moment that makes our hearts break.

Stepping out of review mode for a minute, I'd like to address two issues swirling around this film. One is whether PASSION is Anti-Semitic. Well, as a Christian, and a graduate of a Jesuit college to boot, it may not be my place to judge. Though it's true we see the Pharisees press for Jesus' execution, some of the High Priests protest the railroading of this man, so all of them aren't painted with the same negative brush. If anything, the Romans are the true villains of the piece, coming across like a bunch of sadistic, giggling goons who can't wait to flay Jesus within an inch of his life. And the most sympathetic Roman, Pontius Pilate, is too weak-willed to save Jesus, making him equally culpable with the Pharisees. The other issue is the violence, which many accuse of being off-putting and excessive.

But PASSION in the end is no more graphically violent that your typical Schwarzenegger action flick (Sorry, Gov.). What really upsets people is that it's unmotivated -- the violence is not being directed against "bad guys" who rape, murder and pillage (which we would find justified and even enjoyable), but against a man who teaches us to love our fellow man whatever the cost (which we find unwarranted and impossible to enjoy at all). So it's really not the violence that bothers people, but the context in which that violence occurs. (This is similar to a point Pauline Kael made in her review of BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), another film which pushed the violence envelope.)

So Gibson is doing something provocative when it comes to screen violence here. By ladling on the blood so thick against a man who doesn't deserve it, he's suggesting that violence should never excite or entertain, or make us feel better about ourselves. He's suggesting that in the end, all violence is unmotivated, and thus should sicken and upset us just like this graphic tour of Jesus' sufferings does. I don't necessarily agree with Gibson -- I remain a committed Tarantino fan, after all -- but he's certainly got me thinking. I'll let you know how I feel after watching KILL BILL, VOL. 2 next month.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love 'em or Hate 'em at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive and a story analyst. He is currently a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.