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The Passion of the Christ

Molly Griffin | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Passion of Christ is without a doubt a controversial film, and Hollywood usually adores any buzz surrounding a project – both negative and positive. Religion, though, remains a taboo topic, however rife with juicy controversy thought it may be. Hollywood doesn’t like the fact that it arouses more than mere outcry – it causes moral outrage and financial backlash. Nevertheless Mel Gibson, through his vast monetary resources and celebrity clout, has finally pulled off the religious film that Hollywood has been looking for. It is a controversial, moving, artistic and spiritual film that can be appreciated by believers and nonbelievers alike. The film follows Jesus from his condemnation to his death by crucifixion, and it is interspersed with moments from his life and ministry. The story blends the Passion accounts of the four New Testament gospels, and thus adheres to Biblical and not historical accounts, making the film more concerned with spirituality than accuracy. Controversy has arisen from the film’s apparent blaming of the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion and the sympathetic portrayal of Pontius Pilate. But in the film, no one is explicitly blamed for the death of Christ. The film reveals the tension between the Roman government, the Jewish people and the radical religion that Jesus has begun. Mob mentality and Pilate’s wish to avoid rebellion seem more at the heart of the events that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion than the fault of an entire race of people. The strength of the actors in the film emerges as one of the most powerful elements of the movie. Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene exude complicated emotions with their facial expressions and intonations, even while speaking other tongues. James Caviezel, who plays Jesus, gives the spiritual leader an aura of serenity and peace amidst chaotic surroundings. Maia Morgenstern’s portrayal of Mary evokes the speechless pain of a mother losing her only son in a gruesome way, but she also exudes serenity and strength despite the crippling sense of helplessness that overwhelms her. Another woman reeling from Jesus’ death is Mary Magdalene, played by Monica Bellucci, who adds another layer to the sense of absolute helplessness and sorrow that envelops those who followed Jesus. Gibson takes some artistic license with his direction of the film, but most of his decisions add a deeper spiritual and emotional layer to the basic narrative of the film. During key moments of Jesus’ suffering, the film flashes to parallel moments from his life and ministry. While Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha, the film flashes to his welcome reception into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) only a short while before being sentenced to death by the same crowd, and when Mary runs to Jesus’ side after he stumbles, it flashes to her helping her son as a toddler when he falls. Another unusual use of parallels comes from Gibson’s choice to actually personify evil. At key moments, evil appears in the form of small children, a vaguely serpentine Mary-figure and a deathly perversion of the Madonna and Child. The choice to make evil a palpable force in the film certainly evokes controversy, but it adds to the sense that the inherent evil of humanity is at the root of the story that we are watching. The word “crucifixion” will hold new meaning for those who see the film, for simply hearing the word fails to encompass the true graphic horror that this form of capital punishment stands for. The film does not flinch while showing, in vivid detail, all that Jesus endured on his slow path to death. He first receives a scourging at the hands of Roman soldiers, and he is beaten and lashed until his entire body is nothing but raw, bloody shreds. He then must carry the wooden cross upon which he will die, and he must hang on the cross by the nails in his hands until death finally comes. The crucifixion scenes are horrifically graphic, but they are also tremendously moving because they reveal the suffering that Jesus endures and the grace with which he bears it. The film’s ending remains the least fulfilling part of the film, which is an extremely brief scene telling of Jesus’ resurrection. It is ironic that this is the least fulfilling element of the film, because it is supposed to be the most fulfilling aspect of Christian doctrine. But this scene feels tacked on and offers no insight into the significance this event has or its relation to the Passion. Cinematically speaking, it would have been better to leave this idea out or explicate it further instead of just leaving a brief teaser at the end. The Passion of Christ is not easy to watch – it is in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic with subtitles, it contains a graphic crucifixion and deals with deep and difficult spiritual ideas. But it is also a powerful film that transcends the controversy it creates.