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The Passion of the Christ (18)


Review by: Jack Foley

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Removable subtitles; Audio description for the sight impaired.

MEL Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has been labelled everything from a vile, hateful piece of cinema, capable of inspiring anti-Semitism, to a pertinent, and profoundly moving experience, which demonstrates the full extent of Christ’s suffering in excruciating detail.

And while it is difficult not to become influenced, in some way, by the opinions surrounding it, the most important thing is not to get carried away by them, and to enter with an open mind.

Religion, by its very nature, provokes controversy. It has been used as the basis for wars, and for some of the most appalling acts in history, so it was always going to follow that one man’s interpretation of one of the most important half-days in history was always going to be sensitive.

And yet I would be willing to wager that most of the people pictured campaigning outside US cinemas have yet to see it, incited to protest, no doubt, by those Jewish leaders who have done more for Gibson’s PR campaign than the distributors themselves.

The level of hype surrounding the project is now bordering on hysteria, with The Passion now being referred to, in certain circles, as ‘a phenomenon’.

Yet, at its heart, lies the intention, by Gibson, ‘to create a lasting piece of art and to stimulate serious thought and reflection among diverse audiences of all backgrounds’.

With this in mind, it has surpassed its objective, and, for all of its many flaws, remains a timely and hugely important piece of work, worthy of the more reasoned debate surrounding it.

The Passion, first and foremost, is as good as it is bad. Powerful, emotional and horrific, it is also guilty of violent excesses and of artistic licence.

Gibson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Benedict Fitzgerald, claims to have drawn faithfully from the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, for main sources, in order to ‘express the hugeness of the sacrifice, as well as the horror’ of that day.

And yet his film is embellished with creative flourishes, and scenes which are not contained within any of the Gospels. It is during these moments that the director leaves himself open to the biggest criticism, and when the film, itself, loses its impact.

A scene in which Judas is chased through the streets by demon-like children feels hopelessly manipulated, as are many of the scenes involving Satan, and by employing such modern cinematic techniques, Gibson cheapens proceedings.

Likewise, his decision to employ an overly manipulative score is something which fails to work in its favour. When announcing the project, Gibson stated that he intended to film it in the ‘dead’ languages of Aramaic and Latin, insisting that there would be no subtitles, as the images on show needed no explanation.

And while subtitles have subsequently been added (due to pressure), there is no need for the score, or, by extension, the over-use of MTV-style trickery, such as slow-motion.

Had the director stood back and let events unfold, much as they did on the day, their impact would be just as powerful, if not more so, whereas, instead, he has been left vulnerable to accusations that he has taken a perverse delight in the masochism on show.

 

A film about the final hours of Christ’s life is always going to be violent, and necessarily so, yet Gibson’s camera lingers, at times, where it really ought not to, feeling like a voyeur.

When Jesus is flogged, for instance, the audience must watch as drunken Roman thugs attack Jesus with sticks, and then with a cat ‘o nine tails, which tears his flesh repeatedly, reducing him to a piece of meat. Jesus is then ‘crowned’ with thorns, which are pressed into his head.

His path to Golgotha, too, is riddled with beatings, before the inevitable crucifixion, during which nails are banged into his hands and feet, and viewers are given a step-by-step guide on how to do it properly.

Such extremes tip-toe the line between necessity and gratuity. So while the extent of his sacrifice is beyond question, there is the feeling that Gibson has got a little carried away.

The violence, in fact, is a bigger issue than the anti-Semitism, an accusation which, in my opinion, is unfair and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Jews are not tarred with any one brush, yet their depiction is in line with what I remember being taught as a Catholic.

Jesus was handed over by the High Priest, Caiphas, and while his motivations aren’t explored by Gibson, there is no question, within the gospels themselves, that he didn’t strive to have Christ executed.

And while Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a sympathetic leader, who must balance the need for reason with his charge of preventing an uprising, it isn’t enough that he merely washes his hands of complicity. His Roman solders are barbaric in the extreme, while any discerning viewer may perceive his handling of the issue as cowardly.

Conversely, there are Jews who are portrayed as sympathetic, not least in the form of the holy man who is asked to help carry Christ’s cross, or those of his followers who attempt to show some compassion during his path to Golgotha.

The film is also broken up with flashbacks of Jesus’ life as a carpenter, his Sermon on the Mount, and the Last Supper, but while they hint at the charisma of the man, and his compassion, they provide only brief respites from the suffering.

This is, in the main, a harrowing experience, which occasionally seems to delight in its suffering and torment. It is in no way enjoyable, and yet it succeeds beyond the director’s wildest aspirations, and in spite of its flaws, because it has helped to bring religion back into the world.

Man’s inhumanity to man is effortlessly conveyed and feels especially relevant, when set against the context of the world as it stands today, while the movie/Christ’s message of forgiveness, and loving one’s enemy, seems particularly pertinent.

At a time when most churches will confess to dwindling congregations, the film succeeds where the clergy has, perhaps, failed, in securing serious debate about the issues raised within the New Testament. There isn’t a viewer among you who probably won’t question God’s role in the crucifixion, and why he was willing to allow his son to endure such suffering.

And as brutal as things become, there are pockets of emotion, which serve to underline the importance of love and forgiveness, not least of which is a sequence in which Christ’s mother goes to him, after he has fallen during his walk. The performances, without exception, are exemplary.

The Passion of the Christ is by no means the great film it is clearly striving to be, falling some way short of that status. But in terms of importance, and relevance, it is an almighty creation which, for all of its sins, may remind people of the importance of tolerance, love and forgiveness.

Gibson, it seems, has had his prayers answered, in terms of producing something that is capable of stimulating serious thought and reflection - a feat all too rare in modern entertainment.

Editor's note: We have declined to give this film a rating for the simple reason that we feel people should see it, if only to be part of the debate.


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