The Passion of the Christ [Blu-Ray]
Director : Mel Gibson
Screenplay : Benedict Fitzgerald & Mel Gibson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : James Caviezel (Jesus), Monica Bellucci (Magdalen), Claudia Gerini (Claudia Procles), Maia Morgenstern (Mary), Sergio Rubini (Dismas), Toni Bertorelli (Annas), Roberto Bestazzoni (Malchus), Francesco Cabras (Gesmas), Rosalinda Celentano (Satan), Mattia Sbragia (Caiphas), Hristo Naumov Shopov (Pontius Pilate)
Pauline Kael, in her typically blunt, but insightful manner, summed up the dilemma of making movies about Jesus Christ when she complained about “that wretched masochistic piety that makes movies about Christ so sickly.” She noted that movies about Jesus tend to go in one of two directions: They are either overly pious postcards to the religious sect that can only be viewed as giggle-inducing kitsch by everyone else, the exemplar being King of Kings (1961) with its Rebel Without a Cause-handsome Jesus, or else they’re drab and static, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s black-and-white cinéma vérité-inspired The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Either way, they don’t make for good cinema, and they rarely if ever delve much beneath the most shallow of religious convictions out of fear of “offending” someone. The result, with very few exceptions (Martin Scorsese’s genuinely moving, but unorthodox The Last Temptation of Christ being one), are movies that are artistically and spiritually hollow because they amount to little more than moving illustrations of Bible stories.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, then, is a genuine anomaly, a film about the last days of Christ that is both reverent, but also frighteningly realistic and frequently daring. There is no sugar coating and prettifying in Gibson’s vision, but at the same time, he hasn’t made a bleak “art film” that keeps the audience at a distance. Rather, from the film’s very first frames in the Garden of Gethsemane, he draws you into his own telling of the most oft-told tale of the last 2,000 years and makes it immediate, striking, and compelling.
Gibson’s decision to focus on Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion focuses the film’s thematic gravity on the interrelated theological concepts of Jesus’ sacrifice and his duality as both human and divine. One of the chief faults of most films about Jesus is their unwillingness to concede to Jesus’ humanity. They take the notion of his “sinless” perfection to often wretched extremes, which saps all the dramatic power from his sacrifice--his willingness to endure levels of pain and humiliation and ultimately death that most people can’t even begin to fathom. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese focused almost exclusively on Christ’s humanity, which is the primary reason why that film infuriated so many fundamentalist Christians. They couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus having any doubts whatsoever, even though it is made plain in the Gospels that he was afraid of what he had to do and even begged God to spare him of having to do it.
The notion of Christ’s humanity in The Passion of the Christ is strengthened by the manner in which Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald structured the screenplay around the use of flashbacks. Thus, while the core of the film is the passion itself, the events are given context and meaning by going back to various moments in Jesus’ life. Some of these are well known from traditional Bible stories, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, and Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, while others take imaginative literary license, such as a scene depicting the relationship between Jesus and Mary (Maia Morgenstern). In isolation, these scenes fall into the simple illustrative rut in which most movies about Jesus are mired. However, by putting them in juxtaposition with Jesus’ suffering, they take on thematic significance--when Christ declares to his disciples that his fundamental directive to them is to “love one another,” the power of that statement is intensified by the fact that it comes just before the first nail is driven into his hand.
Though ultimately inexplicable in human terms, Gibson manages to convey Jesus’ central (some would say contradictory) dichotomy--his simultaneous humanity and divinity--in a way that is neither a pious cop-out nor a revisionist corrective. Caviezel in a gritty, immensely physical performance, Jesus embodies both easily recognizable human fears and a divine sense of mission that allows him to endure when he could bail at any moment.
And endure, he does. Much has been made of the graphic nature of the film, the way in which Gibson focuses our attention on every lash of the whip, every pummel of a fist, every inch those nails are driven in. No doubt, this is the bloodiest, most horrifying depiction of the passion ever committed to celluloid, and cynics can’t be faulted for seeing a certain level of masochism in the blood-spattered gore. For the most part, Gibson’s depictions of the most extreme aspects of the passion are well-balanced with a rigorous sense of spirituality and emotional investment. For example, when Jesus is being whipped by the Roman guards, Gibson gives us enough unedited shots of the lashes tearing away Jesus’ flesh to get the point across about the brutality of this particular torture, but he spends just as much time showing the reactions of Mary and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) to remind us that others suffer, as well.
Gibson’s only real aesthetic fault is his insistent overuse of slow motion to add gravity to what is already grave enough. Some of the scenes, with their relentless and showy intercutting of action and slow motion, might lead one to believe that Gibson had studied up on a few too many Peckinpah films before deciding how to deploy the violence. There are also some historical problems (such as Jesus carrying the entire cross up to Golgotha instead of just the crossbeam) that seem significant only because the filmmakers have made it clear that they intend for this to be the most accurate, realistic depiction of Jesus’ suffering ever (even going so far as the brilliant decision to film all the dialogue in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew). It makes one wonder whether Gibson was more committed to the tenets of traditional Christian iconography or the realities of the archaeological record.
Yet, those small quibbles aside, The Passion of the Christ is a revelatory film. With such films, it is hard to separate the film from the filmmaker, as Gibson’s devotion to his beliefs inflect every frame. For many Christians, this is a positive thing, as they will read the artist’s devotion into the film and see it as that much more soul-stirring. Some nonbelievers will see it as just the opposite, using Gibson’s religious convictions as proof that the film is a labored example of preaching to the choir while masochistically and pointlessly dwelling on the graphic details. Both viewpoints miss the real achievement in The Passion of the Christ, something I hope that both believers and nonbelievers alike will be able to see: Gibson has taken a story of great familiarity, one of the central myths that has structured the moral universe of millions of people, and used the artistry of filmmaking to convey its spiritual depths.
Note: Astute readers will notice that I did not once address the charge of anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ. This is mainly because I feel like the entire controversy around the film was a bloated and self-serving means for various groups on both sides to draw attention to themselves (I would particularly note how the controversy all but guaranteed boffo box office). The film in no way seemed anti-Semitic to me. Yes, the Pharisees, particularly Caiphas, are clearly portrayed as being out for Jesus’ blood, but this is more to protect what little power they still wielded in Roman-occupied Jerusalem (although, to be fair, Gibson could have spent a little more time exploring Caiphas’ inner turmoil beyond a few shots of him that suggest he is morally troubled by what is happening). Some of the Pharisees are depicted as being against Jesus’ persecution, and while the crowds call for his death, there are many among them who do not go along. If we’re judging anti-Semitism by how villainous the Pharisees are presented and how dubious Pilate is of sentencing Jesus to death, then Jesus Christ Superstar is 100 times more anti-Semitic than The Passion of the Christ. More than anything, though, Gibson accentuates the idea that Christ willingly died of his own accord. Anyone who blames the Jews for killing Jesus has not only missed the boat, but can’t even find the river.
|The Passion of the Christ Definitive Edition Blu-Ray|
|This Blu-Ray disc contains two versions of the film: the original theatrical cut and a less violent alternate cut.|
|Audio||Aramaic/Hebrew/Latin DTS-HD 5.1 surround|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Tagalog, Thai|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 17, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The 1080p high-definition anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) transfer of The Passion of the Christ has been authored on a dual-layer BD50 disc and looks superb. As violent and disturbing as much of the imagery is, this is also a visually gorgeous film that director Mel Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel designed to consciously evoke Renaissance paintings. The early portions of the film are all dark and inky blues, and the shadow detail is simply amazing in keeping the image from sinking into murkiness. Much of the rest of the film emphasizes various tones of gold and red, all of which are handled quite beautifully with a great deal of fine detail. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is also outstanding, with great surround effects that makes the film’s powerful score sound particularly rich and full.|
|The majority of the supplements in this two-disc set are reproduced from the 2007 “Definitive Edition” DVD. The first disc, which contains both the original R-rated theatrical cut of the film and the less violent “recut” version that was released theatrically in 2005 features no less than four audio commentaries: The “Filmmakers Commentary” features director Mel Gibson, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and editor John Wright; the “Production Commentary” features producer John McEveety, special effects supervisor Ted Rae, and make-up visual effects designer Keith Vanderlaa; the “Theological Commentary” again features Gibson along with language consultant/translator Father William Fulco and theologians Gerry Matatics and Father John Bartunek; and finally there is a selected-scene audio commentary by composer John Debney. After listening to sizable portions of each commentary, I can report that they are all engaging and informative and certainly worth a listen, although I found the theological commentary to be one of the most interesting, if only because it reveals so clearly the film’s theological depth, which more than adequately takes to task the criticism that it is just a sadistic horrorshow. Another option is the “Enhanced Viewing Mode,” which essentially uses a subtitle track to put background information and relevant Bible verses on the screen during the film. |
The second disc is a standard-definition DVD and is divided into three sections: “Filmmaking,” “Legacy,” and “Galleries.” The “Filmmaking” section opens with By His Wounds We Are Healed: The Making of The Passion of The Christ, a 1-hour-and-40-minute documentary that covers every aspect of the film’s production and reception, from writing the script, to translating it into Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin, to location scouting and casting, to the special effects, editing, and marketing. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, as well as new interviews with Gibson, star Jim Caviezel, cinematographer Caleb Descanel, editor John Wright, and language expert Father William Fulco. Also included in this section is a 14-minute panel discussion following a screening of the film and two deleted scenes (each of which are about two minutes in length).
The “Legacy” section is comprised of five shorter featurettes. “Through the Ages” (12 min.) features interviews with several artists and art historians discussing the relationship between Christianity and art and how the passion has been depicted artistically over the centuries. “Paths of a Journey” (9 min.) is about the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the seven-mile stretch that tradition asserts was the path walked by Christ to his crucifixion. “On Language” (13 min.) is an extended interview with Father William Fulco about how he went about recreating first-century Aramaic and training the actors in speaking it. “Crucifixion: Punishment in the Ancient World” (17 min.) features several historians who discuss the grisly history of crucifixion and its role in the Christ story. And, finally, “Anno Domini” (10 min.) gives a brief recounting of what happened to those who knew Jesus (his disciples, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, Mary, etc.), some of which is based on historical research and some of which is based on tradition.
Lastly, the “Galleries” section contains five stills galleries, two theatrical trailers, and two television spots. The Production Art gallery is actually three separate galleries: Costume and Set Design, Technical Drawings, and Storyboards for four scenes. The Historical Texts gallery is just a reprinting of the various Gospel accounts of the passion and resurrection. The Art Images gallery includes a plethora of paintings and other illustrations of the passion, many of which were used for visual inspiration for the film. The Characters and Their Actors gallery gives background information on all the main actors, and the Unit Photography gallery contains dozens of behind-the-scenes photographs.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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