Wednesday, February 25, 2004

'Passion' triumphs

Gibson's blood-drenched movie details agony, counters it with purity

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jarreth Merz, playing the role of Simon of Cyrene, helps Jim Caviezel, portraying Jesus Christ, carry the cross in The Passion of The Christ.
Photos by Marquis Films Ltd.

The most important question I ask myself when I review a movie is this: How well did it accomplish what it set out to do?

By that measure, The Passion of The Christ is a triumph. It is a compelling, emotional and beautifully crafted expression of religious devotion, albeit one drenched in blood.

In this film, producer/director/co-writer Mel Gibson means for the audience to feel every agony of the day that Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tortured and executed.

That he does with shocking efficiency. The film tells the darkest parts of this most famous story in excruciating detail. Gibson's point in asking us to watch a man being flayed front and back with whips tipped in jagged metal, for example, is to dramatize the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus endured his suffering to wipe clean the spiritual slate of all humanity's sins.

Gibson attends to the life of Jesus only in brief - though beautiful and often moving - flashbacks. We see Jesus rescue Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) from a stoning in a wordless, almost breathtaking scene.


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We also see moments from the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper. The most touching flashbacks belong to Jesus' mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern, in an outstanding and largely silent role), who remembers her little boy falling in the dirt and her grown son building a table in the yard.

But the primary topic here is death by slow torture, beginning with the moment of arrest. By the moment of death, Jesus is so battered and bloody he is hardly recognizable as human.

The severity of the images is without question deliberate. Whether it is necessary, I am not so sure. There are times when blood so dominates the screen that the meaning behind the violence all but withers away.

This movie sparked extraordinary tension among Jewish observers long before it was finished, with its implied echo of egregiously anti-Semitic medieval Passion Plays.

Those fears were unfounded. It is true that, as in the Gospels, Jerusalem's religious leaders are shown as the driving force behind the Crucifixion. But the movie also shows dissension among the Sanhedrin and others disapproving the trial.

The film also makes it clear that to nonbelievers of the time, Jesus seemed a madman at best, and at worst a dangerous radical with a growing cult following. Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald leave it to Roman governor Pontius Pilate to explain the threat that Jesus represented to the uneasy political balance between local Jewish authorities and their Roman overlords.

As Jesus, James Caviezel brings a warmth and humanity to the role that stands in striking contrast to the distant icon so often portrayed in gospel stories. Caviezel shows us a Jesus full of personal magnetism, the kind of man who could command the hearts of his followers as well as their faith.

Visually, Gibson and his colleagues turn the movie into a stunning series of tableaux that mirror the influence of Caravaggio and other Renaissance artists. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, costume designer Maurizio Millenotti, production designer Francesco Frigeri and the ancient Italian town of Matera deserve high praise for the movie's look.

Unlike literal versions of the Gospels, Gibson interjects elements of imagination. For instance, Judas hallucinates demonic faces among boys who taunt him as his mind cracks after his betrayal of Jesus. Gibson also shows Satan (Rosalonda Celentano), an androgynous, hooded figure lurking in the shadows whispering doubts and fears, then screaming in fury when Jesus dies with words of faith on his lips.

There is something of grand opera in Gibson's vision, full of extremity and slow-motion drama. That makes the very last scene, when Gibson invokes Jesus' resurrection, all the more striking. It is spare, simple, almost minimalist, and distinctly modern. There is a purity to it that relieves the preceding brutality far more eloquently than any choir of off-screen angels could do.


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