[Screen It]


(2004) (James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern) (R)

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Drama: The last twelve hours of Jesus' life are portrayed from His arrest through His Crucifixion.
The Last Supper has just occurred and Jesus Christ (JAMES CAVIEZEL) is in the Garden of Olives praying and trying to resist the temptations offered Him by Satan (ROSALINDA CELANTANO). He succeeds at that, but one of His apostles, Judas Iscariot (LUCA LIONELLO), betrays his location to Caiphas (MATTIA SBRAGIA) and other Jewish high priests who promptly have him arrested.

Accusing him of heresy and other religious crimes, Caiphas wants Jesus executed, but lacks the authority to make or carry out such an order. Accordingly, he brings his demand to Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (HRISTO NAUMOV SPOPOV) as he's the only one with authority to call for a crucifixion.

Initially not swayed by Caiphas' accusations and heeding the suggestion of his wife, Claudia Procles (CLAUDIA GERINI), to spare Jesus, Pilate orders that Herod Antipas determine Jesus' fate, but the Judean leader sees no threat posed by the Prophet.

Thus, he's returned to Pilate who allows the Jews to decide whether Jesus or a convicted murderer should be set free. They choose the criminal and thus Pilate orders that Jesus be scourged, but allowed to live. To the horror of his mother, Mary (MAIA MORGENSTERN) and the healed Mary Magdalene (MONICA BELLUCCI), the Roman guards flog Jesus within an inch of his life.

When Jesus is returned to Pilate, the Governor asks the people one last time what should be done with the Messiah and they call for his crucifixion. He orders it to be and Jesus is then forced to carry his own cross to his point of execution.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
For those not up on their religious lexicon, the noun that starts the title "The Passion of the Christ" may lead them to think that it's thematically related to "The Last Temptation of Christ." After all, "passion" and "temptation" are often closely associated with one another in terms of carnality. For those in the know, however, "Passion" also refers to the suffering of Jesus following the Last Supper and through the Crucifixion.

Yet, this latest film from director Mel Gibson is related in more ways than one to Martin Scorsese's 1988 film. Both obviously deal with the Christian prophet, are artistic and personal interpretations of historical and faith-based events, and have generated a maelstrom of controversy.

Once upon a time, religion was treated with utmost reverence by Hollywood, with the prime example being "The Ten Commandments." Then along came "Monty Python's Life of Brian" that stirred up so much protest over its satirical nature that it was withdrawn from theatrical release. Scorsese's film and Kevin Smith's "Dogma" from 1999 followed, similarly provoking a different sort of passion among certain fundamentalists who tried to have the films banned.

Now along comes Gibson's film that's generated protests from some Jewish quarters over its supposed anti-Semitic nature. That's understandable for a number of reasons. For one, it follows a long line of so-called Passion plays that have been used over the centuries by fanatics as catalysts for anti-Semitic thoughts and actions (including by Hitler).

Gibson ("Braveheart," "The Man Without a Face") and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald (the TV movies "In Cold Blood," "Heart of Darkness") have also based their screenplay on their interpretation of the four Gospels of the New Testament, writings that traditionally haven't looked favorably on the Jewish people in regards to their involvement in Jesus' death. Finally, there's the fact that Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic who rejects Vatican 2, the papal reform that absolves Jews of such "guilt."

Armed with such knowledge, those looking for or who are already convinced of such anti-Semitism won't likely have to look hard to find it. Beyond Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene and a few followers, the Jews are not portrayed in the best light (nor are many of the Roman guards). Yet, since the film follows the word of the Gospels, it's nothing new in terms of such matters. Read into all of that what you may.

What is new, however, and has nearly generated as much controversy is the level of violence in the film. While I understand Gibson's desire - to show believers and non-believers alike the degree to which Jesus suffered to become the Christian Savior - he makes a fundamental mistake in the way he portrays it.

Rather than showing the violence as realistically as possible - as was done to shocking degree in "Saving Private Ryan" (that had the same intention of showing a historical event in a manner never seen before) - he ends up glorifying it in what many will argue is a sadistically obscene manner.

The brutality, severity and, yes, sadism of the beating and crucifixion are shown in all of their Hollywood glory, replete with state of the art special effects and make-up as well as scene after scene of slow-motion footage of the atrocities. Again, I understand and appreciate what the filmmaker is after with such material, but it's so over the top and artsy that it numbs and/or distances the viewer from what occurs on the screen.

Of course, since Gibson ponied up his own money to produce the film, he has the right to make it any way he pleases. Yet his nearly perverse fascination with the violence in Christ's last twelve hours as man robs the film of an important element.

Beyond a few brief flashbacks that thankfully if only temporarily remove us from the sensationalistic sadism, we bare see much about the protagonist, His teachings and what led to such harsh treatment. Some viewers will obviously argue that they already know the "back story" and thus don't need to have it presented to them.

But that's a flawed approach on several levels. If Gibson and his supporters are hoping the film will convert lax or non-Christians over to their side, they've sorely missed a prime opportunity. All suffering and little religious explanation or message ultimately boils down to the old axiom of "preaching to the choir."

And from a cinematic standpoint, it robs the film of its need to make the viewer sympathize with and/or agonize over Christ and his suffering. Yes, some viewers will automatically feel that way due to the religious beliefs they'll bring with them, but not everyone will. On that level, and due to the way the film has stylized the violence, it comes up short in comparison to films such as "Saving Private Ryan" or "Schindler's List" in engaging, moving and/or horrifying ALL viewers.

While actor James Caviezel ("High Crimes," "The Count of Monte Cristo") does a fine job portraying the physicality of the role (you'll likely wince along with him and completely believe what his character is enduring), there are only brief tastes of the man and religious Savior. As a result, and notwithstanding some viewers' likely reaction to the sound and fury of it all, the film isn't as emotionally connective or powerful as it could and should have been.

In the supporting roles, Hristo Naumov Spopov ("The Grey Zone," "Alien Hunter") is good as the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Yet, the religious revisionism of historical fact is troubling. Beyond a host of nitpicky details, making the brutal killing machine a sympathetic character -- who's torn about what to do with Jesus and eventually relents to the Jewish priests that the Roman Empire would have squashed if they behaved the way as presented here - obviously lends support to those anti-Semitic charges.

Maia Morgenstern ("Ulysses' Gaze," "The Seventh Room") and especially Monica Bellucci ("Malena," the last two "Matrix" films) are basically sidelined as Mary and Mary Magdalene respectively, Mattia Sbragia ("The Order," "Heaven") plays the brutal high priest who has it out for Jesus, and Rosalinda Celantano ("The Order," "Domenica") is creepy playing an androgynous version of Satan.

All of the dialogue is spoken in either Aramaic or what's referred to as "street Latin" and there are subtitles for those of us not fluent in either ancient language. Oddly, however, not all of what's spoken ends up written on the screen.

Tech credits are terrific, with superb work by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("Timeline," "The Hunted"), production designer Francesco Frigeri (Ripley's Game," "Titus") and obviously make-up artists Keith Vanderlaan and Greg Cannom ("Hannibal," "The Man Without a Face"). The effort is easily the best looking (and biggest budgeted) religious film in quite some time.

And I'm sure there will be viewers who will think it's great and/or find it profoundly moving. There's obviously nothing wrong with that and I'm not one to rain on someone's parade in viewing any movie as a religious experience.

Others, however, will likely be disturbed by the sensationalized violence, historical inaccuracies and the fact that Jesus and His message end up getting shortchanged in favor of all of the visceral mayhem in what amounts to Mel's version of the Gospels. "The Passion of the Christ" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 23, 2004 / Posted February 25, 2004

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