Friday, February 27, 2004

Gibson's 'Passion' transcends violence

—Originally published 2.27.04

Never before have I so openly wept while watching a movie.

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" absolutely accomplishes the filmmaker's goal -- in search of transcendence, it accurately portrays the brutal details of Jesus' death. The film is not moving for its violence, but rather its characters' responses to such horror.

Toward the end of the movie, the camera looks over Jesus' thorn-crowned head as gleeful Roman soldiers drive a spike through the Messiah's feet. Now in the final stages of his ordeal, Jesus begs God not for personal mercy, but forgiveness for his persecutors.

Thus is the life and mission of the Savior demonstrated in a few frames of film.

This is just one of countless moving scenes in "The Passion," certainly Gibson's best work since his Oscar-winning 1995 epic "Braveheart," and probably the crowning achievement of his career. He delves deep into the biblical characters and handles the story in almost a documentary style of non-embellishment. (Yes, characters such as Simon, who carries Jesus' cross, are fleshed out from the texts, but not in such a way they feel awkward or outside the overall context of the film's subject matter.)

Gibson receives fantastic performances from every major actor, including James Caviezel, who brings a humble nobility to the lead role, and Maia Morgenstern's wonderfully muted turn as Christ's grieving mother, Mary.

Gibson knows most people who will see his film are at least generally familiar with its story, so he wastes no time with introduction or much rising action. (For a refresher, read Matthew Chapter 26 through the end of the book, and John 18-20.) "The Passion" opens in Gethsemane as Jesus, praying to God, asks for the removal of his burden. Ravaged with despair, Jesus is confronted by a satanic figure; right away we get a look at Christ's iron will as he steels himself for the grueling task ahead.

He is then arrested by Jewish soldiers only a few minutes into the movie, and the pain begins as the prisoner is beaten on his way to face the high priests. He is charged with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God and assaulted by an angry mob.

The violence continues to escalate for the remainder of the film. By the time Jesus is brought before Roman governor Pontius Pilate (whose conflictions are depicted perfectly by Hristo Naumov Shopov), the Messiah's right eye is swollen shut and his face is bruised. From there, he is flogged by Roman soldiers, a horrifying torture sequence that, although it lasts only 10 minutes, seems to take hours. It is here Jesus is beaten nearly to death with the "cat-o'-nine-tails," a vicious hooked whip that tears his flesh on every stroke -- many of which appear on screen.

Finally, Jesus drags his cross to Golgotha where he is crucified with two other criminals. The entire procedure is displayed in zoomed-in detail, including spikes hammered through both of Christ's hands and feet, the dislocation of his right arm, and the final piercing of his side.

I include these graphic details because many of the film's critics believe the violence is too heavy, outweighing the message. Those with such a complaint miss the filmmaker's point entirely. Gibson wanted to turn the matter-of-fact language found in the Scriptures -- so easy to idealize or ignore in the mind's eye -- into an unabashed look at Jesus' death. By leaving out portions of the torture sequences, or toning the attacks down to historically inaccurate levels, Gibson would have robbed the film of its authority and power. Jesus' beatings left him nearly unrecognizable to friends and family. This is how Rome treated its prisoners 2,000 years ago -- deal with it.

At first, however, I was put off by Gibson's choice to open almost immediately with bloodshed. For the first half of the film, I found myself not caring much more for Jesus than I would any other person tortured in such a way.

That all changed in the final hour, as Gibson effectively uses flashbacks to depict earlier events in Jesus' life, including two touching exchanges with his mother, his meeting at the well with prostitute Mary Magdalen, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Last Supper with his disciples.

Except for one short scene, Gibson avoids the miraculous side of Christ's story; you don't see Jesus walking on water or calming storms. Instead, the director remains entirely focused on the Messiah's humanity -- a quality easy to gloss over after reading the Gospels for the hundredth time.

People keep asking me, "Did you like it?" or "How was it?" I really don't know how to answer that question, because I've never seen anything like this. The best I can come up with is "powerful" and tell them to read this review. That Jesus could endure such torment from his fellow man and still maintain his desire to save humanity from eternal damnation is the heart of the movie's message. As Gibson said during a recent interview, "The Passion of the Christ" is a film that should not be remembered solely for its graphic violence, but for "faith, hope, love and forgiveness."

I could not agree more.

Grade: A+

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