The Good: Decent imagery, especially of the devil
The Bad: Overwhelmingly gory, pointless violence, and no character development
The Basics: The Passion Of The Christ is an epic of brutality wherein the viewer is simply left watching a man get tortured to death.
There are all sorts of political things to say about The Passion Of The Christ, but I will reserve them for a more appropriate venue. The truth of the matter is, this is not a terribly political film and it certainly is not a spiritual film. I think I would be hard pressed to even put it into the category of religious drama, because the truth is, there is not much dramatic that happens.
The Passion Of The Christ can be simplified into a simple sentence: This is 127 minutes of a guy getting the life beaten out of him.
That's it. That's what happens. Every now and then, there is a moment of flashback to illustrate why one should care about this particular guy getting beaten up, but they are short, quick, and do not capture in any clarity or lasting way the character of the man getting brutalized.
The irony of The Passion Of The Christ is the sheer number of people who sat through it. They were not an audience that would have sat through Wrong Turn (reviewed here!) or Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Mel Gibson's brilliant hoodwinking puts him on par with P.T. Barnum. In the simplest possible terms, Gibson got throngs of people to repeatedly pay money to watch something that was 90% violence and gore by exploiting their religious beliefs. Brilliant! Braveheart didn't have as much violence and it didn't gross nearly as much as this movie.
The sad truth is, there is little of substance in The Passion Of The Christ. It's a guy getting repeatedly mugged and brutalized. He is beaten with reeds, scourged, has his side torn open, has his skull pierced by thorns and as he hauls his beaten, blood-soaked body around the screen, the viewer is forced to wonder "what is the point?"
The obvious retort is "It's Jesus being beaten up!" Fine, it's Jesus. Jesus is having the crap kicked out of him for 120 minutes and what does it add? It serves an agenda, which is to make money. It does not entertain. If one finds themselves entertained the U.S. military has some contracting jobs in Abu Gharib they'd like you to fill. This is a man being tortured. There's nothing entertaining about that, unless you are a psychopath.
Almost entirely absent is the message of love and kindness that originally inspired a religion to be spawned around this man's teachings. And only Gibson could use irony so effectively that he reminds the viewer of the teachings of Jesus only to see how the kindness Jesus preaches is rewarded, with further bloodletting at the hands of his cruel tormentors.
Much has been made of the use of Latin and Aramaic in The Passion Of The Christ and here Gibson's direction is pathetic. The majority of the lines that are delivered in Aramaic are delivered off camera. So, for example, when Pontius Pilate's muscle is talking to Pilate, he is put in frame, facing away from the camera, so the viewer is unable to see his lips moving. There are a remarkable number of such "cheats" in the film, suggesting that much of the dialog was ADRed. Either way, the subtitles are adequate and most of the conversation is done in the first ten minutes anyway.
As for the acting, it is as adequate as it can be given that the portrayals are for relatively flat characters. Jesus was poorly cast, though, from the strictest sense. Jesus, even in this portrayal, is known as the King of the Jews. Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus here, looks nothing like the Jews in the movie, looks not the remotest bit Arabic, and could not look more Anglo-Saxon than he does. It's not some strange, off-the-wall interpretation to note that Jesus was born in the Middle East, despite what Renaissance Art would like to have us believe. Jim Caviezel does not look Middle Eastern. Siddig El Fadil would have been a more reasonable choice for Jesus. And Caviezel does not have much acting to do. Most of the movie is him getting lashed or kicked around and that, frankly, does not take much to pull off.
There are peripheral character: Mary and Mary Magdalen and Judas and Peter and they all lack depth. It's hard to evaluate the actors when the characters they portray are given such pathetically little to work with. No one truly stands out in this movie, though Hristo Shopov does a decent job of portraying Pontius Pilate, at least from a New Testament perspective.
The only other character or aspect of The Passion Of The Christ of note is the devil. Gibson portrays the devil as a pale, haunting creature that glides through the backgrounds, clearly waiting for Jesus to surrender to it. The image is pretty powerful and creepy. The problem is, when Jesus is killed, Gibson attempts to make sure we understand that the devil is the devil. He has the creature scream and everything turns to red and we get traditional devil association. It insults the viewer.
If you're looking for a religious film, this is not it. This is a glorification of violence and gore and it is naive to pretend otherwise. There are films with spirituality, but this is a commemoration of brutality, torture and a further low-water mark in the desensitizing of the United States.
For other films focusing on Christianity, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Left Behind: The Movie
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for a complete list of the movie reviews I have written!
© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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