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The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Directed by:

Mel GibsonMel Gibson

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 127 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

Country: United States

“What is truth?” asks Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), and later he expands with his saintlike wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) upon the problems raised by this question, as though it were a serious philosophical conundrum with which he struggles rather than just the flippantly cynical quip it seemed to be in the New Testament. Truth is indeed a central concern of Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ', which strives for authenticity by putting all its dialogue in Aramaic and Latin (with occasional quotes from the Old Testament in Hebrew), and which asserts itself as a testament to real events by obsessively showing Mary (Maïa Morgenstern), Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and various disciples looking on as eyewitnesses to the extreme suffering and death of Jesus (Jim Caviezel). There is even, in this spirit of authentication, a (probably not intentionally) funny scene where a cloth used to wipe Jesus' bloody face is revealed to be the Turin shroud.

Pilate, it seems, is right to ponder the difficulties of arriving at truth. For the Gospel according to Mel picks and chooses as it pleases both from the four previous (and different) Gospels and from Gibson's own horror-film inspired imagination – all of which is contrary to Catholic instruction on the production of Passion plays, shows scant attention to historical fact, and is largely at the expense of Jews. Not only does the spoken Latin have an anachronistically mediæval ring to its syntax and diction, but in any case the lingua franca in the east of the Roman Empire was not Latin but Greek. Pilate is portrayed, perversely, as a pensive, humane man in effect forced by the baying Jewish mob to send Jesus to crucifixion – yet in fact Pilate's notorious cruelty and corruption earned him a recall to Rome, and he would not have hesitated to crucify a troublesome Jew like Jesus. Here not only do the cartoon-evil Jewish priests, led by Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), demand Jesus' death, but they are also shown gleefully escorting him to his execution on the eve of Passover – both unlikely given their obvious contradiction of Jewish law. The term 'Pharisee' is applied in the film to all those who 'hate that man', including the priests, apparently as part of a more general strategy to tar all Jews (besides Jesus and the disciples, of course) with the same brush – but in fact the priests were Sadducean, while of course Jesus himself was a Pharisee. More controversially, the notorious lines (from Matthew) in which Caiphas declares “His blood be upon us and our children” make a provocative appearance here (although Gibson has chosen to leave them unsubtitled). For millennia Christians have cited these lines as canonical proof of the 'blood guilt' of all Jews, until such anti-Semitic interpretation was officially overturned last century in the 'Nostra Aetate' of the Second Vatican Council – but Gibson himself belongs to a Traditionalist sect of Catholicism which rejects Vatican II's reforms. So in 'The Passion', the truth is very much up for grabs – and while Gibson has already amply demonstrated his indifference to history in Braveheart, it seems more important that a film which on the one hand asks for its viewers’ undying faith, and on the other risks maligning an entire religious-ethnic group, should at least get its facts straight.

In America, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ has already outgrossed (in more ways than one) The Lord of the Rings. Both, of course, come with the prefabricated sympathies of an audience already devoted to the writings on which they are based – and while Gibson has chosen to concentrate almost exclusively on the passion and crucifixion of Jesus (with a few flashbacks and a brief coda touching on the resurrection), he can safely assume that his principal, Christian constituency will already be familiar enough with ‘the greatest story ever told’ to fill in the gaps and provide their own moral background for all the onscreen brutality.

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It's Got: A Jesus with gold-coloured contact lenses; exquisite cinematography (by Caleb Deschanel) that often resolves scenes into recognisable painterly tableaux (e.g. the Last Supper, La Pieta); demonic children and a brilliantly androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) that have much more to do with horror films than the scriptures; and a whole lot of scourging, flaying, beating and nailing.

It Needs: Either a greater adherence to historical fact, or else less pretension to authenticity; a little more soul to offset all the brutalised flesh; to achieve its sublimity without so often seeming so ridiculous; and enough already with the demonisation of Jewry.

Alternatives:

and of course Mad Max 2, King of Kings, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Miracle Maker Life of Brian

Summary

Despite graphically portraying lots of nails, this film never really pins Jesus down. Beautiful, violent – and also funny for all the wrong reasons, and boring.

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