Once you remove it from all the surrounding hype, the perplexing controversy, and the polarizing religious stance, and merely look at it as a movie, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ becomes something more than just an interfaith phenomenon. It no longer carries the tag of box office bonanza or proof that religious-based films equal mainstream moneymakers (just ask The Nativity Story). Instead, what we end up with is an exceptionally well made motion picture, a classic Biblical epic turned on its ear by Gibson's determination to make a visually stunning, theologically accurate depiction of Christ's condemnation and crucifixion. Sure, many people will still be bothered by the snuff film like scourging, tissue torn away from bone and tendon in a sickeningly realistic manner, or the elongated staging of the Stations of the Cross, each step emphasized with sobering slow motion and iconographic framing. But for a film that really wants to be nothing more than a modern movie equivalent of a Caravaggio canvas come to life, to solidify the symbolism in all that Jesus Christ's death stood for, Gibson does an amazing job.
After coming into conflict with the High Council in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth is condemned as a blasphemer. While some call him the Son of God, most others see him as a threat to their regional religious power. When the Roman government won't acquiesce and punish the prophet, the judgment of King Herod is sought. He laughs at Christ, and sends him back to his people. As Mary, Jesus' mother and his apostles look on, Pontius Pilate is again approached by Caiphas for final adjudication of the case. The reluctant ruler provides the people with an option. He will either release the seemingly innocent man, or a wicked murderer named Barabbas. It's their choice. Naturally, they choose the killer, forcing Pilate to sentence Christ to a scourging and the standard punishment - crucifixion. Once the sentence is carried out in an unbelievably brutal fashion, Jesus is left for dead, and does finally die. But per his promise, he is resurrected three days later, sacrificing himself for the sins of man as he takes his place alongside his father, the one and only everlasting God.
Perhaps a good way to start this review is to state all the things that The Passion of the Christ is not. What he said in the backseat of a Malibu police car last year aside, this film is not openly Anti-Semitic. Gibson may be, but his depiction of Christ's condemners is not. If you look at the motion picture history of this seminal moment in the life of the Lord, you'll see much more egregious depictions. Jesus Christ Superstar has the council as bare-chested, baboonish hippies, while Cecil B. DeMille's original King of Kings goes for the good old "horns and stripes" stereotype. By removing all manner of modern accents and keeping the cast isolated inside a dead foreign tongue, Gibson strips much of the problematic particulars that could result from a performance standpoint. Granted, the High Priests still act like fools, manipulating the Romans to condemn an innocent for incredibly underhanded and self-serving reasons, but to call this a racial slam seems like an exaggeration. Indeed, if anyone has a complaint, it's the Italians. Pilate's guard are like the cannibals in a goona-goona film, licking their fat-faced chops in disarming delight as they use every manner of torture device to rent and remove Christ's flesh. Gibson even holds on these psychotic facades for long, languid takes, wanting to prove that, while the Jews may have turned on the man, it was the Romans who really destroyed the Messiah.
Another thing that The Passion of the Christ is not is fair. This is a movie that implicitly understands the power inherent in its imagery and does everything it can to manage and manipulate those strengths. Context is kept far in the background, as is any challenge to the historical or factual accuracy of what is being presented. In essence, Gibson is not asking you to meet his beliefs part way. Instead, he is pouring on the piety and daring you to deny it. It's a risky move, one guaranteed to put off the non-Christian and the solidly secular. But it also gives The Passion an internal gravitas that is hard to deny. All the actors are in on the plan and they do nothing short of brilliant work. Jim Caviezel may still be a little to Renaissance era Jesus for many new traditionalists, but he does capture the man's personal compassion, and his human pain, almost flawlessly. Equally amazing are Maria Morgenstern as Mary and Monica Bellucci as the Magdalen. As the witnesses to Christ's torture and murder, they make a compelling pair, each one wearing their emotions on their beautifully expressive faces. Gibson made the wise decision not to cast recognizable stars in his film, keeping the level of authenticity as pure as possible, and the many international actors he hires keep the film from falling into parody. Even when the miscreant Mediterraneans go gonzo with the whips, the uniqueness of the people participating – from a visual standpoint – keeps us connected and enthralled.
So, if The Passion is not a fair film, and if it doesn't answer to all the accusations made against it, what exactly is it, cinematically speaking? Well, first off, it's an amazing movie to look at. As he did with Apocalypto, Gibson gives us a sci-fi sort of view of his period backdrop, the amount of descriptive detail in the sets and scenery putting us right in Ancient Jerusalem 2000 years ago. With his obvious directorial flare and use of optical tricks (random film speeds, unusual angles and approaches) he keeps the otherwise well known story from turning static or staid. The Passion is also an interesting primer on our post-modern view of religion. For many, Christ's death symbolizes a sacrifice for human sin. But in order to really drive that point home, Gibson has gone for the meaningful money shot over and over again. There is no other rational explanation for all the brutality and bloodshed we see in this film. In order to make its message meaningful to a jaded contemporary crowd, Gibson has to give them something they recognize. And in our whiny, fame whore frame of mind, suffering seems pretty universal. Knowing that Christ goes through literal Hell to save humanity becomes all the more significant when its depicted for you, step by excruciating step, in images 40 feet high. While it may help the converted identify with their main dogmatic conviction, The Passion is really poised to influence the non-believer. Call it a cleverly made con or the best Biblical epic ever, but there is no denying Mel Gibson's moviemaking moxie. He may be an appalling human being, but his fine film is innocent of such a stigma.
Here come the first of several caveats associated with what is being referred to as "The Definitive Edition" of this film. First and foremost, from a pure visual standpoint, this is not an 'authoritative' transfer. The simply stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image available on the stand-alone release from 2004 is far and away the preferred print. This latest release, accented with FOUR commentaries, a footnotes features, and a seamless branching recreation of Gibson's toned down recut (no new footage, just edits and alternative shots that limit the gore and curb some of the more violent material) just can't handle all that technological tweaking. As a result, the film looks fuzzy in parts (especially the opening garden material) and doesn't have the crispness of the original product. If all you care about is cinematic aesthetic, this DVD version of The Passion will be less than acceptable.
Caveat number two – kiss your Dolby Digital DTS track goodbye. Again, to make room for multiple subtitles and numerous audio tracks (including an odd feature that DESCRIBES the entire film for the audience – obviously intended for the visually impaired), this mix has been dumped. All that remains is the 5.1 Surround presentation (in Aramaic and Latin) and it does retain it's considered atmospheric weight. Perhaps the most intriguing element of the entire aural package is the ability to see the film sans burned in translation. Many remember that the original release has English subtitles directly on the image. Here, you have the option to turn this feature off, allowing you to watch the film as Gibson intended. It's a stunning decision, since The Passion does work, even when you don't know what the actors are saying. It's an excellent example of straight visual storytelling.
And now it's time for the final caveat. You have to remember why this DVD is being released. The original Passion product really skimped on the added content, providing nothing more than a solid picture, an amazing sound mix, and no bonus features. In order to make up for that marketing mistake – as well as give religious leaders and teachers a tool to use in their evangelical and educational efforts – Icon Productions and Fox go overboard fleshing out the film. This is a dense two disc set, containing more commentaries, more Making-Of material, and more overall cinematic supplements than most movie's get. They even outdo Criterion in their desire to deluge the viewer with extra elements. Beginning with Disc 1, you can hear Gibson discuss the production with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and Editor John Wright. Some may take offense at the casualness of the conversation, since there are a few moments of jovial blasphemy between the participants. But for the most part, Gibson lets Deschanel and Wright discuss how they came up with the overall look of the film, while the director dodges a few controversial claims and explains some of his more interesting narrative choices.
Next up, Producer Stephen McEveety is joined by Second Unit Director Ted Rae and Visual Effects Producer Kevin Vanderhan, and all three set about discussing the problems and pitfalls of creating this difficult film. The location in Italy gets lots of anecdotal play, and the trio takes pride in how many major obstacles they overcame to deliver the director's vision. It's a nice track, but not completely engaging. Far more focused is Gibson's theological roundtable that includes Father William Fulco, Gary Matatics and Father John Bartunek. Fulco translated the script into the two ancient languages and Bartunek co-authored a book with Gibson about The Passion's scholastic accuracy. This is a God heavy narrative, with the participants frequently forgetting the film to go off onto in-depth dogmatic tangents. Lots of scripture is quoted and all critical naysayers are challenged.
The final commentary focuses on the music in the movie, and composer John Debney is on hand to provide a select scene description of what it takes to score something as sacred as the story of Christ's death and resurrection. Add in the text-based Biblical Footnotes feature that offers filmmaking and faith-based insights along the way (in little pop-up windows throughout the film's running time) and you've got an amazing selection of complementary material. The only downside?" It is only available on the ORIGINAL version of the film. On the recut edition, it is impossible to accesses these bonus facets.
Diving into Disc 2, we begin with a selection of two deleted scenes. None are important to our understanding of the film and fail to deliver anything contextually sound. There is also something called "The Legacy", which turns out to be a collection of scholarly segments that try to explain the various historical and theological issues in the film. From the use of crucifixion and scourging as punishment to the accuracy of the language, these intriguing video essays help clarify some of the misgivings many will have about the various grandstanding aspects of the film. In addition, several galleries, a collection of trailers and a few select TV spots round out the ancillary added features. But the biggest boon, especially for fans of exhaustive Behind the Scenes documentaries, is the amazing exposé By His Wounds We Are Healed: Making The Passion of the Christ. From the inspirational moment when Gibson first got the 'call' to make this movie to the intense special effects and inventive CGI that went into recreating The Passion's more visceral moments, this is a fascinating film. It provides answers to many questions, and deals directly with complaints that some had with the film. Along with a couple of the commentaries, this is by far the best feature of an overall solid DVD presentation.
Call it controversial or crazed, the ravings of a lamentable lunatic or a masterpiece of mankind's connection to God, but there is only one discernible truth about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. It cannot be readily dismissed. There is too much motion picture artistry up on the screen, an overabundance of performance and production acumen in evidence to simply relegate it to a cinematic mistake. While the previous version of the film would have easily earned a Recommended rating from this critic, this new DVD helps put the film in a much better cinematic perspective. As a result, the rating is bumped up to Highly Recommended. But why no DVD Talk Collector's Series you may ask? Well, it has nothing to do with content, and everything to do with tech specs. When you have another version of this film out on the digital medium with sound and vision aspects that put this edition to shame, it's hard to award the site's highest prize. As it stands, time has tempered much of what made The Passion such a problematic entertainment. There are still a few controversies clinging to the film's fringes, but by and large, this is a great movie finally finding some room to breathe.
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