It's funny, about fifteen minutes into Mel Gibson's The Passion it struck me just how much The Passion is a religious film. Of course a movie about the final hours of Jesus is going to be religious, but for some reason, going in I had missed the blindingly obvious fact that the movie is SOLELY a religious one. The Passion doesn't strive in any way to be entertainment, has nothing to do with characters, story or even dialog. The Passion is simply one man's attempt to re-enact a moment from the bible the way he views it; one could call it "The Gospel According to Mel".1
In many ways The Passion is an elongated third act of a much longer film. M. Night Shyamalan did something similar with Unbreakable with an intense focus on the forming of the characters and defocus on what actually happens once they're formed. For Shyamalan this experiment worked, and perhaps underscores the importance of the first act character development. In The Passion, Gibson does the exact opposite, skipping over completely any and all character development to instead focus on the climax of the story.
Perhaps Gibson assumes that his audience doesn't need any introduction or connection with Jesus, and for the devoutly religious audience, that's probably not an unfair assumption. But judging The Passion as a film (not just a biblical re-enactment) it's extremely difficult to really connect or sympathize with the characters on screen without any form of development. The Passion relies heavily on scenes of great brutality and torture, and while visually there is a great deal of intensity portrayed on screen, the weight of the moments are lost. Unless going in you've got a strong personal connections with the characters in this film, there is no opportunity to get to know or even sympathize with the characters in The Passion.
In Gibson's Braveheart, one of the key characters is disemboweled in the film; since it's a character we've come to know and love over the course of several hours, the tragedy of this moment is amazing. In The Passion, the moments which should be this intensely horrific and impactual are more cinematically distant and gory. We see the emotional intensity reflected in the faces of actresses like of Maia Morgenstern (who plays Mary) and Monica Bellucci (who plays Magdalene) but little is done to lay the groundwork to cinematically connect us with those emotions.
Because Gibson doesn't lay the character groundwork, it's fairly easy to disengage from the film and many scenes which should play as emotionally intense end up playing campy. Case in point are the myriad scenes with James Caviezel carrying the cross and falling in almost every imaginable way. When he falls there's isn't a real sense tragedy or deep sympathy, it's just 'Oops, he dropped it again!"
One of the real saving graces for The Passion is the strong work done by Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The Passion has a striking look and Deschanel always seems to know exactly where to put his camera. One of Deschanel's strengths is in creating visual contrast between the march to crucifixion and the flashbacks to 'happier times'; he maintains the film's style while showing to very different visual emotions. In one flashback we see Jesus drawing a line in the sand between Magdalene and a group of people who were going to stone her. This scene has no dialog but is one of the more visually striking ones in the film.
Prior to the release of The Passion, Gibson discussed the fact that he considered releasing the film without subtitles, and let the performances, and the emotions speak for themselves. About halfway through The Passion, I could understand why. The script for The Passion, written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson (his first screenplay), is extremely light on dialog. Monica Bellucci, who is in a significant amount of the film, has perhaps one or two lines of dialog. James Caviezel says no more than a few lines in the entire film. The upside of this is that the film does have a number of strong moments without dialog, complimented by the strong visual style of Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. In one scene Maia Morgenstern shows the horror and the grief at seeing her son being beaten without uttering a word. It's a real challenge for an actor and Morgenstern raises to this challenge.
In many ways it's refreshing to see a Director give his actors the space to really act. All too often Directors (especially Writer/Directors) pile emotional scenes with words, never trusting the actors to be able to convey the subtext of a scene. Unfortunately, Gibson went too far off in that direction, away from dialog to make the film really work. He is focused so squarely on the torture and crucifixion of Jesus that he never stops to let any of the characters talk about it, and so these scenes with strong acting without words have no glue to hold them together as a film.
Another interesting decision made by Gibson was to have his script translated into Aramaic, Latin
and Hebrew and have all the dialog be in the languages of the time. I was a little apprehensive about sitting through a 2+ hour Aramaic film, but was surprised to find that it actually works out pretty well. The different languages serve to give the film some much needed texture and help keep some of the campiness down in some of the more overblown scenes. Unfortunately Gibson makes a significant misstep in this space and does not have subtitles for all of the dialog of the film. There are several scenes (including when Jesus is being whipped) where almost none of the dialog is translated, and another scene (which drew pre-release controversy) where a controversial 'blood curse' is still uttered in Aramaic but is not translated in the subtitles2. It's daring to release a US film in another language, but folly to only translate some of it.
Gibson's selective translation are only a part of the much bigger issues of the film. Gibson seems to want to go the extra mile to make it unmistakable his feelings about "Nostra Aetate" 3
and at many turns points his directorial finger at the Jews. One need look no further than the 'Darth Vadersque' portrayal of The High Priest Caiphas and the 'Bloodthirsty Mob' as the key antagonists of the film. Contrast that to Pontius Pilate, who historically has been blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus, who is portrayed as a much more sympathetic character. In The Passion it's Pilate who seems to try time and again to save Jesus from the angry, bloodthirsty and unrelenting mob and who only finally relents out of a fear of an uprising more than anything else.
Claims that The Passion has the ability to fuel renewed waves of anti-semitism are not unfounded. This strict Christian Traditionalist telling of the story of Jesus' crucifixion and strong emphasis on the Jews as the antagonist is the stuff from which anti-semitism is made of, and I'd be surprised if The Passion doesn't stir up some level of anger directed towards Jews for being the 'ones to blame' despite all modern discussions and interpretations to the contrary.
As a motion picture, The Passion misses its mark. Gibson's myopic focus on the suffering of Jesus without any real context or character development ultimately undermines his attempts to connect the viewer with the emotional intensity on the screen. Couple this with some fairly problematic issues with translating dialog, and the strong negativity towards Jews,and it's just not a film I'd recommend seeing in theaters.
In the end, The Passion is a very specific film made for a very specific audience, and admittedly I am not that audience. The question you need to ask yourself before running off and seeing this film is - are you? There's no doubt that this film will continue to spark discussion and controversy throughout its run, and honestly, it's deserved. This is the kind of film people need to discuss, both for its deplorable arcane view of Jews and for its specific view of 'The Passion'.
Going in, I knew that whatever I'd write in a review about this film would result in passionate comments both positive and negative, but the important thing here is that people talk about it, not as the "cinemagraphic representation of the historical fact of the Passion of Jesus"4
but as a motion picture, of one man's view of this religious event.
One final note: The Passion is Rated R for a very good reason. It is not a film for children and I'd strongly suggest that parents considering taking their kids to this film should see it first and make an informed decision before exposing kids to the graphic and intense violence in this film.
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1. I definitely can't take credit for coming up with the catchy 'The Gospel According to Mel' it's been used several times in reference to The Passion. What's important to note is that The Passion is not solely based on the New Testament, it also draws from the diaries of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) and Mary of Agreda (1602-1665) 19th century mystics who wrote of visions of The Passion and the life of Jesus and Mary. Emmerich herself warned that her visions should not be taken as historical truth, but as a representation of what life was like. Also the tear drop towards the end of the film is all Mel and isn't cited in any Extra-Biblical Texts
2. In the Interview on Primetime Live Gibson was asked about the controversial line 'His blood be on us and on our children.' said by a member of the crowd. Gibson admitted that the line was still in the film in Aramaic but no longer translated in the subtitles. Cute huh!?!
3. The 1965 document "Nostra Aetate," Latin for "In Our Time," in which the Vatican deplored anti-Semitism in every form and repudiated the "deicide" charge that blamed Jews as a people for Christ's crucifixion
4. Which comes from the quote released by the Vatican and then later retracted: "After consulting with the personal secretary of the Holy Father, His Excellency Mons. Stanislaw Dziwisz, I confirm that the Holy Father had the chance to view the film 'The Passion of the Christ'. The film is a cinemagraphic representation of the historical fact of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel account." (Source: Inside The Vatican .