--The Rolling Stones or Mel Gibson?
The Passion of the Christ is a movie so fraught with controversy, it seems necessary to clear a few things up before coming to the DVD review of the film.
I've been defending the film since first seeing it and not without annoying recrimination by sadly, many who never watched the picture in the first place. And, though I loathe HAVING to mention this, I am neither Catholic nor Jewish. I have no agenda other than appreciating film as aesthetic, substantive forms of art or entertainment. And I don't judge Mel Gibson's personal life or beliefs or hang ups or perversions or whatever his father says or does.
In case you don't know what The Passion of the Christ is about, the movie, in simplest terms, chronicles that final 12 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (James Caviezel). From Jesus' night in the Garden of Gethsemane, where the frightened man (yes, Jesus was a man lest we forget) prays before being dragged off by temple guards to Gologotha with a hearing before Ciaphas, and then on to one brutal scourging under the questioning, reticent Pilate to the court of Herod to his terrifying denunciation and that long, long walk with the cross—we see it all—in full, gory detail. In between, we also see a very concerned mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and flashbacks to a happier time where her son was crafting tables instead of being flogged by Romans. There's also the distraught Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), and John of Zebedee (Hristo Jivkov) watching along, unable to rewind or stop the horror show playing before them.
And horror show is an apt term when describing The Passion. Playing as much like an old-fashioned passion play as an Italian giallo (and if this film had been made in Italy or a Latin country, I am certain people wouldn't be frothing at the mouth over the thing) or a brutal, artistic polemic along the lines of Gaspar Noe's films or even a shock-filled, bitter bit of gorgeous violence like that of Takashi Miike, The Passion is an extraordinary work of just that: passion. "Passion" in the religious sense—as in, suffering. Though the film has been criticized on every angle from accuracy (Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald adapted the film from the four Gospels and also, from published visions by two 19th-century nuns) to the hysterical anti-Semitism barbs (I heard one critic say, without cleverness, that the film made Triumph of the Will look like a Hebrew School Ad"—to which I reply: Oh sweet Jesus please…and uh, Triumph of the Will is a pretty damn good looking film—subject aside ) to, of course violence (so many critics were upset by the violence that they attacked Gibson himself as harboring some kind of rocks-off, S&M perversion fetish, to which I ask: Who cares if he does? Since when is being a perverse filmmaker a liability? And uh, these are the same people who secretly get hard-ons while watching the beauty/horror of A Clockwork Orange), it should be looked at for what it is—a transcendent work of art. Religious or otherwise.
Artfully shot by Caleb Deschanel, who brings surrealism, vicious nightmare imagery, blue-toned exquisiteness, and visions of aching beauty to this story of a muscular, vigorous Jesus (perfectly played by the rather odd looking Caviezel—too gorgeous for character acting, but just "off" enough to show that extra element of sadness, zeal and sexiness—yes Jesus is sexy here, why do you think anchoress' got all hot and bothered when writing about him?), The Passion moves and looks like a silent film. The dialogue, spoken in Aramaic and Latin, is nearly unnecessary (though the lines are spoken, especially by Caviezel, with skill and power), making it no surprise Gibson originally intended the film to be shown without subtitles.
And while the film is aesthetically stunning, it is also, distinct for its perspective. Uniquely, Gibson gives us the story through Jesus' eyes and through his mother's, which, in brief but potent details, makes for astoundingly touching moments of mother-son connection. This is where Gibson is not merely preaching to a choir but rather, making the audience actually feel something that is universal.
And Jesus' last hours ARE universal. Why would so many films from Cool Hand Luke to Platoon understand the universal, metaphorical power of the crucifixion? The idea that you cannot break someone's spirit (again, think of Cool Hand Luke when, after Luke dies, the men in the prison are still talking about him, passing along his iconoclast "teachings"). Yes, The Passion is quite obvious (how can it not be?), and yes, it is, as Alex would say in Orange, ultra violent and continually in your face, but there is a purposeful emotion that you just don't see in standard violent cinema. Importantly, Gibson masterfully makes the audience wince at violence, which, after so many critics complaining about our de-sensitized culture, is an accomplishment in itself.