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.
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.
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.