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Passion of the Christ, The

Fox // R // February 17, 2009
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted February 25, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
I've had a perhaps unusually eclectic religious experience. Coming from a "mixed marriage" of one Jewish and one Christian parent (back when things like that were considerably less accepted than they are today), I was raised for the first part of my childhood in Salt Lake City, and so was inundated with Mormonism from an early age, but I also attended an Episcopalian parochial school for many years, all the time while being "quietly" schooled in Jewish traditions from that side of my family. In adulthood in my career as a musician I have worked for decades for a variety of denominations, from very traditional to very liberal, as a Music Director. Knowing some basic Torah Hebrew from my Jewish schooling, I then took Classical Greek as part of my Masters' program so that I could read the New Testament in all its original glory.

This short personal history is all to say that I have been perpetually fascinated not only by religions generally but also by different religions' (and indeed different individuals') reactions to The Passion, the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus in order to save mankind. Some traditions emphasize the celebration of Easter, the resurrection, the "new life" of Spring. Others tend to concentrate on the week leading up to Easter, and especially the torment of Good Friday and the crucifixion. My hunch is that, not to state the obvious, Mel Gibson's ultra-orthodox leanings colored his choices when filming The Passion of the Christ (it's no secret he built his own Catholic church in Malibu, one that espouses returning to pre-Vatican II protocols, including Latin masses and--cheap shot alert--anti-Semitism, evidently). It therefore becomes impossible to divorce Gibson's penchant for focusing on the horror of the crucifixion from one's response to the film, unless one is so dissociative as to be able to quell the stomach pits that develop early in this film and only deepen as it wends its way toward its horrifying conclusion. Yes, there are glimmers of hope in The Passion of the Christ, but this is certainly easily the most dour recounting of Jesus' ministry ever captured on film.

This is an extremely hard review for me to write, as my metaphysical tendencies are urging me to go off on what is probably a futile theological tangent. So I will try to simply address the film as film, without getting into what I must assume is Gibson's tortuous point of view. The Passion of the Christ is an incredibly ambitious and in some ways extremely innovative film, and Gibson is to be commended for having the artistic fortitude to push through choices that a lesser director would have had snatched from his grasping hands. Having the film's dialogue delivered entirely in dead languages--mostly Aramaic and Latin--must have seemed insane (and in fact in one of the copious extras on this BD, Maia Morgenstern is seen repeatedly telling Gibson that he's just that). And yet that choice, as consultant and translator William Fulco describes in several extras, has the effect of sucking us back into Jesus' time, instead of catapulting Jesus forward into ours, as is the case when the character has spoken English in such films as King of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Framing the entirety of Jesus' life within the final hours of his torment is also an interesting, if often gut wrenching, approach to the story. We start in a Gethsemane deeply bathed in shades of midnight blue, and are taken through Jesus' torture over the next several hours of unremitting persecution as various flashbacks play out against the "contemporary" events as a sort of horrible counterpoint. It therefore becomes excruciating (literally--look up the etymology of that word) to see Mary the Mother flashing back to her young boy falling as the grown Jesus struggles under the weight of the cross he drags through the Via Dolorosa. Gibson maintains a fine balance between the human and divine in his presentation of Jesus, perhaps tipping the balance a bit toward the human without falling into the "too-human" (read: he has a sex drive) trap that Martin Scorcese did in The Last Temptation of Christ. There's a magical-fantasist element that clings to the subsurface of this film, especially in its depiction of an androgynous Satan who carries around a baby that turns out to be a wizened dwarf.

As Gibson has proven repeatedly since the days of Braveheart, he has an unerring sense for capturing an intimate story within an epic canvas, and he certainly brings that great talent to bear with resounding results in The Passion of the Christ. Crowd scenes are staged effectively, while the "up close and personal" drama of Jesus interacting both with his disciples during flashbacks and Roman and Jewish individuals during his trial and ultimate execution are visceral and overwhelming at times. DP Caleb Deschanel and Gibson capture an amber and cobalt environment that is alternately stunningly beautiful and appallingly grotesque, kind of a weird mesh of Fellini and Ford.

Where I, and I think probably a lot of more liberal leaning audience members, have a problem with this film is in its unrelenting violence. It's obviously part and parcel of Gibson's private belief system that Jesus' sufferings account for man's salvation, and yet does that totally excuse the overkill exhibited in this film? Perhaps Nicholas Ray or George Stevens or even Martin Scorcese were too discreet and chaste in their portrayals of Jesus' agony, but I can't ultimately buy into the premise that this much outright horror needs to be depicted so brutally. Jim Caviezel spends virtually the whole film with one eye made up to be swollen shut (and that's just from his first interchange with the Romans), and it goes rapidly downhill from there. By the time Jesus is nailed to a cross and left to die, his body looks like it's literally inside out--so many scourge wounds are covering it that they look like exterior blood veins. If this is what ultra Orthodox Christians need to feel the depths of their faith, I certainly can't fault them for it, but I for one found it too oppressive and frankly disgusting, without being given any real sense of salvation and grace, even with the film's post-Crucifixion coda.

There was a lot of debate when the film was first released about its purported anti-Semitic elements. That's obviously of more than passing interest to me, but I must say that for the most part the film isn't the anti-Jewish screed it was made out to be by some. That doesn't totally acquit it from some troubling aspects, including plot points that come from disputed passages of scripture (which have been proven to have been added years after the initial authors wrote them), not to mention the host of frankly ultra-conservative supplementary source material Gibson chose to augment the basic Bible passages. However, considering Gibson's post-Passion (and, ironically, pre-Apocalypto) drunken ravings, it becomes next to impossible not to ascribe hidden motives to a lot of the less than flattering portrayals of the Sanhedrin and other Jewish officials. It's of course impossible to know what was in Gibson's heart at the time of the making of the film, but it's equally impossible now for a lot of audience members to give him the benefit of the doubt he might have otherwise been granted.

I guess everything boils down to what exactly you want when you go to a religiously based film like this. There's the typical Hollywood gloss of something like the 1961 King of Kings (which I think nevertheless provides some very compelling political background for Judas' behavior, especially, if a less than riveting performance by Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus). Or there's the more high-minded, if incredibly stultifying George Stevens magnum opus The Greatest Story Ever Told, which virtually flounders in its own stagnant religiosity. Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ gives a more subjective perspective on these world-shaking events, and is either seen as a work of genius or heresy depending on how humanly you want Jesus' inner life portrayed. Gibson's film will probably never be deemed heretical, and yet it's just as problematical for its own reasons as these earlier attempts to film what may, in fact, be unfilmable. At times historically brilliant (in its use of language and music especially), The Passion of the Christ exhibits such a relentlessly violent and grim picture of Jesus that its attempts to say "all better now" in its closing moments are, to say the least, too little, too late. This isn't to say that Jesus' redeeming abilities aren't shown throughout his torment, it's just that the torment is so completely devastating that any elements of salvation seem weirdly ridiculous given the context.

Too often grace and salvation are seen as discrete points on a line, a momentary happening rather than a continuum. The Passion of the Christ wants Jesus' horrifying suffering to mean salvation for the rest of us, and yet there is too much oppression throughout the film to justify its intent. My hunch is most audience members are going to leave this film feeling incredibly depressed and disturbed rather than uplifted. That, to me, is not the Good News. Sorry, I guess I just got a little theological after all.

The Blu-ray

The Passion of the Christ arrives on BD in a mostly excellent AVC 2.40:1 transfer. The film is notoriously dark at times, and black levels and contrast in these segments is exceptional. As discussed above, the film ping pongs between amber and cobalt environments throughout, and this bifurcated color palette is splendidly reproduced. I did notice a couple of brief issues of blooming, with occasional moments seemingly dialed a bit on the hot side. Overall, though, this is a great looking BD, if you can get past the blood and gore which are on prominent display throughout.

The DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix is astoundingly good and at times completely immersive. You'll hear the crack of whips crackle around the surround channels along with the sounds of the throngs. The brilliant and evocative underscore by John Debney also snakes its way from channel to channel quite effectively. It's hard in a way to concentrate totally on the dialogue, since you need to be reading the subtitles, but the Aramaic and Latin are crisp and clean and directionally well handled. Perhaps surprisingly, you'll hear some ominous LFE during Jesus' long agonizing walk to his death. With Gibson's unusual language choices for this film, obviously there are no "foreign" dubs included, but you do get subtitles in English, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog and Thai.

This "Definitive Edition" BD comes with a wealth of supplements. On the BD itself, you can choose between four commentaries, the best of which I found to be the ones by theologians (along with Gibson) and composer Debney (scene specific). The two others, one by Gibson and Deschanel seemed off-putting with its joking and laughter, considering the subject matter and images being shown. The Producers' Commentary is good, if a bit on the dry side. Also available on the BD is the slightly edited version of the film which cuts out at least a little of the graphic violence. An interesting extra on the BD is a set of popup footnotes which reference Bible passages and other historical sources as the film plays.

The BD comes with a second SD-DVD which contains three menu options, Filmmaking, The Legacy and Galleries. Under Filmmaking, there is "By His Wounds We Are Healed," a long and involving recounting of virtually every aspect of the film. Each separate section of this piece (some as short as a minute or so) can be played on its own, or you can select Play All. There's also a "Panel Discussion" featuring a Q&A with the filmmakers and two brief "Deleted Scenes."

Under The Legacy, you can access "Through the Ages," a really interesting (and in my opinion way too short) review of the interaction between art and Christianity. In other extras, Gibson goes into great detail talking about the inspiration such artists as Caravaggio gave him for this project, and it would have been most interesting to see this explored in greater detail. Also in this section is "Paths of a Journey," a sort of mini-travelogue that takes you through the 14 stations of the cross; "On Language," giving an overview of Gibson's unusual choices for this film; "Crucifixion: Punishment in the Ancient World," which gives you everything you ever wanted to know about one of the cruellest forms of execution ever invented; and "Anno Domini," a sort of follow-up featurette portraying what happened to various disciples after the crucifixion.

In Galleries, there are copious still images to wend your way through, divided into "Production Art," "Historical Texts," "Characters and Their Actors," and "Unit Photography." Last up are the expected trailers.

Final Thoughts:
The Passion of the Christ is a relentlessly violent and disturbing depiction of what devout Christians see as the ultimate sacrifice, resulting in the salvation of mankind. Your reaction to this film will be a mirror into your own deepest religious inclinations, and for that the film is to be commended. Whether or not you feel the need to witness such oppressive brutality in order to feel a sense of grace and having been saved is a personal matter that only you can decide for yourself. Many Christians obviously feel this is the most honest version of these epochal events, and this new BD release is obviously a DVD Collector Series title for them. For the public at large, I have to err on the side of caution and recommend that people Rent It first to see if the unremitting oppression of this version has its intended effect or quite the opposite.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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