(Originally published 2004)
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," the hotly debated, controversial and No. 1 movie in America, follows the last 12 hours of Christ's life. It is everything Gibson set out to create - a disturbing, ugly, unrelenting bloodbath that shakes you to the core and leaves you hollowed out long before it's over.
Like so many of Gibson's films, from the "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon" series to his Academy Award-winning "Braveheart," "The Passion" is big, physical, violent and unflinching. It's unlike any biblical film ever made and it's impossible to watch it with a trace of passivity.
At my screening, some wept openly in the film's bleakest moments while others either were rendered still by the very real images of the scourge and the Crucifixion, or unable to remain still because of them.
The movie is a deeply personal experience, with its success or its failure coming down to one's religious beliefs. There are those who will be appalled by the movie, some who will feel vindicated by it, others who will feel both.
It's such a divining rod, few will see it the same way.
What's true about the movie is this: Screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald based their story on the biblical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which were written decades after Christ's Crucifixion and thus for centuries have been open to interpretation. Those familiar with the New Testament will find little insight here, with one crucial exception: Gibson's intensely graphic interpretation of the violence Christ endured at the hands of the Romans by way of the Sanhedrin Jews.
Fueled by the director's ultraconservative Roman Catholic faith, the movie must be viewed solely as Gibson's interpretation of that violence, which was mentioned only fleetingly in the Gospels, but which, in Gibson's hands, takes up the bulk of his 130-minute film.
Told in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles, "The Passion of The Christ" begins with the capture of Christ (Jim Caviezel) at the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed by Judas (Luca Lionello), tried by the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and then sent to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), who tries yet fails to save Christ from the Crucifixion that becomes the core of the movie.
With searing detail, Gibson shows us all of it--every bloody step, every brutal whip and lashing by the Romans, the breaking of bones as nails pierce flesh, the screams of a man hung to die on a cross. As such, his movie - and remember, this is a movie, with all that implies--is the most intensely violent film Hollywood ever has made.
How this works cinematically is just as powerful as you would expect--how could it not be given the subject and the sheer amount of bloodshed involved?
Still, since the movie's Ash Wednesday debut, several critics have put Gibson himself on the cross because of his vision, questioning whether he went too far with the violence and whether his movie is anti-Semitic as a result.
Depending on your own personal beliefs, these criticisms either will have merit or they won't; arguments could be made to defend both views. This isn't a perfect movie and it's not entirely historically accurate, but that's not unusual. It is, in fact, in keeping with other biblical interpretations, from "King of Kings" to "The Greatest Story Ever Told" to "Demetrius and the Gladiator" to its sequel, "The Robe," and down to the more recent "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Dogma," the latter of which especially incited its share of fury due to the handling of the New Testament.
Technically, the performances in "Passion" are excellent, particularly Caviezel as Christ and Maia Morgenstern as Mary, who are the only characters allowed to share a bond onscreen.
This relationship strengthens the movie immeasurably, while also sending the story into necessary flashbacks in which we see Christ teaching his word to his disciples. There are not enough of these moments - we see brief glimpses of the Sermon on the Mount and traces of the Last Supper - and the sheer lack of them throws off the film's balance. Gibson's heavy-handed approach is more interested in Christ's torture, his dying and his death.
One would be hard-pressed to believe that the production itself was financed solely by Gibson's own $25 million. Working with gifted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a four-time Oscar nominee, Gibson's movie has the qualities normally associated with a larger budget - the sound, lighting, sets and John Debney's score all are solid.
In the end, what must be said is this: However people feel about "The Passion," whether they agree or disagree with the direction it takes, Gibson remained true to his beliefs and saw them through in spite of the fallout he must have known would strike due to the increasingly timid, politically correct and hysterical times in which we live. Say what you will about his art, but the man has behaved as an artist.