The prospect of reviewing a movie like this is somewhat daunting. What does it take to be able to understand the full import of The Passion Of The Christ? Does one have to be Christian? Or possess more than a passing interest in the Testaments, Old and New? And more importantly, will we be slammed for according only two-and-a-half stars to a movie that has Jesus Christ playing the lead role? Especially since the director claims it was co-directed by God Himself?
Like most other movies, what you take away with you will depend on what you were expecting. But it will help to know and understand – and preferably even empathize with – the vision of the director. Otherwise you're likely to feel repulsed and disturbed, but, barring a scene or two, largely unmoved.
In The Passion Of The Christ, Mel Gibson has chosen to concentrate on the last twelve hours of Jesus' life, for a reason: this is his way of telling us exactly what His sacrifice entailed. Exactly how many blows, whips, floggings and other incredible atrocities it took to kill the Christ. Jesus didn't just die on the cross; he died every step of the way there. The crucifixion at the end of it all comes almost as a relief.
The movie starts with the betrayal of Judas (the unfaithful disciple who sang for exactly thirty pieces of silver) and the capture of Jesus by the guards of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia). Although He has disciples and a growing following, Jesus is hated by many of the public and by the council of high priests. He is accused of blasphemy for claiming to be the messiah of the Jews and the Son of God, and Caiaphas, along with the other high priests, wishes dearly to put the despised Galilean to death.
But for this they need the concurrence of the ruling Roman army as represented by the governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov). To appease the baying crowds, a guilt-wracked Pilate goes along with the popular verdict.
The chronicle of the punishment that ensues is extremely physical, extremely violent, and spares you from nothing. The camera follows unflinchingly as Jesus is beaten and spit upon by a mob, as his flesh is razed by innumerable floggings of whips, blades and pieces of glass, as the crown of thorns is pounded into his skull, and as he is kicked, stoned and bludgeoned every step of the way.
It's difficult to say which is more disturbing, the atrocities of the persecutors or their sadistic delight at what they're doing. Your most vivid memory of this film is likely to be the splattering of blood, the squelch of iron sinking into the flesh, and, through everything, the laughter in the background.
The risk Gibson takes with this extreme violence, though, is that sooner or later the viewer's perceptual defense kicks in and all further blows simply do not register. The very purpose of sensitizing the viewers is thus defeated. It might help some (but not much) to keep reminding yourself that this actually happened, that it isn't make-believe.
When the movie does waver... all too briefly... from the gruesome journey to the cross, it captures some poignant images. Like the rescue of Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and the flight of Judas (Luca Lionello) from his own stricken conscience. A recurring motif is the personification of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), who walks, shrouded and victorious, through the blood-thirsty crowd. The script alternates between Latin and Aramaic (with subtitles, of course). The musical score is thoroughly effective.
Perhaps the most touching scenes are ones that portray Mary's (Maia Morgenstern) sense of helplessness as she follows her persecuted son, mops up his spilt blood, and remembers a time when she could protect him from hurt. Jesus' journey to his death is also visited by touching acts of kindness from strangers. Scenes from the last supper, on the other hand, are too fleeting and almost mechanical.
The crucifixion is the most perfectly shot sequence of the movie. If you're going to be moved by the film at all, it's likely to be when that first nail is driven in. And after He's breathed his last, the wrath that the elements unleash is also shot beautifully. Especially that first furious raindrop.
This movie was never meant to be palatable. It is meant to shake you up, to churn your stomach, to evoke the most guttural reaction. All this it does. But the vision is undeniably limited. After all, the story of the Christ holds as much hope as it does pain, and as much wonder as it does sorrow. The resurrection scene in this film, for example, is little more than a formality. All you remember at the end is the barbaric torture of a man and the brutality of a race that allowed it to happen.