Director: Mel Gibson

Motion pictures have not been without controversy. Some draw fire for their content, others for their messages. With the exception of Michael Moore's antiestablishment documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, I really can only think of one other movie this decade that has sparked as much debate and media discussion as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Funded by Gibson's own wallet and independantly distributed by his Icon Productions company and Newmarket Films (since no major distributor wanted to touch it), it became the little religious epic that could, raking in $604,370,943 worldwide and surpassing My Big Fat Greek Wedding as the highest-grossing independent feature film ever. But does it hold up to the hype?

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)I'm sure most of you readers know the story of Jesus, but since I'm wont to put the plot in my reviews, you'll just have to hear it again. The movie begins in the middle of the night at Gethsemane, an olive grove near Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel) has gone to there to pray, accompanied by three of His apostles. As the apostles sleep, Jesus prays for His safety, as the prophecy of His death will be soon be fulfilled. Soon thereafter, a group of Roman soldiers appear, led by Judas (Luca Lionello), another of the apostles. Jesus isn't surprised and is actually pretty calm, and after a brief struggle between the three apostles and the soldiers, Jesus peacefully hands Himself over and is led away in chains. The soldiers bring Jesus before the Jewish leaders, where high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) interrogates Him before Jesus admits that He claimed to be the prophesized messiah. As the priests discuss what they should do with their prisoner, a guilt-ridden Judas appears before them, asking them to let Jesus go in return for the thirty pieces of silver he was paid to identify Him. Caiaphas tells Judas that his guilt is none of their business, so Judas throws the bag of silver at them and leaves. The guilt begins to eat away at Judas's sanity, finally pushing him to suicide as he hangs himself from a tree the following morning.

That same morning, Caiaphas and the priests present Jesus before local Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shapov), alleging that Jesus is a blasphemer and an insurrectionist. Pilate questions Jesus in private, and under pressure from his wife (Claudia Gerini) and fearing civil unrest, Pilate tells the priests to take Jesus to the hedonistic King Herod (Luca De Dominicis). Jesus's home of Galilee is in Herod's jurisdiction, so why not send him there? The priests presnt Jesus to Herod, who assumes He's just crazy. Herod gets a good laugh out of the moment, and sends Jesus back to Pilate. Man, and I thought the justice system was screwed up now. Turns out it was just as screwed up 2000 years ago. Two millennia go by, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyway, Jesus gets sent back to Pilate, and the priests are sick of getting the run-around. Pilate doesn't believe Jesus is guilty of any wrongdoing, so he lets the crowd decide which prisoner will receive his customary pardon during Jerusalem's Passover festival: Jesus or a notorious criminal named Barabbas (Pietro Sarubbi). The crowd picks Barabbas, and demand that Jesus be crucified. Pilate refuses, stating that he doesn't know what Jesus could have done that was deserving of a punishment that severe. To appease them, Pilate orders that Jesus be tortured by receiving a heavy scourging with a cat-o'-nine-tails before being freed. Even the beating isn't good enough for the crowd, so Pilate washes his hands of Jesus and sentences Him to death before turning Him over to the crowd. We enter the movie's third act as the near-dead Jesus is forced to carry an enormous cross through the streets of Jerusalem, a journey that ends with his execution on the hillside of Golgotha.

Bravo to Mel Gibson for having the balls to put his reputation as a filmmaker on the line by making a movie that reflected his convictions and beliefs. Most movies about Jesus usually just show His life and gloss over His death and resurrection, yet The Passion of the Christ shows the suffering He went through to pay reparations for humanity's iniquities. In a business where people worship at the altar of the Almighty Dollar, it's refreshing to see a movie that says something more than "I love money." The Passion isn't about the cast or the cinematography or anything resembling a plot. Gibson's intent was to show the final day in the life of Christ (and by extent, Catholicism's fourteen stations of the cross) more realistically, in a way that it had never been shown before. Movies and artwork in the past depicted Jesus hanging on the cross with well-groomed hair and not a speck of dirt or blood on Him, almost looking like He was having a good time. The Passion, however, shows Him looking haggard, in agonizing pain and covered in dirt and gore. Most biblical movies also had everyone speaking English, and here, Gibson pushes the realism one step further by having all of the characters speak in Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew, without a single word of English dialogue.

As I said, the movie isn't about cinematography or acting, but since I'm here to review a movie, I might as well talk about its technical merits. The Passion is an extremely well made movie, and I applaud cinematographer Caleb Deschanel for his work. Every member of the cast was on their A-game here, and I applaud them as well. Jim Caviezel's performance as Jesus was a very sympathetic one, coming across as a man who was scared but willing to die for what he believed was right. And I was really creeped out by Rosalinda Celentano as Satan, who occasionally appears to make attempts at planting seeds of doubt in Christ's head. She (yes, she) gives Satan the needed creepy factor to make Cavaziel's "scared but sure" performance that much better. Also excellent was John Debney's musical score. During the third act especially, the score is very melancholy yet hopeful, and it is both gripping yet understated.

Sure, some could be sickened and turned off by the brutality of the movie, and come away feeling like they watched nothing more than a biblical snuff film. That's a very valid response to the film. I don't expect everyone that watches The Passion to break out into tears like some people or run to the nearest church as soon as the movie ends (though feel free to do either, if you so desire). In fact, the violence of the movie may not have the same effect on some that it has on others. Personally, after a lifetime of watching violent horror movies, I was rather desensitized to the violence, though there were several moments that made me flinch. But overall, I'll give The Passion of the Christ three stars. I don't see it as the five-star epic that others see it as, but it's still a good movie to watch as a companion piece to movies about the life of Jesus.

Final Rating: ***