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Gibson Offers a Sincere, Shocking Exploration of Christ's Death
by Jeremy Mathews

“The Passion of the Christ”
New Market Films
Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald
Produced by Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson and Stephen McEveety
Starring James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Shopov, Mattia Sbragia, Luca Lionello, Claudia Gerini, Francesco Cabras, Rosalinda Celentano
Rated R

(out of four)

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is one of the few films that really delves into the suffering that Jesus endured, according to Christian faith, in order to absolve humankind of its sins. This isn’t the standard Sunday-school lesson, but a depiction of the struggle and the suffering of a man with great responsibility and the different levels of humanity he encounters. The teachings are not the focus of this film— it’s about the pain humankind inflicted on him.

Gibson, a Traditionalist Catholic, made the film with his own money as a love letter to his faith, and has created a film of extreme emotional power that will no doubt heavily affect fellow members of his faith. It’s also superbly crafted, with interesting editing techniques and beautiful, muted colors from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

It will, however, also shock many people. James Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus isn’t the clean-cut one people are used to seeing. Much of the film is devoted to the cruel torture of Roman centurions and the blood-covered savior’s march to the cross. Brief flashbacks to the teachings of Jesus serve as powerful punctuation, but won’t fulfill the hopes of people looking for a Sunday-school lesson.

Gibson depicts all the stations of the cross in the half-hour march to Golgotha. It’s bloody and devastating as the weak Jesus struggles to make it to the cross after merciless Romans almost beat him to death.

The goal is to historically recreate the events as they might have occurred, including the lashings that peel off the skin. Gibson’s historical details are so strong that the characters speak only in Aramaic and Latin (with subtitles, although Gibson originally planned not to use subtitles).

While Gibson culled his story from several scriptural sources, including those not in the Bible, the story itself comes from the standard passion story, and any additional material seems to be in details. The film begins after the Last Supper, as Jesus shakes and sweats in the garden of Gethsemane while a manifestation of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) tempts him to leave because the sins of humankind are too much for one man to suffer. Then the disciple Judas betrays Jesus to the Jewish priesthood, many members of which want to get rid of Jesus, although there are also detractors. The high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Spragia) takes Jesus to Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) to have him crucified.

Much has been made of whether or not the film is slanted against the Jewish faith, an issue that shouldn’t even need to be discussed. As a member of neither the film’s faith nor Judaism, I find the charges unfounded. The key point of Christian doctrine is that Jesus willfully died for the sins of humankind. The Romans and the Jews were the ones present, so they killed Jesus and, logically, might be thought of as heroes. Anyone who cites the Bible or this film as a reason to hate Jewish people is simply looking for an excuse to be prejudiced. Members of the same group of people who accept the teachings of Jesus also rally for his crucifixion.

Jesus endures most of his suffering from sadistic Roman guards, and most of his friends and sympathizers are Jewish, including Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz), a Jew whom guards force to help Jesus carry the cross and who then defends Jesus against the cruel Romans. Simon doesn’t appear in all four of the gospels, and Gibson could have left him out if he wanted to make Jews look bad.

If anything, Caiaphas comes off as a simpler, flatter character due to the publicized cuts of lines from the scriptures that bigots have used as an excuse to hate Jewish people.

Pilate does his best to bureaucratically move Jesus out of his responsibility because his wife doesn’t want to see him crucified and the angry mob does. Pilate doesn’t want to have the political responsibilities of the decision to kill Jesus or let him live, and Jesus freely gives him an excuse to let him die. Pilate, as sleazy politicians often do in touchy situations, attempts to wash his hands of the matter.

The real point of the film isn’t so simple as to communicate a hatred of Jews. Gibson shows the full spectrum of humanity that Christ, being both fully human and fully divine, chose to save through great personal pain. Some are bad, some are good, most lie somewhere in between. “The Passion of the Christ” is the story of a man who chose to forgive them despite the amazing amount of suffering they inflicted on him.

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