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March 2, 2004 > The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson - In Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles

by Christopher Cobb

Clearly the most talked about film of the year, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" tells of the final hours of the life of Jesus. Yet most of the controversy surrounding "The Passion" appears to have overshadowed a more fundamental question: is it a good film?

Obviously not for the faint of heart, a majority of the film features Jesus (a capable Jim Caviezel, who starred as Christ-like Pvt. Witt in 1998's "The Thin Red Line") at the hands of Jewish high priests and Roman soldiers. Different tools of pain are used to break the will of the man claiming to be the son of god, and the 39 lashes ordered by a beleaguered Pontius Pilate (Bulgarian film star Hristo Shopov, who steals every moment he's in) becomes a 10-minute sequence that beats last-year's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake for gore. I lost count at lash 73 or so.

However, the purpose of Gibson's film--to show unflinchingly at what the Son of Man endured to save mankind--has succeeded. The violence, while hard to watch, does have a purpose.

Where the film doesn't succeed is its insistence on treating every popular moment from the four gospels with the same significance. Those with a casual familiarity of Christian theology and mythology know Judas needs to betray Jesus with a kiss, and that Peter has to deny Jesus three times. But when Gibson makes it a point to slow the narrative to allow for all of these moments, the film as a whole suffers. By the end of the film, when Jesus utters his final, familiar words, it is more a labor to watch than a moment of poignancy - because the audience has already said it out loud to themselves.

This brings up another issue: Gibson's decision to use subtitles. The film has a melodramatic feel to it, and thanks to marvelous cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, the story is told more with his contrast of light and dark, and with the expressive faces of a dedicated cast, than with the words at the bottom of the screen. Juxtaposed with the strange melody of the unfamiliar languages spoken, the subtitles feel clunky, inadequate, and at times tacky.

Instead of strengthening the story, the subtitles operate more to assist those without the benefit coming in with a basic idea of what is going on. However, some of the flashback sequences, like the back-story of Mary Magdalene (an underused Monica Bellucci), are without dialogue and might confuse more than explain.

In the end "The Passion of the Christ" is The Gospel According to Mel, as the director has taken a number of artistic liberties, specifically with a Satan character involved throughout that is not found in any of the four gospels used as source material. The result is a mˇlange of truth and fairy tale, a good movie but not a great one, and definitely unconventional for an American audience. It's more "Braveheart" than New Testament with regard to historical factuality. But with Hollywood isn't it always?

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