The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Hagiography, Religious Drama  |   Release Date - Feb 25, 2004 (USA)  |   Run Time - 126 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ achieved notoriety before its release when some religious figures openly worried the film might spark attacks of anti-Semitism. While anyone looking to argue that the film is anti-Semitic will find enough evidence to back that claim, those prejudices do not feel like the elements of the story in which Gibson is interested. The film opens with a Bible passage: "But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed." What this film is about is Jesus' physical suffering. The first half of the film does a good job of showing how Jesus upset the religious, political, and legal systems of the time, leading directly to his crucifixion. There is an antecedent to this film's telling of a famous execution full of political and religious significance: Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Gibson strives for a level of "realism" that Dreyer achieved, but he attempts to get there in a different ways. Where Dreyer's frames are severe and unadorned, lending a gritty immediacy to the film, Gibson has instructed the remarkably gifted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to make this movie resemble the style of Caravaggio. The second half of the film is a brutal depiction of Christ's torture and execution by crucifixion. These sequences are unflinching in their brutality, with Gibson often employing slow motion in order to force the viewer to linger on individual lashes. Deschanel succeeds in creating strikingly beautiful images, but occasionally the self-consciously "artful" framings actually detract from the visceral horror of the proceedings. The cinematography is undeniably beautiful, but one might ask if such suffering should be presented so beautifully. And physical suffering is without doubt the aspect of the film Gibson is most taken by, though the director can be faulted for focusing on the physical the expense of the spiritual. When Jesus finally has his moment of doubt on the cross, when he asks why he has been forsaken, the moment is quietly underplayed -- unlike the torture sequences. The endless brutality ultimately achieves a deadening numbness in viewers who are not given an opportunity to identify with the spiritual aspects of the story. For a believer, this film will act as a powerful reminder of the full horror of the crucifixion. However, for those going in without either an understanding of scripture or a belief in the religious veracity of the events depicted, the film may, at best, play as an interesting starting point for a conversation or, at worst, as a grueling exercise in cinematic sadism. Gibson's film may or may not be "good," but it unquestioningly succeeds in doing what it set out to do.