Historical Circuit: The Passion of the Christ (****)

The Passion of the ChristReligious groups went out of their minds after viewing Mel Gibson’s extraordinary study of the last few hours in Christ’s life because they were expecting a film about his life. Instead Gibson made a brilliant, scalding work about his death, and what a terrible death it was. We have all the stories of the crucifixion, but never before had we truly understood the punishment Christ went through on the way to Golgotha and his destiny, if we truly believe in that sort of thing?

Seeing The Passion of the Christ was an amazing experience for me, an atheist who struggles with religion and what it stands for. I am bothered that more people have died in the name of God than for any other reason in the history of recorded mankind, but I do believe Christ walked the earth. Whether or not he was the son of God is not for me to decide, but he was special, there is no doubt of that. How can I say that with such boldness and certainty?
His story has survived two thousand years.

To this day in churches around the globe people bow down in the name of Jesus Christ and give thanks for what he gave to us, or to ask for his forgiveness. I struggle with all organized religions, I struggle with the facts of the Old Testament, I struggle with the theories of Van Daniken and how science has answered many historical questions for us, but emerging from this film, I struggled with a firm belief in Christ no more. Even if he was not the son of God, he believed himself to be, he must have to allow himself to be put through this extreme torture and horrible manner of death. And if he was not truly the son of God, so what, does it really matter? He was an astounding man who taught important things to mankind at the time, at least those who would listen to him. The miracles? I don’t know. I know I got out of a car accident I had no business surviving, I know my sister came back to us after being taken off life support and lingering for ten days while we waited for her to die, having been told by her medical team  she had no brain activity. People have said to me those are miracles, and there are thousands more through history, many we have never heard of.  Mel Gibson is devoutly religious, he believes in God and Jesus Christ and he wanted to make a film that was about the last hours in the life of Jesus that explored realistically went this man went through, what he endured to fulfill whatever destiny he believed he had on earth.
Very few films about Christ have been very good, beginning with Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927) which seemed to lay down a template for all to follow. He must be bearded and beautiful, he must speak quietly with hushed tones, and a strange light must follow him around wherever he goes. People must look at him longingly and adoringly, and the Romans stare at him with confusion, obviously perplexed at him. George Stevens big budget mess The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) put an end to Biblical films along with The Bible…In the Beginning (1966), though there was an excellent mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) broadcast on American television in the late seventies. The first film to be truly moving about Christ was Martin Scorsese’s astounding The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) based not on the Bible but on a novel written by a Greek writer, which was banned in several countries. In that book, the writer asks us to accept that Christ had fears, and was every bit as much a man that he was the son of God. Tempted by the devil he comes down off the cross to live out his life as just a man, which allows him
marry, father children, and grow old until he realizes he must go back to die, it is what he was put on earth to do. Scorsese’s film was spiky and angry, a brilliant work with Willem Dafoe as a frightened Jesus who gradually comes to terms with being Christ.
Most other Hollywood films treated Christ as an it, a being rather than a flesh and blood person. He walked this planet in flesh and blood, of that there is little doubt, therefore it must be assumed he was a human being, an extraordinary one to be sure, but just a man.
And men can be killed.
That is what Gibson chose to explore in his self financed The Passion of the Christ, a work no major or minor studio wanted, so he dug into his bank account and paid the twenty five million budget himself. He then sought a studio to distribute the work and found the same issues, no one wanted this film. It was dark and powerful, brutally violent, a historical, Biblical film and was told
in the dead language of Aramaic and Latin, and Gibson believed the story to be so familiar he did not want subtitles. The single concession he would make to small Newmarket Films was that he would allow the subtitles, and to their credit the small company stood by him through the storm that came with releasing the work. Their take was about 5-8% of the box office with Gibson taking the rest, which turned out to be fantastic for both parties.

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There is no need to repeat the story here, but enough to say it opens in the Garden where Jesus is betrayed by Judas, moves through his trial where a regretful Pilate condemns him to death. Beaten, humiliated, scourged and finally walked through to the streets carrying his cross to his death, the film goes into extreme detail to explore the punishment his body went through in the hours before his death. Even Pilate was stunned at the man before him, dripping blood, his body torn open and flesh hanging from his body in strips.
That slow punishing trip to the top of the hill is agonizing to watch, as Jesus’ body and strength begin to fail him throughout the walk. He flashes back in time to simpler times, remembering the small moments with his mother when he was a child, making a table for her, and time spent with his followers. When he gets to the top of the hill he is nailed to the cross, but only after his shoulder separated so the hand fits over the hole, and a sign placed over his head stating he is “King of the Jews.” A painful crown of thorns is jammed into the flesh of his head, and the cross is hoisted into place to begin the long process of death.

And die he does, unleashing a terrible storm that stuns the men who have killed him, bringing to realize that perhaps he was more than just man. From high above the earth a single drop of rain falls to the ground, becoming a tear from God and causing the storm. His mother gathers his broken body and wraps him for burial, not scaring about the horrible scarring on him, or the blood that flows freely out of him onto her. It is though bathing in is blood will somehow cleanse her.

Jim Cavaziel portrays Christ in the film with a clear eyed certainty in the flashback scenes, and a broken, agonized man in the current moments. What struck, about the performance was the constant motion of moving forward, always moving towards the place of execution no matter what they do to him. It is not the sort of film where the actor is permitted to do the Sermon on the Mount in great detail, or come to terms with who he is all that has happened previously and we are asked to accept that upon walking in. Cavaziel handles the speaking of the dead language as though it were his native tongue, bringing gentle emotions with it, making the difficult lines his own. He inhabits the character in every aspect imaginable, and for more than two hours IS Jesus Christ.
Mel Gibson won the Academy Award for Braveheart (1995) and the Golden Globe, both as Best Director, and the film won the Oscar as Best Picture of the Year. He did not win the Directors Guild of America Award for the film, nor was he even nominated, the award instead going to the rightful winner in 1995, Ron Howard for his masterpiece Apollo 13 (1995). Braveheart is a good film, not a great film, and I believe he won that Oscar for pulling it off with making an ass of himself.
Mel GibsonSo why would the Academy make an ass of themselves by not nominating Gibson or the film for Academy Awards?? I fully expected Gibson to be a Best Director nominee for the film and was stunned, and remain such that he was not. Protests of anti-Semitism were thrown at the film, which I felt was utter rubbish and still do not see them. The director based the film on history and the Bible, and it is no secret that Pilate offered Christ to the Jews in place of another criminal, and they chose Barabbas, condemning Christ to death in their actions. The elders of the church feared him so much they wanted him dead; they did not understand him, and what we fear and misunderstand can become frightening and dangerous to us.
I left the first screening stunned at the mastery of the film, mesmerized by what I seen and experienced on screen. It seemed as though the director had managed to catapult his cameras and crew back into time and had made less a film than a
documentary. It brought to mind the searing novel Live from Golgotha about a news crew traveling through time and ending up at the crucifixion. The grim realism of the film pulled me in but something more, something quite unexpected. This was the greatest religious experience I had experienced since the Scorsese film, an awakening if you will, about a man who believed so totally in who he might be and what he must do he subjected himself to staggering punishment to fulfill that destiny.
The cinematography was nominated for an Oscar and should have won as it is among the greatest I have ever encountered I have ever seen on a movie screen, easily the best since Apocalypse Now (1979). The art direction, make-up and powerful score all add immeasurably to the overall brilliance of the film, but make no mistake; the driving artistic force of this work is Mel Gibson. It will be to the ever lasting shame of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that they lacked the courage to honor this astonishing masterpiece. A work of art that surprisingly became a massive box office hit, grossing over six hundred million at the world box office in February through April, usually a wasteland for movies.

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About John H. Foote

Any film you haven't seen yet is a new release.