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"The Passion of the Christ" Review

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Title: The Passion of the Christ

Starring: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Rosalinda Celentano, Sergio Rubini, Mattia Sbragia

Written by: Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence.


Review by Stephen Silver

"But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." -Matthew 6:44, also spoken by Jesus in "Passion of the Christ."

"I want to kill him I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog." - Mel Gibson, on New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in the 9/9/'03 New Yorker.

After all the shouting, "The Passion of the Christ" is indeed a pure expression of Gibson's religious faith, for which I do not begrudge him. But it's also an expression of two other things for which I do begrudge Gibson: His self-important arrogance, and (yes) his anti-Semitism.

"The Passion" was the most controversial American film of 2003, even though it wasn't released until February of 2004. For nearly a year the brouhaha over the film simmered, as just about everyone who could conceivably have an opinion- Christian, Jewish, liberal, conservative, and everything in between- formulated a review, although almost none of them had seen the movie.

The two biggest bones of contention in the controversy were the massive amount of violence depicted in the film, and (even more so) the question of whether Gibson's telling of the final 12 hours of Jesus' life would contain anti-Semitism. The fires of the latter charge were amplified by Gibson's membership in a fringe Catholic sect that rejects the Vatican's more recent reforms (including its exoneration of the Jews for Jesus' death), as well as his refusal to distance himself from the Holocaust denial of his lunatic father.

In the week since the release of the film, which raised more than $100 million in its first weekend, a general critical consensus has emerged (with some exceptions) that while the amount of violence was shocking -for some, to the point of revulsion- Gibson deserves exoneration on the anti-Semitism charge.

My conclusion is the opposite: I've never criticized a film for "excessive violence" and I'm not about to start now; the scenes of torture and crucifixion are extreme, yes, but they fit within the bounds of the film, and I find it hard to argue with the violence itself (although, I must say, such content should NOT be viewed by children, tens of thousands of whom will in fact view it anyway). The depictions of Jews, however, are simply grotesque- and suggest that Gibson either has no knowledge of the history of worldwide anti-Semitism, or knows it and doesn't care.

I am not a Christian, but I am sufficiently well-versed in the New Testament to know that scholars are divided as to where responsibility lies for the death of Jesus. Gibson comes down unequivocally on the "the Jews did it" side, even going so far as to depict the Jewish priests as scheming, bloodthirsty sadists who form a mob and demand Jesus' death, from an ambivalent, even sympathetic Pontius Pilate. (One blog I read even contained a long discussion of whether or not Pilate was depicted in the film as a "babe.")

Gibson has defended himself against charges that he cast the Jewish-mob roles with stereotypically Jewish-looking actors by stating that he'd have been bashed for inauthenticity had he instead used blue-eyed blonds. But as a Jew, I can say there's a fine line between realistically Jewish-looking (as Caviezel, breaking with movie-Jesus tradition, is) and stereotypically Jewish-looking, as Caiphus and the others are. And Gibson's directorial choices in the crucial scene before Pilate are especially suspect- rather than focus on Caiphus, he shoots the crowd scenes wide, to make it perfectly clear that all the Jews are loudly calling for Jesus' slaughter.

And yes, Gibson took out the subtitle for the "may his blood be upon us, and on our children" line- but only under extreme duress, and he did leave the line in the film in Aramaic.

Even so, in a purely cinematic sense, "Passion of the Christ" is an expertly skillful film, shot beautifully by master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and containing an expert, albeit nearly non-verbal performance, by Jim Caviezel as Jesus. The art direction and costumes are suburb as well; no one can accuse Gibson of being lazy with his resources. Being lazy with his morality, however, isn't such a stretch.

Now perhaps, if a director who wasn't Mel Gibson had made exactly the same film all the same actors, 'The Passion' would have only gotten a small fraction of the attention it has. But because of who Gibson is, and his ever-present persecution complex, the picture has dominated op-ed pages and newsweeklies and dinner-party conversations for the past six years- and that's just in blue-state America. (If the coupling of a biblical verse with a quote from The New Yorker at the top of this post makes me a Blue-state, then so be it).

Gibson, among other examples of his arrogance, has claimed that God directed the film through him. He has at every turn attempted to turn all criticism of himself and the film into an attack on Christianity itself, and tried to put across the illusion that he is, himself, being "crucified." And as Jessica Winter pointed out in a brilliant essay in the Village Voice last November, Gibson has inserted stories into his several of his own action films of his hero-characters being beaten up, tortured, or even crucified; in "The Passion" he's merely substituting one God, Jesus, for his other messiah, himself.

And while Gibson's arrogance and anti-Semitism have gotten all the attention lately, his once-infamous gay bashing has been all but forgotten, but there's plenty of that in "The Passion" too: he shoots Satan as an androgynous figure, played by a woman, lurking about the action, and depicts King Herod as what looks like a cross-dressing Elvis impersonator, surrounding by an entourage that looks like something out of "La Cage Aux Folles."

"The Passion of the Christ," whether it's the heavy weight of its subject matter, or the ultraviolence, or disbelief over Gibson's audacity, is not a film that one gets out of their system easily, and for that I suppose it deserves some credit. But even though Gibson does an excellent job with cinematically with this film, his arrogance- and even moreso, his Jew-baiting- is not something that I as a reviewer can forgive.

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