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Wednesday, February 25, 2004 - Page updated at 06:01 P.M.
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Movie Review
Gibson made 'Passion' for a very specific audience

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Jim Caviezel's performance in "The Passion of the Christ" is obscured by Jesus' deteriorating physical condition as his torture intensifies leading up to the crucifixion.
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Some movies are journeys into unknown territory; others are mirrors that reflect back to us what we want to see. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" most definitely belongs in the latter category. Those who attend this movie anticipating a profound spiritual experience perhaps will find one; those who wonder what the fuss is all about may well emerge still wondering.

"The Passion," in depicting the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, focuses on Jesus' suffering, to the near-exclusion of all else. It's a handsome film made with great care (Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is velvety and lush, with a chill-blue wind near the end that inspires shivers).

But Gibson ultimately seems to be preaching to the choir, rejecting standard storytelling conventions such as introducing his characters, assuming his audience already knows everything he's about to tell us. (It was widely reported that Gibson originally considered releasing the film, in which the actors speak Aramaic and Latin, without subtitles.) And his fixation on horrendous violence robs the audience of what should be the whole point of the movie: the character of Jesus, as both Messiah and man.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"The Passion of the Christ," with Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Luca Lionello. Directed by Mel Gibson, from a screenplay by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald. 126 minutes. Rated R for sequences of graphic violence. In Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles. Several theaters.

James Caviezel may well be giving the performance of his life in this role, but unfortunately we can't see it. From the movie's first moments, as Jesus is arrested and beaten in the Garden of Gethsemane, he's acting from behind a veil of matted hair, an eye swollen shut and bloody flesh. His face is kept in the dark. And as the movie progresses and he's tortured further, his voice becomes a guttural howl, and his face and body are reduced to ruby spider webs of blood.

All this is to emphasize his suffering, which is clearly spelled out in the Gospels (though not remotely in the kind of gory detail that Gibson gives us). But it's done at the expense of character. We can sympathize with a man being beaten to a pulp, but we can't identify with him if he's just an anonymous victim, and Gibson, by starting the film where he does, never introduces him to us — we're thrown into a story that's already near its end.

The film does contain a few flashbacks — Jesus chatting with his mother, preaching "Love your enemies," or at the Last Supper — and in these, Caviezel's warmth and charisma is striking; it's as if he's lit from within.

But these scenes are brief and few, and mostly seem to serve as a break from the seemingly endless flogging and crucifixion. Those planning on bringing children to this ultra-violent film should think carefully; even hardy adults may find themselves feeling shaky when the whip, with its sharp teeth, sticks in Jesus' flesh, and the blood spatters the Roman soldiers' ankles. And there are several frightening moments involving an oddly androgynous Satan, who can suddenly appear in the faces of taunting children.

Monica Bellucci, left, as Mary Magdalene, Maia Morgenstern as Mary and Hristo Jivkov as John in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
"The Passion of the Christ" has already attracted an enormous amount of controversy, with much of the early comment on the film (as with Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," 15 years ago) coming from those who hadn't seen it yet. Perhaps the clamor will die down a bit now that the movie is here. Its most hotly debated line — "His blood be on us and all our children," spoken by the Jewish mob and reportedly included in an earlier version of the film — does not appear. And while Gibson's version makes the Jewish high priest Caiphas less sympathetic than the Roman governor Pilate, nearly everyone (except Pilate and his wife, and the sympathetic Jewish characters of Mary, Mary Magdalene and John) comes off as partly to blame.

Ultimately, when we clear away the noise surrounding this film, we can see it as what it is: one man's version of the Gospels. It's not a literal adaptation, as it can't possibly be. Aside from the question of the historical accuracy of its multiple sources (biblical scholars have been debating this hotly), it's impossible for a movie to ever be a literal translation of any text. Movie language is different from the written word; a director such as Gibson can shape our experience of the story by what he chooses to emphasize, by the beauty or ugliness of his actors, by the music he chooses (here, heavenly choirs accompany Jesus' pain), by the lighting (moody blues at night, parched sepia by day), by the soul-wrenching sounds of nails being pounded into flesh.

Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is comforted by his mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern), in "The Passion of the Christ."
Gibson has clearly made the film he wants to make; for him, the violence is the whole story. (The resurrection is given astonishingly short shrift here; just one lovely shot of empty graveclothes softly settling on a rock.)

"The Passion" has been made for a very specific audience — those who know and embrace its story already — and those outside that audience may find nothing here for them.

Moira Macdonald:


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