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Wednesday, February 25, 2004 - Page updated at 06:01 P.M.
By Moira Macdonald
"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.
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.
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.
"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: email@example.com
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