Dir. Mel Gisbon, 2003, USA, Aramaic/Latin/Hebrew, subtitled: English, 126 mins
Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Sergio Rubini
Unless you've been on a polar expedition or incarcerated on death row you can't have avoided the headlines. "The Power and the Gory", "The Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade" etc, etc. All the hype and allegations of anti-Semitism can't actually prepare you for the experience of this film as seeing is actually believing, as surely this is the most brutally violent and extreme movie released in some years, and all in Aramaic and Latin too. Jim Caviezel's Jesus blanches us all with his blood throughout, as he is variously beaten, flogged and then crucified in dramatic graphic detail; gruesome in the extreme.
Already dubbed as the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films, the film depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. This has not been helped by Mel Gibson's father's ridiculously bigoted Holocaust denials. However in some ways the film is critic proof as the film hits hard, preaching to the converted devout religious crowd as well as appealing to the already appalled, who will all see the movie by the million.
Most people will already be well versed and know the story but for those who don't. the film begins in the Garden of Gesthemane where apostles are disturbed by Jesus blasphemous teachings; they are aided by Judas Iscariot treacherous kiss and betrayal, paid for with silver by Jewish High Priest Caiphas, actually a grotesque stereotype. Caiphas can't secure a death sentence for heresy himself and so turns Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, who in turn is persuaded by his wife not to kill or harm the Galilean holy man. Herod is then the judge and even he cannot find fault or cause for his prosecution and so he is returned to Pilate who wanting to quell the ever growing anger of the rebellious crowd, offers a compromise by declaring him crazy and sets out to offer a release of one of two 'criminals' to the crowd, a regular event that would normally have sent the release of the notorious murderer Barrabas, but not in this case and so Jesus is ordered to be flogged. The decree is performed by sadistic Roman soldiers, who clearly enjoy their work just a bit too much and undertake their task with great relish, taking it to unbelievable extremes. The crowd screams with bloodlust and even apostle Peter denies Jesus three times. some ten minutes of flogging and flesh ripping Jesus would be dead by any normal rationale, but then this is no ordinary man and is dragged to Pilate to receive his final punishment as Caiphas and the mob mentality of the crowd, now at fever pitch, demand crucifixion. now reluctantly granted. The crucifixion is performed again in grim exacting detail. on the hilltop it takes some while for them to place Jesus to the cross and then to die. The resurrection climax leaves the film open to the sequel of course. this time its personal!
The accuracy of the film is without question as clearly screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald used not only the New Testaments for their material, but also to the accounts of the visions of 19th-century stigmatic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, the latter stating that the crucifixion nails were hammered into Jesus palms rather than the popular style, in the wrists (the word 'popular' is used here in its literal text!).
The depiction of the roman soldier's is at turns sadistic and cruel and also tender and slightly effeminate. see Herod for the latter trait. The gentler and soulful side to the story is provided by Jesus' mother Mary and Mary Magdalen; both portrayed with great affection. characters imbued by Gibson with love for the man, perhaps similar to his own. James Caviezel, plays Jesus with much earnestness but its his angst that comes through, although at times he reminds one of a corpse, barely alive, simply there to be abused for us, for our eternal soul. a saviour. which is after all ultimately the message of the movie and although clearly a passion of Gibson's that is set to be the biggest hit of the year.
The film is brilliantly photographed and is in many ways as big a production as the classic sword and sandals epics. Stunning camera work by Caleb Deschanel, filmed at Rome's Cinecitta Studios this film feels magnificently authentic.
As an epic movie with terrific cinematography and prodigious scale it's a massive success however as a definitive piece of moviemaking that challenges us and works on many different cohesive levels it's not so sure of itself. A spiritual and positive piece of filmmaking from a passionate man. this vaguely expressionistic film will leave a mark on you if for nothing else the intense bloodlust of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection.