Vivid and controversial, Mel Gibson's gore-spattered, self-financed celebration of the suffering and death of Jesus (James Caviezel) is inseparable from the bitter debate it engendered, rooted in issues of scriptural fidelity, explicit violence and the manipulation of anti-semitic stereotypes, by design or through heedless insensitivity. A product of both its time and producer/director/co-writer Gibson's particular beliefs — conservative Catholic — and sensibilities, this chronicle of Jesus' last 12 hours is deeply invested in the same spectacle of redemptive agony that drives the excruciating conclusion of BRAVEHEART (1995). It begins in media res, as Jesus prays in the fog-shrouded garden of Gethsemane that God spare him the martyr's death to which he was born while steeling himself for its brutal rigors. As a spookily androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) whispers diabolical blandishments, traitorous disciple Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) betrays Jesus to the Jewish religious authorities who revile his teachings as blasphemous. Jesus rejects Satan, surrenders dutifully to the temple guards and the relentless march to Golgotha begins, with stops at the temple courtyard, the austere chambers of Roman governor Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) and the SATYRICON-inspired court of mincing King Herod (Luca De Dominicis) and, ultimately, the trial by rabble that condemns Jesus and frees unrepentant murderer Barabbas (Pedro Sarubbi). Unlike most previous films about Jesus, Gibson's narrowly focused account is unconcerned with catering to the casually curious — the dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic — or witnessing to the unenlightened. It preaches squarely to the converted, assuming its target audience is steeped in Biblical arcana (that Christ isn't a name but a term of address meaning "annointed one," hence, "The Christ") and familiar with both the teachings and dramatis personae of the New Testament. Without prior knowledge one could easily walk away with only a vague idea what Jesus said to get everyone so agitated, and convinced that Mary Magdalene (Monica Belluci) and the apostle John (Hristo Jivkov) are Jesus' siblings, since they do little but attend tenderly to his mother (Maia Morgenstern). Like all filmmakers inspired by the Bible, Gibson picks and chooses his lore, guided in part by the lurid visions of 18th-century stigmatic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich. He largely absolves Pilate, whom history remembers as a brutal tyrant, and comes down hard on Jewish authorities with a spiritual fiefdom to preserve, all the while proceeding from the bottom-line belief that Jesus' doom was preordained: You can't be a martyr unless you're killed for your faith. An efficient if unsubtle director, Gibson's vision of ancient Judea is worthy of Hieronymous Bosch, a whirl of grotesques — Jewish and Roman — whose spiritual bankruptcy is written on their yellowing teeth and twisted faces; make no mistake, they're all in desperate need of salvation. The film is never dull — no mean feat, given that it spends two hours telling a story whose end is widely known — and features performances that range from coarsely effective to phenomenal. Caviezel may have been cast for his martyr's mien, but it's the face of Morgenstern's stoic, grief-stricken Mary that will linger long after the bloodbath has run its course.
In 2005, in response to concerns about the intensity of the film's violnce, Gibson trimmed some five minutes of the most extreme footage; most came out of the gruesome scourging scene. It was then re-released as The Passion Recut; though the earlier version was rated R by the MPAA, this new version was released without a rating. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh