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THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (article first published : 2004-04-2)

It has had a mixed reception, its critics lambasting it for excessive violence and for being anti-Semitic. But, all controversies aside, there can be no denying Mel Gibson's labour of love as a director and co-writer, The Passion of The Christ, is one of the most memorable films you will see this year, perhaps even this decade.

Previewed last week for a small audience of local reviewers and clerics, it proved a profoundly moving experience for many. It drew unashamed and uncontrollable tears from this reviewer and left one woman writer sobbing with its gritty, graphically brutal depiction of the final 12 hours in the life of Christ, played superbly by Jim Caviezel.

Presented in a mix of Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles, Gibson's films was never going to be anything less than realistic. "I wanted to put out there a rendering of the story which didn't suffer from bad wigs and over-acting, that was accurate and did not gloss over the brutality of it all," he recently told Hello magazine.

And commenting on criticism about the violence in the film, particularly a shocking, prolonged scene showing Jesus being flogged and scourged to a pulp, devout Catholic Gibson went on to say: "That's how it was. On Christ's shroud it shows that by the time that man died, there was just no skin left on him. And I do believe it really was Christ's shroud, because the cloth is made of a weave from that time, the seeds and pollens stuck in it are from that part of the world and it is the shroud of a man who was crucified, who had a hole in his side and who had a crown of thorns on his head."

The 48-year-old Oscar-winner for Braveheart, added: "It was a pretty vicious beating, and it would have been hard for any normal human being to survive that. And I wanted to show that - the severity and the degree of pain to which this being was prepared to go for the love of everyone."

Discussing the cries of anti-Semiticism, Gibson told Hello: "I would hope that Jewish people would not think it was, anymore than Italians would think it was anti-Roman, after seeing the way the Roman soldiers were portrayed.

"I don't want this movie to be about the blame game. For the record, I don't think the Jews killed Jesus. I think we all killed Jesus, because the reason he died was to atone for the sins of all mankind. My church has never taught anti-Semitism, and I'm certainly not anti-Semitic myself."

Gibson's film opens in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus, preparing for his betrayal and praying under a full moon, resists the temptation of a reptilian Satan, eerily and effectively depicted as a pale, taciturn, cloaked, androgynous figure, which crops up throughout the film. After capture by the Romans, Jesus is then severely beaten under the orders of Pilate, in the hope that this harsh punishment will appease the increasingly unruly mob baying for his blood. However, spurred on by high priest Caiphas, the crowd continues to demand Jesus be crucified.

During these ordeals and the long journey Jesus is forced to take to carry his cross to his death, Gibson makes deft use of flashbacks to, among other moments, the Last Supper, the foretellng of apostle Peter's denials and a scene of humour with Jesus showing his carpentry skills to his mother, played with a haunting poignancy by Maia Morgenstern.

This reviewer, for one, cannot see from where the complaints of anti-Semitism stem. High priest Caiphas may be shown as a beastly character, determined to have Jesus crucified, but never does Gibson suggest he is expressing the views of all Jews. Neither does the film-maker insinuate all Romans are as horrific, unmerciful and relentlessly cruel as the Roman torturers shown here.

Ending on an emotional high before a brief, final, subtle scene of hope, Gibson's 127-minute drama is a compelling, vivid, haunting and stylishly directed film, the use of ancient languages working well to conjure a sense of time and realism.

It's not an easy film to watch. You will feel drained afterwards and will not be likely to want to sit through it again in a hurry. But it is a truly magnificent film and gets full marks from this reviewer: 10/10. Billy Suter




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