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The telling of Jesus Christ’s sentencing, torture, crucifixion, and rebirth.
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Entertainment Weekly ranked it number one on its ‘Most Controversial Movies Ever’ list. Roger Ebert said, “This is the most violent movie I have ever seen.” Christians applauded it, some Jewish factions protested it, and the firestorm resulted in it becoming the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever in North America.
Welcome to number two on our ‘Most Controversial Films of the Decade’ list: THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
‘The Passion of the Christ’ is the two-hour depiction of what amounts to the last twelve hours of Jesus Christ’s life (and certainly the WORST twelve hours of his life). It begins in the swirling mists of Gethsemane with Jesus and his disciples experiencing a fearful premonition of what’s to come. Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) lurks in the background, attempting to lure Jesus from his divine fate -- dying for the sins of mankind. Judas (Luca Lionello) betrays his master’s whereabouts to the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas (Sbragia), and soon Jesus is captured and taken to a Roman outpost to be sentenced by Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). Uncertain what to do, Pilate shirks responsibility by allowing Herod Antipas (Luca de Dominicis) to assess Jesus, but the hedonistic ruler dismisses him as harmless. Back at the outpost, threatened by the possibility of an uprising, Pilate agrees to the torture and execution of the “blasphemer,” and now Jesus is subjected to a series of indignities such as beatings, lashes and eventual death by crucifixion, a fate usually reserved for criminals and slaves. Christ’s companions along this path are his mother Mary (Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Bellucci) who can do nothing but watch as their loved one is persecuted. A series of short flashbacks show some of Jesus’ past, but do little to inform the viewer as to why Caiaphas is subjecting him to such treatment. The story climaxes upon Jesus’ death, when a great storm indicates that mankind has been saved (Satan gets pretty annoyed about this, as you can imagine) and ends with the Saviour’s rebirth.
Gibson, who also produced the film and co-wrote the script, directs with no hint of his ‘Mad Max’ beginnings, and more importantly does us the favour of not putting himself in the film (who wants to see Mel Gibson as the flamboyant Herod Antipas? Not me.) As a non-religious person who is only vaguely aware of the teachings of the bible, I wish the film had focussed more on what Jesus had offered in his life rather than just his persecution. In this way the story lacks context, which as a screenwriter I view as a major demerit point. It reminds me of the beautiful ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ which describes Che Guevara’s influential bike ride across South America before he met Fidel Castro and started the Cuban Revolution; it’s an interesting tidbit, but nowhere near as important as what he did at other times in his life, and ultimately the tale comes off as unsatisfying.
But without dispute, the biggest controversy surrounding this film is the accusation that it is anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League obtained a copy of the script before production began and said that it was “one of the most troublesome texts, relative to anti-Semitic potential, that any of us had seen in twenty-five years.” The Nation reviewer Katha Pollitt wondered, “It's a mystery to me why the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has given this crude and kitschy film a thumbs up. Gibson has violated just about every precept of the conference's own 1988 "Criteria" for the portrayal of Jews in dramatizations of the Passion (no bloodthirsty Jews, no rabble, no use of Scripture that reinforces negative stereotypes of Jews, etc.)” She goes on to claim that the Gibson’s “bad Jews” have long noses, gnarled skin and expensive clothes, while his “good Jews” look like movie stars (one of which, Bellucci, actually IS an Italian movie star). Adding to the controversy is Gibson himself. Although he always denied that ‘The Passion’ was anti-Semitic, that fact is that the actor / director is the son of an affirmed Holocaust-denier. Furthermore, two years after the film’s release Gibson was pulled over for a DUI (driving under the influence) and was accused by the arresting police of spouting a string of derogatory statements against Jews, all of which he admitted to (while apologizing whole-heartedly, of course). That doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘The Passion’ is anti-Semitic, but it certainly doesn’t help Gibson’s case, either.
Does ‘The Passion of the Christ’ deserve the controversy it has garnered? Is it offensive? Is it inflammatory? Yes, on all counts. But controversy sparks ideas and debate, and that can only be a good thing. Watch ‘The Passion’ if you haven’t already. Just be prepared to cover your eyes sometimes.