The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

    Passion is gory, emotional; lacks clear message

    On the wettest, gloomiest Ash Wednesday in recent memory, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” landed in Starkville. The hotly anticipated film, which illustrates (in graphically violent detail) the last day in the life of Jesus Christ, stirred up controversy long before its release.
    “Passion” has been condemned for everything from exploitation to anti-Semitism. Of course, the media firestorm helps the film ignite more interest from the ticket-buying public.
    Shrewd marketing and the film’s far-reaching subject matter all but ensure that Gibson’s film will rock the spring box office. It’s an R-rated film that parents will take their children to see. It’s an R-rated film that churches across the United States are urging their parishioners to see. Religious films don’t usually make this big a stir in the national consciousness, but they usually don’t arrive with this auspicious a production or with the industry clout of an Oscar-winning director like Gibson.
    A member of a traditionalist sect of Catholicism, Gibson offers an examination of Christ’s final hours, beginning with his capture in Gethsemane and ending with his crucifixion on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
    In retelling this most famous of Biblical episodes, Gibson has his large international cast intone the languages of the actual events. It’s a gamble that pays off in added authenticity. Largely spoken in Aramaic, “The Passion of the Christ” might just go on to be the most profitable foreign-language film in Hollywood history (it’ll have to surmount “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for that distinction). It’s that rarest of subtitled films-the type that won’t scare away the layman.
    The film is such a visceral experience that the dialogue is almost a mere footnote. There is an inexorable momentum in the film’s first hour that is captivating to the point of being overwhelming. No other Biblical epic has resonated with this much urgency nor radiated with this much human energy.
    Well-placed flashbacks show Jesus in happier times, enjoying the company of his mother and his apostles and even engaging in some good old-fashioned carpentry. These small, intimate moments show the everyman behind the Messiah, making his long and brutal demise that much more unbearable to watch.
    Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have created an intense film of moods and moments, full of striking visuals and swelling emotions. Most of the set pieces work well on their own and, impressively, manage to squeeze new life from oft-told material.
    The film’s opening scenes in Gethsemane are dark, eerie and suspenseful. Peter’s denial of Jesus is genuinely wrenching. The loud scenes in which Caiphas rallies the crowd behind crucifixion play out with harsh realism and wilting empathy thanks to Hristo Shopov’s sad-eyed Pontius Pilate.
    Most of the cast acquits itself admirably, though some of the acting skirts melodrama too closely for comfort. Mattia Sbragia’s Caiphas explodes with an excess of regal pomp, and Luca Lionello’s Judas is too blithering to be seen as a complete character.
    On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, are Maia Morgenstern, who is quietly devastating as Mary, and James Caviezel, whose towering performance as Jesus eradicates the memory of the actor’s lackluster turns in turkeys like “Angel Eyes” and “High Crimes.” Caviezel is a marvel here, owning the screen with his every gaze and utterance and conveying a huge breadth of emotion with only his face and eyes.
    There is passion aplenty onscreen and off in Gibson’s magnum opus, but it’s never clear what message the filmmaker is trying to convey.
    In the early going, “Passion” seems to be using Christ’s trials as more of a background than a foreground. The movie seems less about Jesus’ suffering than about the actions of those around him-the sins of the evil, the transgressions of the misguided, and the indomitable spirit of the good.
    In this film, Jesus is still the focus, but the real heroes are the pure-hearted onlookers who maintain their belief in Jesus even as they watch him belittled on the cross. This is a powerful concept and one that should have been enough to sustain the entire film.
    Yet Gibson unwisely shifts focus to Christ’s physical disintegration in the film’s latter half. And suffer he does in scene after scene of grueling torture and bloodshed. Christ’s first beating is handled exceedingly well (the concise editing and crackling sound design of this sign make the audience wince with each lash). But the gore spews out of control as “Passion” reaches its conclusion. Christ spills enough blood near film’s end to make Sam Peckinpah blush, gushing a cartoonish jet of blood straight out of “Kill Bill.” Somewhere in the midst of all the suffering, Gibson crosses the line into exploitation.
    The violence serves no purpose late in the game except to call attention to itself, and, in that respect, it succeeds all too well. “The Passion of the Christ” ties George Romero’s zombie extravaganza “Dawn of the Dead” for title of the most stomach-churningly violent film this critic has seen.
    If Gibson is trying to make his audience feel as abused as Christ was before his death, he nearly succeeds. If he’s trying to do more than that, then “Passion” is somewhat of a failure. As an immersive, purely visceral experience, the film would succeed if not for Gibson’s heavy-handedness.
    As it is, the film is strongest in its moments of ambiguity, moments when Gibson presents an event or an idea and doesn’t tell the audience exactly what to think about it.
    If the director wanted to say something specific and unsubtle about Christ’s death, that’s fine too. But he hasn’t said it here. Without a clear message, “The Passion of the Christ” feels like so much sound and fury signifying nothing.
    Different people will see this film in different ways. Religious beliefs and affiliations are largely subjective, and there are as many ways to feel about this film’s subject matter as there are people on earth. Audiences will take out of “Passion” what they bring into it. Many will see it as a religious event-an act of faith or devotion-while others will see it as nothing more than a night at the movies.
    As cinema, “The Passion of the Christ” works and doesn’t work. It’s moving, yet also confounding, messy and ultimately arrogant. Gibson seems to want and perhaps believe his film to be the most important film of its type ever made. He almost gets his wish; “Passion” is half of a great movie.
    Sometimes it’s transcendent; sometimes it’s as decadent and grotesque as King Herod and his court. At the end of the film, this critic didn’t feel anguished by Christ’s demise or uplifted by his resurrection. He merely felt relief that the film was over and sadness that Gibson settled for so much agony in the final reel and so little ecstasy.

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    Passion is gory, emotional; lacks clear message