A 'Jesus Epic' That Will Be Remembered
Jesus is just as much a controversial topic today as he was over 2,000 years ago. Just as the world knew of him then, God is using Gibson’s film in a creative and unusual way to make sure the world knows Him today. This is a reporters summary, but not really what the movie is all about. That can be seen in the article: "The Passion is a Mass" and others in the section on the Bottom Line of the Movie.
Plot Summary: "The Passion of The Christ" is a gospel-inspired account of the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth's life, beginning on the evening of the Passover after the last supper and ending in the tomb. We first see Jesus (Jim Caviezel) in the Garden of Gethsemane bathed in a blue shadow under a full moon. As Jesus is praying for what he’s about to go through, he’s also resisting Satan's (Rosalinda Celentano) tormenting taunts and lies. Meanwhile, Judas (Luca Lionello), one of his disciples, has gone to the temple priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Soon after the temple guards swarm the garden, arrest Jesus and take him back to Jerusalem where Caiaphas and his followers conduct a mock trial, accusing Jesus of blasphemy. As Jesus’ mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and his disciples John (Hristo Jivkov) and Peter (Francesco De Vito) helplessly observe the proceedings; Jesus is spat upon and beaten, then sent to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). Pilate tries to avoid a political conflict by sending Jesus to King Herod, but when Herod finds no fault with Jesus and sends him back, Pilate is then forced to deal with the situation. Despite his wife’s warnings not to harm a holy man, Pilate is faced with keeping peace with the religious leaders to avoid the wrath of Rome. He refuses to grant the crowds request for death and instead orders Jesus to be severely punished, “but not killed.” Jesus is turned over to the Roman guards who disobey orders and nearly kill him, so Pilate again offers the angr y crowd a choice between setting a known murderer named Barabbas free or condemning a man who has already endured extreme punishment. The crowd chooses Barabbas and Pilate washes his hands of the entire situation, ordering his men to do as the crowd wishes. Caiaphas and his followers demand crucifixion so Jesus is ordered to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha where he is then nailed to a cross between two thieves. In the midst of agonizing pain and suffering, Jesus forgives those who have persecuted him and ultimately carries out his message of love and forgiveness with his last breath.
I have to be honest; this is not a film I can review objectively because I had the pleasure to be involved with “The Passion” project since I first met with Mel Gibson at Icon in September of 2002. I was asked to create a “behind the scenes” special about “The Passion of the Christ” (which aired on PAX and TBN) so I traveled to Rome and was on the set to observe what went on behind the scenes, firsthand. Although I was present during the filming of several scenes, and even watched some of the dailies with Mel and his crew, nothing, and I mean nothing could have prepared me for the film Gibson ultimately created.
This is a “Jesus epic” that will be remembered historically for many reasons. Not only has Gibson created a masterpiece in filmmaking, but the movie itself will influence the world in many ways and for many reasons. It is already being viewed as an evangelizing tool for Christians. What about the way this film has been talked about, praised, ridiculed, condemned and constantly in the press for over a year before its release? “The Passion of the Christ” is a cultural phenomenon and a publicist’s dream, unlike anything Hollywood has ever seen or dealt with before. What began as a simple project that Gibson called his “labor of love,” has grown to be bigger than anything he (or anyone at Icon) ever dreamed it would be -- and that’s what Hollywood is afraid of.
And let’s not forget the “God Factor.” Jesus is just as much a controversial topic today as he was over 2,000 years ago. Just as the world knew of him then, God is using Gibson’s film in a creative and unusual way to make sure the world knows Him today.
To write a review of this film as entertainment seems somehow wrong or misplaced. Unlike Gibson’s other films, this is not a “popcorn” movie meant to “entertain.” Gibson underwent a spiritual journey almost thirteen years ago that led him to a fuller understanding of what Christ must have gone through on the cross and that’s when he became passionate about “The Passion.” He began a quest to tell his version by avoiding the entire story of Christ’s life (as many of the old Bible epics have already done) and instead rendered a firsthand glimpse at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, beginning in the garden of Gethsemane and ending with his resurrection in the tomb. This is more of an emotional journey than anything else. An experience designed to make you feel as though you’re a witness to Christ’s remaining hours on earth, when history was forever changed by His story.
Choosing who should play Jesus Christ could have been a grueling process, but for Gibson it was simple. There was only one actor whom he considered for the role of Jesus and that was Jim Caviezel. As Gibson puts it, “Jim has a glow about him, a childlike quality, an innocence that was necessary for the role. He simply IS Jesus.” Caviezel is nothing short of brilliant in this film. If indeed Hollywood loves to give Oscars to actors who go through extreme physical changes and bad makeup -- and are even more favored if they go through some form of torture, then Caviezel definitely deserves an Oscar for his performance. His ability to speak volumes with just one look, one glance from those piercing blue eyes (which were changed to brown) is a tribute to much more than just his gifted acting ability. Caviezel put his heart and soul into this role -- he became Jesus. He told me there were times when, “something took over,” as he began to do certain scenes, he knew it wasn’t his ability alone. Several times I would watch Jim standing in chains or sitting with the crown of thorns on his head, silently praying as they set up the next shot. He not only stayed in character, but spiritually he was constantly in tune throughout the entire film, in every scene, day-in, day-out, and it shows on screen. When he speaks in the Aramaic language, it’s as if we get a glimpse of Christ himself, sharing the word of God. His scenes with Morgenstern are real, emotional, and captivating. Never before has the relationship between Jesus and his mother been portrayed so real, so personal, and so human. Caviezel told me that when he was cast for the role of Jesus, he was 33 years old, and in case you haven't already realized it, his initials are JC.
Maia Morgenstern is powerful as Mary. Her eyes cry out volumes even when she says nothing -- love, fear, faith, pain, the agony of watching your son being tortured to death, grief upon holding his body after he’s carried down from the cross -- all with her eyes. One of the lighter moments she has in the film, is when Mary calls Jesus to lunch while he’s finishing a table. With his long hair pulled back and his bare masculine carpenter arms showing the sweat of labor, Mary chides him to wash his hands before coming in the house, so he playfully splashes water on her then gives her a big hug. Morgenstern was almost 6 months pregnant when she completed the role of Mary, yet everyday, all day long, she was devoted to every scene and then some. The woman is a remarkable actress.
Monica Bellucci is absolutely breathtaking as Mary Magdalene. The camera loves her and as Gibson likes to tell the story, “I couldn’t make her look bad.” Bellucci doesn’t have many lines, but she doesn’t have to; her beauty, her love and respect for Jesus are part of her character, and she simply glows. There’s a scene where Mary is mopping up the blood of Jesus from the stones in the courtyard where he was beaten. Mary reflects back to when she first met Jesus, reaching out her hand to touch his foot (which is really Mel’s) and gazing into the eyes of a man who just saved her from being stoned for adultery. I appreciate the way he ended up creating that scene without dialogue, with just a look, as he masterfully did in so much of this film. I had a chance to speak with Mel about that scene and it is one of my favorites. Another powerful scene is when Jesus is crucified and they flip the cross over to bend the nails, only Mary Magdalene can see that the cross is floating above ground so that Christ’s face never hits the dirt. It’s a miraculous moment.
The opening scene in the garden lays the spiritual foundation that takes place throughout the entire story. It is from that beginning that we see the warfare between the realms of light and dark -- good and evil -- Jesus and Satan. It is here that Mel first uses his creative license with the gospels by actually portraying Satan in physical form. Gibson chose a female (Celentano) to play the role because he wanted an androgynous look that included beautiful features with a shaved head, no eyebrows and a man’s voice. It is likewise from this scene that we get a glimpse of how maddening it must have been for Jesus to have Satan constantly chiding him, berating him with lies, and creating a sort of psychological torture that no one else could see.
Another brilliant move was Gibson’s choice to film the entire movie in Aramaic using subtitles. This adds an authenticity to the setting and makes it an international story the world can embrace. When Caviezel quotes the scriptures Jesus spoke in those final hours, it’s as if the Bible -- the word of God, comes alive and we are listening to the Son of God. Hearing a dead language that no one speaks, accompanied by subtitles that end up being effortless to read, becomes a powerful tool that helps the story -- it makes you pay attention.
Through the brutal flagellation scenes, the agonizing procession to the cross and Christ’s painful crucifixion, the only moments of escape from the insanity are through numerous flashback scenes appropriately woven into the story. Mary sees Jesus fall with his cross so she runs to him and holds his head in her hands, remembering the time she ran to him when he was a little boy. Jesus looks into her eyes and says, “See mother, behold I make all things new.” It is a pivotal scene in the movie.
While Jesus is being crucified we are shown the last supper, bathed in golden lights with Jesus’ disciples lovingly by his side. As he washes their feet and breaks the bread of communion saying “Do this in remembrance of me,” the scene switches back to his body being broken on the cross … and the symbolism is clear with every blow of the hammer.
Since Gibson funded the film himself, he used nothing but the best for his “labor of love.” His crew were experts in their field and all lent a definite, refined, artistic edge that has never been captured in other biblical movies. For his Director of Photography Gibson chose Caleb Deschanel, a master with color and light who can portray a scene as if it were a painting. Gibson had previously worked with Deschanel in “The Patriot” and knew he could take golden lights, dark earthen colors and a blue moonlit garden, to create dramatic looks inspired by artists like Caravaggio and others. To recreate the crucifixion scene Gibson wanted someplace authentic looking so he chose a small 2000 year old town in southern Italy called Matera. The rest of the story was filmed outside of Rome at Cinecitta studios where an ancient Jerusalem of breathtaking biblical proportions was built to give an epic feel with giant columns, flights of stoned steps, massive wooden doors and weathered Roman emblems, creating the political and cultural climate where Jesus spends his remaining hours of life.
The clothing, beards, hairpieces, jewelry, etc., were all meticulously selected because it was important for Gibson to have a realistic and authentic feel to his story. The special effects (FX) were created by a team from LA who did everything from special prosthetic noses for Caviezel, to creating bloody scars and flesh that he would wear through most of the film. Their crowning achievement was a mechanical Jesus (used for scenes on the cross) with a chest and head that moved. They also had the task of developing a unique way to film the crucifixion scene where a spike (held by Gibson’s own hand) is shown going through the hand of Jesus. One of the more unusual effects Gibson created is a tear from God that falls from heaven (right after Jesus dies) and when it hits the ground, it sets off an earthquake that destroys the temple.
It goes without saying that this movie will affect all who see it. No one will walk away the same. Gibson has done what Gibson does best -- used his keen insight and instincts to portray the most dramatic event of all time. He admits that he had a little help, “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic.”
He’s telling the truth. Some will be moved to tears, others will be angry. Some will be awed by what Christ went through for every person who watches this story, others will be disturbed by it. For some the graphic flagellation scenes and crucifixion will be too much and too hard to watch, many will cover their eyes, some will stare in disbelief. Most will attempt to wrap their minds around Gibson’s concept that any human could endure such an ordeal until the end, when it’s clear that God was present all along. Most will be speechless but all will have to process and absorb what that they have just witnessed -- the story demands it.
Should parents take their children to see this movie? Gibson has said that he doesn’t think this is a movie for kids under 12 and I agree. When both men and women weep through a film and many can’t speak afterwards, how much more do you think children will be emotionally affected by this film? This is not a “must see” movie for kids, nor is it a “kid-friendly” Jesus movie. Your child will need to be able to read subtitles fairly quickly and it would help to be familiar with the account of Christ’s death. I think parents should see the movie first, then according to your child’s maturity, prepare your child for what they are about to see. Make sure your child is familiar with the story of Jesus resurrection beyond the tomb because the film ends inside the tomb which may be a little confusing for some.
This is an international Jesus story that should appeal to people of all nationalities. I asked Mel Gibson what he wanted people to walk away with after seeing this movie and he said, “My movie has a tremendous message of faith, hope, love, forgiveness, and a message of tremendous courage and sacrifice. My hope is that it will affect people on a very profound level and somehow change them -- and that message is a pretty good message to be pushing right now. There’s so much turmoil in the world today. When the world is tried in this way people usually start going back to something higher to fill a void in their souls, particularly if the Earth is crying out in pain from all the suffering and fear that’s inflicted by war and hatred. For me, I don’t think there’s a better message you could put out there than what’s in this movie.”
When I came back from Italy in February of 2003, I wrote a story about my experience and closed it with this quote, “Whether Hollywood likes it or not, The Passion has all of the makings of a career milestone for Gibson and a religious phenomenon for the rest of the world.” A little over a year later, I'm proud to say I was right!