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‘Passion:’ The sacred and profane

Never has something so ugly been filmed with such beauty.
/ Source: SeacoastOnline.com

Never has something so ugly been filmed with such beauty.

Any film - good or bad, regardless of religious, political or social context - boils down to a story and the way its told. Cinema is an inherently visual medium, and the story of Christ is inherently not - believers refer to The Word of God, not the Celluloid Reel of God. So to share his vision of the final days of Jesus Christ, director Mel Gibson drew on the storytelling elements of cinema most likely to resonate with modern viewers and wove them around an ancient tale told outside the core audiences language.

Shooting dialogue in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew serves two purposes: It lends the film an authenticity of time and place and saves the audience from suffering through the likes of Harvey Keitels New Yaawwk accent as Judas Iscariot in "The Last Temptation of Christ."

To cast the film, Gibson chose mostly unknown faces, also adding to authenticity and saving us from wondering what John Wayne was doing as a Roman centurion in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." James Caviezels blue eyes are tinted brown as Jesus but retain the tortured poetry familiar to any fan of his soulful performance in "The Thin Red Line." The only other semi-famous face would be the lovely one owned by Monica Bellucci, whose role as Mary Magdalene requires a great deal of weeping, but not much back story. Gibson takes for granted that we know her Bible tale - and shows via flashback the "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" scene without actually saying a word.

Character is a major player here, sometimes to the extent that Gibson extrapolates from his source material. One of his points is to draw on the powerful bond between Jesus and his mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern). When Jesus first falls carrying the cross, the camera flashes back to Jesus as a young child and Mary running after him to help him up. Gibson also decided to invent an odd moment-of-levity flashback when carpenter Jesus is making a high-chaired table, and Mary laughingly scoffs, "this will never catch on." These flashbacks are used frequently as character devices and to catch viewers up on what happened before the actual start of the film - where a shaken Jesus watches his friends sleep as the high priests men come to seize him.

The depictions of Judas maddening guilt and Pontius Pilates conflicted soul searching are fascinating and well-developed additions to the three-dimensional human drama.

Not faring so well are the high priests or Roman soldiers, who are depicted as every evil under the sun. Much has been said of the potentially offensive nature of this film, focused on the blood libel line putting the blame for Christs death on the Jews. The line may have been spoken after Pontius Pilate washed his hands, but it was not translated on the screen.

What does make it on screen is a seemingly endless series of beatings by the Roman soldiers that make the end torture scene in "Braveheart" seem gentlemanly. We see Jesus whipped not only with rods, but sharp spikes that tear the flesh right off his body. The makeup in the film is realistic enough to make one repeatedly wince in horror and disgust. Blood is everywhere, dripping off his body, trailing behind him when hes dragged to the cross and splattering on those around him when he falls. The Roman soldiers are the true villains, torturing with a kind of malicious glee that borders on parody. And yet, for my sake, I hope that doesnt mean well all be going after the Italians because of it.

I cant imagine anyone not being offended by this movie. Youre watching an underdog - and Hollywood loves an underdog - be bullied mercilessly as the sound of haunting chants underscores the action. Its affecting no matter who or what you are, as long as you are human.

As film is a visual medium, to bring it to the screen, Gibson wisely tapped the shoulder of four-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The director wanted the films look to resemble the paintings of Italian artist Caravaggio, whose technique of selective illumination of form out of deep shadow is translated on screen with exquisite form. From a pale serpentine Satan tempting Jesus under the moonlight to Mary and Mary Magdalene huddling their weeping heads by a column, the lighting and composition are almost too perfect, threatening to turn the film into a museum piece instead of a believable reenactment of what many consider history.

That Gibson considers it history is well known, thanks to massive publicity, and his thumbprints are all over the film - literally, in one scene, as his hand makes a cameo to nail Christs hand to the cross. (Does this mean hes to blame for killing Christ ... ?)

Whether you believe Mel Gibson is a true visionary spreading The Word or an arrogant extremist pummeling his beliefs on viewers with brute force, its hard to deny hes a gutsy guy with strong passion for cinema and story. And whether you believe Jesus was the son of God, a prophet of the Messiah, just a charismatic guy or never existed beyond an oft-told tale, its hard to deny that "The Passion of the Christ" is a powerful story. And those are the only ones worth telling.

Gina Carbone reviews movies for the Portsmouth Herald. She can be reached at gcarbone@seacoastonline.com.