The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth's life. The film begins in the Garden of Olives where Jesus has gone to pray after the Last Supper. Jesus must resist the temptations of Satan. Betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Jesus is then arrested and taken within the city walls of Jerusalem where leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy and his trial results in a condemnation to death.
The story of Jesus Christ has inspired filmmakers since the beginning of cinema; here in Australia, Soldiers Of The Cross was produced by the Salvation Army in 1900, and one of the first American feature films, Sydney Olcott's From The Manger To The Cross, made in 1912, was actually shot on location in Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. After Cecil B. DeMille's King Of Kings in 1927, there was a long period when it was felt that Christ couldn't be depicted on screen: he's an unseen presence in films like The Robe and Ben-Hur. But Nicholas Ray's politically charged version of King Of Kings changed that in 1961, and Max von Sydow memorably played Christ in George Stevens' disappointing The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965. But before that, the gay Marxist director Pier Paolo Pasolini made the best version of the Christ story in The Gospel According To St. Matthew - a neo-realist version of the story. Monty Python and Martin Scorsese provided controversial versions of the story in the 70s and 80s.
Subtlety is not a word in Mel Gibson's lexicon
Mel Gibson claims he wanted "to create a lasting work of art and to stimulate serious thought "and to inspire tolerance, love and forgiveness." His film dispenses almost entirely with the back story: it starts with the betrayal of Christ by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.
There will be many different reactions to this film but, as a lapsed everything, I found it difficult to endure. Subtlety is not a word in Mel Gibson's lexicon, and he has made the most relentlessly violent film I've ever seen - horrendously violent. How it came to be given only an MA rating when the far less violent Kill Bill got an R is hard to comprehend.
There is almost no characterisation in Gibson's version: Pilate, played by Hristo Shopov, is a character with some nuances, as is Joseph of Arimathea, Giancinto Ferro. But for the rest, Gibson assumes we know the story and the characters, and leaves it at that.
The decision to make the film in dead languages seems pretty pointless and gimmicky, and the decision to cast a woman in the role of Satan - a very androgynous woman - also seems highly questionable. Caleb Deschanel's photography, on Italian locations, is impressive, but the choral music is very unsubtle and the prosthetic makeup becomes more and more obvious as the film progresses.
I was shocked by the ultra-violence of this film, but the tragic story left me numb rather than inspired.