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THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Sergio Rubini
Director:  Mel Gibson
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  February 17, 2009

"I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and the power to take it up again. This command is from my Father."

Film ****

If nothing else, director Mel Gibson has achieved with The Passion of the Christ a film that is virtually impossible to analyze apart from your own personal, emotional response to it.  Some films are for the eyes and ears, some are for the mind, some are for the heart, but Gibson has managed to bypass all of that and deliver a picture that goes straight for your most basic instincts and drives.

It was a movie some originally thought to be ďGibsonís follyĒ, as the popular actor and Oscar winning director put up a large sum of his own personal money to bankroll the production.  It was to be a religious film that took its religion profoundly sincerely; it would be entirely spoken in two archaic languages with subtitles, and it would have no major stars.  Mel Gibsonís name is a large one, but he would not be stepping in front of the camera this time as he did in Braveheart.  Then added on to that was some rather unflattering prerelease press about whether the picture would inspire divisiveness amongst its audience.  None of these components would seem to add up to commercial success.

But Gibsonís leap of faith paid off.  The Passion of the Christ blew past the $100 million mark in only five days, earning the mark of being the second biggest opening in film history (after Titanic), and settling to date as the 9th highest grossing domestic film of all time.  Whether it was the controversy, the subject matter, the word of mouth or the endless discussions, or elements of all of them, there was one undisputable fact:  people were buying tickets and filling the theatre.

I first saw the movie on opening day in the middle of the afternoon.  The auditorium was packed and quiet until the sounds of sobs began to rise.  When the picture was over, people filed languidly out of the theatre in solemn lines like it was a funeral procession.  If film, as Martin Scorsese once said, fulfills the need of people to share a common memory, there probably was never a cinematic experience to be so permanently etched in the minds of those who viewed it.

Viewed is probably too weak a wordÖyou donít see Gibsonís film so much as experience it.  From quietly eavesdropping on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to being at ground level when he is given up, summarily tried, barbarically tortured and viciously executed, there is no safe place to retreat to.  Gibson goes for our gut with scene after scene, so we cannot pretend to be bystanders from a respectable distance.  Which is the entire point of the passion and the film:  we share in the culpability of the sacrifice of the Christ.

I have recommended the film repeatedly, but always with words of warning.  If you go to see it, you really need to realize that itís going to be an ordeal.  What you will look upon is graphic and grisly, and possibly even nauseating, but it is far from gratuitous, as Gibson employed historical and religious consultants to ensure the technical accuracy of what is depicted.

James Caviezel is the full embodiment of Jesus of Nazareth on screen in a brilliant, heartbreaking, and no doubt physically exhausting performance.  He shared Mel Gibsonís desire to tell a story of the suffering and death of Jesus in an accurate and unflinching way.  Because of Caviezelís work in front of the camera and Gibsonís work behind it, every detail feels authentic, from the costumes and settings to the language and the politicsÖand most of all, of course, the cruel torment.

The film is remarkably faithful to the Gospels and to the traditional Stations of the Cross as depicted in Catholicism.  The only liberties Gibson took were embellishments of the text rather than detractions.  Satan is depicted from the beginning:  while Jesus prays and agonizes in the garden, Satan tries to tempt him off the path.  Jesus never acknowledges him until the beautifully symbolic finale of the scene.  The presence of Satan is seen lurking throughout, up until his ultimate defeat and Jesusí triumph (a fantastic exclamation point to the story).

Gibson also expands the role of Simon, who is forced by the Romans to carry the cross when Jesus can no longer bear the weight.  He is given only passing mention in Scriptures, but here, he seems to become representative of all men as he encounters Jesus.  At first, he wants nothing to do with the man, but by the end of his journey, he believes; this I feel is Mel Gibsonís depiction of the journey of faith of all Christians.

Pontius Pilate is known historically has a tyrannical loose cannon of a governor, so many have been confused by the Gospelís portrayal of him as more benevolent.  Gibson remedies this by adding historical fact to the text:  Pilate had been called back to Rome twice by Caesar and warned to tone down the bloodshed he was inflicting.  His desire to spare Jesus of Nazareth was not coming from a merciful nature, but rather being worried about his own neck.

For those unfamiliar with the Gospels or the other historical accounts of Jesus, there may be some questions unanswered.  One friend I know could not fathom the zeal of the religious leaders in the film to see Jesus die.  We know from Scriptures that Jesus was a direct confrontation to the rule of those leaders, the Pharisees, who had turned Mosaic law into a kind of springboard for their own power; they had made up hundreds of other laws to go with the traditional ones (such as how many steps a man could take on the Sabbath and so on). 

It could be this lack of background information that gave wings to the charges of anti-Semitism against Gibson and his film.  These charges are far from the truth, in my opinion.  In the first place, there are many Jewish people portrayed in the film.  The Pharisees may have wanted Jesusí blood, but there were plenty of others who protested his crucifixion.  His followers, his mother, Mary Magdalene and Simon who carried the cross are all Jewish, of course.

In the second place, placing the blame for Jesusí death on all Jewish people because of the actions of a few zealots is no different from judging all Muslims on the basis of the terrorist acts of some extremist groups.  Yet there are those who willingly do both.  Itís that kind of thinking that can turn a peaceful religion into a violent one, or a film with a profound and deeply spiritual message into a dividing force.

Ultimately, the experience of The Passion is one that places the blame on all humanity.  If Jesus died for the sins of all mankind, then all mankind put him on that cross, not just the people of his day.  When Jesus calls out in his suffering, ďFather, forgive them, they know not what they do,Ē it could just as well be a message for us sitting in air conditioned theatres some 2,000 years after the fact as it was for those who were wielding the whips and hammers.

Iím focusing mostly on the historic and theological aspects of the movie, because they meant the most to me personally.  As I mentioned in my opening, your assessment of the film is going to be based largely on your instinctual and emotional reaction to what you see.  The violence in the film is harsh and uncompromising.  Hopefully, most will take from it the message that Mel Gibson wanted to convey, which is the understanding of the nature of the sacrifice Jesus made in order to finally bring man and God together again.  I canít imagine many people NOT taking that message away with them, but for those who somehow cannot or do not, the experience of the film might seem like two hours of unimaginable brutality.

Those that seek greater understanding from The Passion of the Christ will find it.  Those who donít may end up finding it as well.  But to experience the film is not only to ponder a message, but to witness a supreme cinematic achievement from a talented filmmaker who put his heart, soul, and indeed, his passion into his work.  This should be considered one of the new millenniumís most important movies.

Video ****

It looked remarkable on DVD, but high definition Blu-ray is an absolute treat.  Every rich detail of the superb cinematography is rendered with crispness and clarity, and all sequences, from darkness to daylight, come through with amazing integrity.

Audio ****

The DTS HD soundtrack is powerful and dynamic, ranging from the quiet, contemplative moments to ones of brutality and chaos.  Every detail comes through, with smart uses of the surrounds and sparing use of the .1 channel to deliver impact here and there and lend bottom end to the terrific music score.  High marks.

Features ****

This two disc Blu-ray is just what high definition fans have been waiting for.  The first disc boasts FOUR commentary tracks, with my favorite being the theological one, with Mel Gibson and three scholars of Christian theology, including two Jesuit priests who assisted in the making of the movie.  There is also a filmmaker commentary with Gibson, his editor and his cinematographer, and one with the producers, and one selected scene commentary on the score by composer John Debney.  You can also watch with footnotes from the Bible as subtitles, and, for the more delicate of constitution, you can opt for the Recut version that trimmed a little of the harsher violence.

The second disc is all standard definition, and it boasts a terrific 100 minute documentary "By His Wounds We Are Healed" that goes into the making of the movie in great detail with Mel and his actors and team.  It's extremely entertaining and informative, particularly on the effects and makeup.  "The Legacy" has five featurettes on the film and Christ Himself.  There are also plenty of galleries of photos and historical texts, plus two theatrical trailers and two TV spots.

Summary:

From a relatively low-budgeted movie that no studio wanted to touch to one of the most cherished and profitable movies of all time, The Passion of the Christ is as powerful and as important as modern filmmaking can get.  This Blu-ray edition from Fox gives high definition fans everything they've come to expect from the medium, and much more.

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