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The Passion of the Christ (February 23/04)

Mel Gibson's done what even Martin Scorsese couldn't do: he's made a film about Jesus that's accessible to both religious and non-religious folks alike. Scorsese's reluctance to open up his movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, to audiences without an intimate knowledge of Jesus' legend ultimately hurt it, turning the film into an occasionally baffling ordeal. Gibson, on the other hand, clearly understands that there are a lot of audience members that aren't terribly familiar with the many characters and events surrounding Christ's last hours, and imbues the film with a universality that allows even the most atheistic viewer to follow along with ease.

The Passion of the Christ showcases the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, with the occasional flashback thrown in to further our understanding of what brought him to that point. Jesus is played by Jim Caviezel, while a cast comprised primarily of unknowns fill the supporting roles (Monica Bellucci, as Mary Magdalene, is the only exception). Summarizing the plot of a movie about Jesus Christ is somewhat redundant at this point, but suffice it to say he's betrayed by Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) and eventually winds up crucified.

The most obvious difference between The Passion of the Christ and virtually every Biblical film that's come before it is the distinct sense of realism that permeates almost every aspect of the story. Gone are the over-the-top sets and broad performances, which have been replaced by a palpable feeling of authenticity. Though some of the early sequences - primarily those which feature Jesus' first encounter with Satan in the Garden of Olives - are played so seriously that one almost expects the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang to pop up, the movie quickly settles into a groove that absolutely works.

The Passion of the Christ is epic in all the right ways, as Gibson deftly blends storytelling with visual splendor (this is the same guy that directed Braveheart, after all). Along with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Gibson offers up a vision of Palestine that's incredibly dark and moody; on a purely visceral level, The Passion of the Christ is one of the most exciting films to come along in years. The stylized look of the film admittedly does take a while to get used to - virtually every frame has been immaculately composed - but there's no denying that Gibson's done an amazing job of injecting new life into a tale that's been filmed since the beginning of cinema.

And that's exactly what makes The Passion of the Christ so appealing; unlike Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, this film manages to transcend all the religious stuff and become a story about a man unfairly persecuted. It's hard not to feel sympathy for Jesus, particularly during the astoundingly severe torture sequences. This is probably one of the most brutally violent movies to emerge out of mainstream Hollywood in ages, and as a result, many viewers will probably have a lot of difficulty sitting through some of these scenes. But it never feels gratuitous (well, that bit with the cat o' nine tails getting caught in Jesus' skin might've been pushing it) as it helps us understand exactly how much of a sacrifice Christ made when he forgave the soldiers for their actions.

The film is anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Caviezel, who is completely convincing as the son of God. Charismatic and passionate (no pun intended), this interpretation of Christ is rare in that it depicts him as someone that most of us can relate to (well, aside from the whole ability-to-heal-wounds thing). The prevailing image of Jesus has always been that of an ethereally calm miracle worker; Caviezel brings a much-needed dose of humanity to the portrayal. As a result, even those without religious beliefs will be hard-pressed not to empathize with Jesus' plight. He's especially effective in the flashback sequences that show him preaching to his followers, and it's easy enough to wish that Gibson had included more of these moments.

Though the film is almost unrelentingly heavy and bleak, Gibson does manage to break the tension now and then with unexpectedly humorous bits. The revelation that Jesus invented the concept of sitting at a dinner table is the most obvious example of this, while the look of pure glee on convicted murderer Barrabas' face after learning that he's to be released (an angry mob, when given the choice of who to set free, picks the hardened killer over Jesus) is priceless.

The bottom line is that The Passion of the Christ is an astonishing cinematic achievement, utterly riveting from start to finish. Intense and dramatic, the film's only real drawback is the hardcore violence - which will undoubtedly turn off a large number of viewers. Still, you'd be hard pressed to find a more engaging and deeply moving film than this one; it's the kind of movie one wishes for when sitting through the seemingly neverending barrage of cliched, inept Hollywood product. Gibson's created a classic that will be debated for years to come, and though there are no easy answers, the film's place among the most revered historical epics is undeniable.

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