An anxious Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel), the Son of God, prays alone in the garden of Gethsemane after dark while his disciples supposedly stand guard, but when he walks over to them, they have fallen asleep and he admonishes them. He returns to his prayer, and is goaded by a vision of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as all the while one of his disciples, Judas (Luca Lionello), makes a bargain with the authorities to hand Jesus over to them for thirty pieces of silver. The Roman soldiers arrive at the garden, and get into a scuffle with Christ's followers, but he tells them to desist as Judas betrays him with a kiss, setting him on the path to crucifixion and dying for the sins of mankind.
Was there ever a religious movie to stir up such a fuss than this version of the Gospels, written by superstar director Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald? Well, yeah, there was Martin Scorcese and Paul Schrader's The Last Temptation of Christ, but the difference here is that while certain Christian groups hated that one, with Gibson's Passion those same groups put the film at the top of the box office charts all over the world. However, it was protested by Jewish groups, who complained that the portrayal of the Jewish establishment was anti-Semitic, and it's true they don't come out of this film looking like paragons of virtue, but in truth Christians don't look to great in the light of the Passion either.
Gibson isn't out to make life (or death) easy for his Christ, but he makes it pretty tough on the audience, as well. The dialogue is in both Latin and Aramaic, with subtitles almost begrudgingly added, and the tone is brutal throughout, resembling a sermon from a firebrand preacher determined to make you feel every inch of the journey to the Cross. This film had the novelty of acquiring its own urban myth, when a rumour was spread around that the Pope had seen it and proclaimed, "It is as it was", but the violence meted out to the Christ is undeniably realistic, and the historical figure must have undergone similar suffering.
As if the Gospels were not hard hitting enough, there have been added to the old story the trappings of a glossy, big budget horror blockbuster. The Devil appears frequently, lurking around and looking androgynous, along with demonic munchkins, a slithery snake fresh from the Garden of Eden and the odd horrific apparition. The traditional characters of the tales appear, Mary Magdelene (Monica Bellucci) and Mary the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern) try to offer comfort, Peter (Francesco De Vito) is shamed by refusing to acknowledge Christ (as we are supposed to be, it would seem), and Judas is straightforwardly punished for his sin, without addressing the irony that if it wasn't for Judas, there would be no crucifixion.
Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) is a man wracked with the guilt that doesn't trouble the Jewish elders, on whose shoulders the blame is placed, although to be fair this is based on actual passages from the Gospel of St John. The Romans may have the excuse of ignorance for their savagery towards Jesus, but the Jews have no such vindication here, and appear altogether self-serving, but to what purpose is unclear in this adaptation (blasphemy is frequently mentioned, but never elucidated on). As the Christ, Caviezel is curiously uncharismatic, even if he did invent the kitchen table (really), and grows more and more like a measure for individual human suffering instead of carrying the sins of the world on his back.
And what do you learn about Christianity, or indeed, Christ himself? Not much it has to be said. Gibson is so caught up in punishing his main character that we are subjected to seemingly endless scenes of bloody whipping and gruelling torture, with flashbacks to Jesus' life added almost as an unenlightening afterthought. We leave the drama little the wiser about universal love and goodwill, about forgiveness or even about the point of dying on the Cross, it's all about sensation. The Passion is a film which sets out to bully you into accepting Christ as your Saviour, rubbing your nose in the atrocities he endured to make you feel repentant. It won't make many converts, and those Christians who feel their philosophy is properly represented here are ones to be concerned about - it dispenses with the boring and essential peace and love stuff and concentrates on savouring the violence of religion. Music by John Debney.