Violent, compelling, and true to the source material, this beautifully photographed film takes no prisoners as it brings to life the all too often abstracted and glossed-over suffering of Jesus of Nazareth. Noting at the outset that any review of this movie will say far more about the critic than it will about the pic, we forge ahead.
Beginning with the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the narrative moves in a mostly linear fashion to the inevitable crucifixion, with only a few spare flashbacks on Jesus’ public ministry and private life. The film’s device of using Aramaic and Latin with subtitles is a welcome change from the other Jesus biopics that have the Jews speaking standard American English and the Romans speaking with an British accent. Just from this, you feel as if a time machine has brought you back, and you—a stranger in a strange land—are observing events unfold.
Helmer Mel Gibson takes certain artistic license, such as including an androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) observing, commenting on, and perhaps influencing the proceedings, as well as expanding the role of Pilate’s wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini). He also perpetuates the mis-identification of the “Woman Caught in Adultery” (John 8:1-11) as Mary Magdalene. The only back story in the Gospels on Mary Magdalene is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out…” (Luke 8:2). For the record, Mary Magdalene isn’t the sinful woman pardoned at the Pharisee’s house, who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with precious ointment (Luke 7:36-50) nor is she Mary the brother of Lazarus, who similarly anoints Jesus’ feet, after her brother is raised from the dead (John 12:1-8).
Judas (Luca Lionello) gets his 30 pieces of silver from Caiphas the high priest (Mattia Sbragia), and in very short order, the Temple guards are out to arrest Jesus (James Caviezel). He is brought before a quickly called Sanhedrin—indeed, a prominent Jew or two object to the kangaroo court in the middle of the night—and is convicted of blasphemy. The only hitch is that the occupying Romans will have to carry out the death sentence.
Caiphas and his band bring Jesus before Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), who notices that the gentle rabbi has been beaten by the Temple guards, and scornfully asks Caiphas if he always punishes the accused before the trial. Not wishing to pronounce judgment, he sends Jesus off to the titular Jewish king, a party hearty Herod (Luca De Dominicis), who simply returns the silent Jesus to Pilate.
The conflicted governor instructs his top henchman Abenader (Fabio Sartor) to have the rabbi scourged severely, as that might be enough to satisfy the Sanhedrin. And this scourging, performed by sadistic soldiers is bloody as can be, and probably would have killed him, had not Abenader returned to stop it. The facial expressions of Mary the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern), observing all of this with Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and John (Hristo Jivkov), aptly demonstrate her title of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Pilate brings out the battered Jesus, and asks the Jewish leaders if this brutal punishment, surpassing even Roman standards for cruelty, is sufficient. But, they will have none of it and ask for his crucifixion, allowing the demented killer Barabbas (Pietro Sarubbi) to go free instead of Jesus. At this point, Pilate washes his hands of the dreadful business, saying he finds no guilt in the man, and “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” (Matthew 27:24) The line,”His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matthew 27:25) is spoken by the mob in Aramaic, although no subtitle is shown. That this statement, referring to the Eucharist, is lost on so many including Catholics, is truly pathetic.
From there, the Via Dolorosa is dramatized, complete with Jesus falling, Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz) helping him carry the cross, and Veronica wiping his brow. Hanging on the cross, he is insulted by certain Jews, and by one of the two thieves being crucified alongside him. Upon his death, a violent earthquake shakes the region, and on the third day, He Rises.
Is the movie anti-semitic? This sick calumny must be dealt with, and harshly. The hero of the story is Jewish, and he is by no means the only Jewish character portrayed in a sympathetic light. But, beyond that, even the most overly sensitive, looking for anti-semitism under every rock commentator must acknowledge that absent his condemnation by the Sanhedrin, Jesus would not have been crucified. He was hardly a common criminal who had run afoul of Roman civil laws, and Pilate, who despised the land he was in, to say nothing of the Jews who inhabited it, would no more have voluntarily interfered into Jewish affairs than he would have worn a skullcap and prayer shawl. It was divinely ordained: Jesus HAD to die, in payment for our sins, via the actions of the Jewish and Roman hierarchies. Nowhere in any Vatican II documents are all Jews of that era absolved of all blame in his death.
Furthermore, using the twisted logic of those supposedly offended, every single movie with an ethnically identifiable villain is “anti” that ethnic group. Mel Gibson himself was in two films, Braveheart (1995) and The Patriot (2000), that could be termed anti-British by this same moronic reasoning. Well, here’s a scoop: If you were a Scot at the time of William Wallace you probably were anti-English, and if you were an American patriot in Revolutionary War times, you surely were anti-British! And have you noticed that the puerile fools pointing out all this “intolerance” are far more guilty of the very same thing!
Here’s the bottom line. If you read the Gospels and follow the Way of the Cross, maybe your own imagination can give you a sufficient appreciation for Christ’s Passion, and this film will be superfluous. There is nothing new here, after all. But for many others, living in this sanitized, walking on eggs, faux tolerant age, the naturalistic representation of the seminal event in human history is most definitely worth the 126 minutes of your time.