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2004 will probably go down in history as the year of the sequel; hits such as Spiderman 2, Shrek 2 and even the latest Harry Potter film have all been deemed partly responsible for the continued increase in cinema audiences, but the fact that they were released in the busiest period of the year made their success somewhat inevitable. However the same cannot be said of the February release of The Passion of the Christ which took the box office by storm and encouraged debate worldwide.

The Passion was released stateside in February (normally considered to be one of the quietest periods of the year) but the movie surprised everyone when it grossed over four times its estimated opening forecast. At the last count it had made over $600 million worldwide. So, why was the movie such a success? The Passion of the Christ focused on the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ, and as expected many churches pre-booked tickets. This in turn ensured the film received more pre-ticket sales than any other film in history. The Passion was also tagged as the most violent movie ever and was even banned in such countries as Kuwait and Bahrain. Journalists had an easy target with this movie; everywhere you looked there was a story relating to it. Whatever your opinion of this film it is fair to say that The Passion of the Christ is one of the biggest movies of the year but what was all the fuss about?

Passion of the Christ, The
The movie opens in a sombre mood as the audience is reminded of a verse from the Bible; Isaiah 53 states that ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by his wounds we are healed’. This verse sums up the movie perfectly and should be a stark reminder for followers of Christ, while at the same time preparing non-believers for the events they are about to witness. The opening scene is in Gethsemane and we are introduced to Jesus who is visibly distressed. He is accompanied by the disciples who know that something is about to happen but don’t fully understand the importance of the events that are about to unfold before their eyes. All is peaceful in the garden until Judas Iscariot arrives. Judas has struck a deal with the Pharisees who arrange for Jesus to be arrested. The leaders of the Pharisees accuse Jesus of blasphemy and take him to Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Palestine), asking him to crucify Jesus. Pilate is confused by the accusations and decides to defer the decision to King Herod, who in turn decides that Jesus poses little threat and returns him to Pilate.

Pilate decides that there is no basis for charging Jesus, but decides to pacify the baying crowd by offering them a choice between freeing Jesus or the murderer Barabas. Much to his surprise, the crowd choose to free Barabas and Jesus is condemned first to a scourging and then ultimately to death by crucifixion. Jesus is then ridiculed by the Roman soldiers who put a crown of thorns upon his head and order him to carry his cross on his journey through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Upon reaching Golgotha, Jesus is nailed to the cross and endures more taunts from the Roman soldiers and spectators. Amazingly, after all Jesus has gone through he still feels compassion for those who despise him and asks his father to forgive them. After several hours nailed to his cross Jesus dies and he mutters the everlasting words, “It is finished” When Jesus dies, a large earthquake shows Gods anger and splits the curtain of the temple in two.

For the purpose of this review I will concentrate on the film’s downfalls first so we can get all the negativity out of the way early on. First of all it is probably worth mentioning Mel Gibson’s religious beliefs; he is a dedicated member of a breakaway section of the Roman Catholic Church. For these reasons The Passion of the Christ definitely has a Roman Catholic feel to it, for example there are certain aspects of the movie which are not taken from the Bible and instead are sourced from ‘The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ by Ann Catherine Emmerich. The scourging scene is one such example in that it has been adapted from Emmerich’s book and is not detailed in the Bible. For the purpose of this movie I don’t have too much of a problem with this, but it is worth being aware that some aspects of the movie are the opinions of certain people, and not necessarily the facts from the Bible.

Passion of the Christ, The
Gibson has also carefully included the fourteen Stations of the Cross which are considered by many Roman Catholics as a powerful form of meditation and an important part of their religious life. Coming from an Anglican Church background I don’t fully understand the purposes of the Stations and chose to treat most of these scenes as another form of cinema and not factual sections from the Bible. One of the foundations of the Roman Catholic faith is the adulation of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  The character of Mary is heavily focused upon in this movie and is given a near angel-like status which is in keeping with Roman Catholic beliefs. If you take into account Mel’s beliefs before watching the movie and you have a reasonably good understanding of the Bible, then this shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the movie. If you are watching this movie without any knowledge of the Bible then it is probably worth being aware of where Mel has used his artistic license (e.g. the personification of Satan and the introduction of devil children to drive Judas to his suicide) and taken scenes from other sources rather than the Bible. Some of these aspects undoubtedly make the film more entertaining but it should be pointed out that they are not historically correct.  

Probably my biggest gripe with this movie is from an evangelical point of view. I have only been a Christian for just over a year and I eagerly watched the developments of this movie as it was in production. I had high hopes that Mel would create a movie that would give me opportunities for outreach with friends and work colleagues, but sadly The Passion of the Christ only shows glimpses of Jesus the teacher. There are a few clips of scenes such as the Sermon on the Mount and the last supper but their screen time only equates to probably a couple of minutes in total. Its hard to criticise Mel too much for this though as he made it clear from the start that this was a project that he was funding, and it was going to focus exclusively on the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. In hindsight, considering the amount of publicity the movie received and the success it generated, perhaps Mel is slightly annoyed with himself for missing the opportunity to show what Jesus taught.

Releasing The Passion of the Christ was a career threatening move for Gibson and a project many people would have cowered away from, so he deserves some credit for having had the audacity to undertake this film. Some people will find it easy to criticise Mel now as he has made a vast amount of money from the film, but it is worth pointing out that several months before its release he was still desperately seeking a distributor for the movie and some studios were scared to be associated with it. Hopefully its success has now opened up other avenues within Hollywood for future religious movies, some of which will be able to focus more on the teachings of Jesus.

The two areas where this movie came under most criticism were concerning the accusation of anti-Semitism and the gratuitous violence included. I’ll start by giving my take on the anti-Semitic claims which I think are unfounded. The Passion of the Christ is an easy target because of the subject matter it tackles and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the early reviews for this movie were written before people had even seen it. How can you claim that the movie stirs up anti-Semitism when Jesus is a Jew himself? The film does not go out of its way to place the blame for Jesus’ death with the Jews, and a good example of this is the exclusion from the subtitles of the verse from Matthew Chapter 27 verse 25 which records that the crowd were shouting 'His blood be on us and on our children’. By not dwelling on this verse, Mel has tried to take the focus off the way the Jews were baying for the blood of Jesus.  Mel has also gone on record several times to say that he tried to create a movie which showed that we were all responsible for the death of Jesus and in my opinion he has done just that.

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As for the violence, this is an extremely graphic movie and not for the faint-hearted, but I wouldn’t describe it as gratuitous. I know some people (Christians included) will be turned off by the violence in this movie and that is understandable. Before watching this movie I had my own ideas of what the crucifixion was like, but after watching The Passion it became a little clearer how much pain Jesus
went through to take away my sins. For this reason I think the violence shown here is completely relevant and emphasises the true extent of Jesus’ suffering. I also wouldn’t go along with its tag of being the most violent movie ever made, but I think it is fair to say that you certainly won’t be left on a high after it finishes! If you are not a Christian then hopefully you will be challenged to investigate further about the true reason behind the suffering of Jesus, and if you are a believer hopefully this movie will strengthen your faith.

One of the main reasons that this movie is so effective is the performance of Jim Caviezel who plays the part of Jesus. His portrayal of Jesus is striking and probably the biggest compliment I could pay him is the fact that during the film at no point did I actually think it was an actor playing the role of Jesus. I have seen Jim Caviezel in several films including the diabolical Angel Eyes so I needed some convincing when I heard that he was playing Jesus in this movie. However, credit must to given to him for his performance and dedication in this movie; during the scourging scenes Jim was whipped twice and apparently also got struck by lightening while filming the Sermon On The Mount scene, so he certainly went through some pain while shooting this film! He is also supported by a very talented cast and all perform admirably. It is also worth mentioning the cinematography for this film and the effort that has gone into creating the scenery for this movie. Hopefully this is something that will be rewarded at next year’s Oscars.

The Passion of the Christ has hopefully changed the perception of religious movies in Hollywood and at the same time given filmmakers the confidence to make more such films in the future. Mel Gibson has created a movie which will have just as many fans as critics. It’s not for the faint-hearted and perhaps won’t convert non-believers in the way most Christians had hoped, however Christians worldwide will hopefully draw strength from this movie. Whether or not you are a fan, The Passion of the Christ will have people talking for many years to come, and that can only be a good thing!

The Passion of the Christ is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and there is very little more to say on the subject. Simply put, this transfer is outstanding and had no flaws that I noticed. The image is full of detail and brings the haunting death of Christ to the screen with amazing accuracy. Colours are true and vivid while the blacks were solid. I did notice a little bit of grain during some of the darker scenes but the grain levels never proved to be distracting. Due to the lack of extras this transfer doesn’t suffer from compression artefacts, and edge enhancements were nowhere to be seen. Overall this is a top class transfer which no doubt benefits from the decision to keep this release free of extras. In some ways this transfer is what you would expect from a Superbits title.

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MGM have included two soundtracks with this disc, both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks. I remembering watching this movie in the cinema and I was particularly amazed by the haunting use of the soundstage and the musical score which was a powerful accompaniment. Due to the nature of the movie there are no big set-pieces which will test your sound system, but instead you will be treated to a subtle experience which still manages to make full use of the soundstage. During some of the crowd scenes you will notice people jeering from all angles and this goes some way to creating the aggressive atmosphere which Jesus had to face. This is one of the most realistic soundtracks I have experienced and if you find yourself shying away from some visual aspects of this film (i.e. the more brutal scenes), be warned, as some of the sound effects are just as vicious.

The musical score is also portrayed in good fashion and complements the movie well. It was hard to distinguish between the two tracks and I am not going to even pretend that I was able to pick a winner. Like most people I would choose the DTS track as default but that’s not to say that the Dolby Digital track is inferior. Demo soundtracks are normally chosen because of their ability to produce huge bone-shaking explosions but if you are looking for a more subtle yet equally powerful audio experience then I have no hesitation in recommending the soundtracks included with this release.

As well as the two soundtracks mentioned above there is also an option to play the movie with an audio description for the sight impaired.

It is becoming a rarity these days for high profile DVD releases to be barebones releases. More often than not most titles are released as two disc packages, so it was a big surprise when MGM announced that The Passion of the Christ was being released with no extras. The reason for this is still not clear, but it has been suggested that Mel wanted this release to focus on the movie only. As can be seen below the transfer and soundtracks benefit from the additional space. The more cynical among you will say that this release is a money making exercise in preparation for the expected special edition release next year.  Either way, this release comes with no extras and only time will tell if we are to see a special edition release.

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There’s not much more to say about The Passion of the Christ that hasn’t been written a million times before. There has been a lot of publicity about the Pope’s ‘opinion’ of this film, but whether or not he actually said the film was “it is as it was,” there is very little doubt that The Passion of the Christ is the most realistic depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. I am not naïve enough to think that this movie is for everyone and for that reason I am not going to recommend it as essential viewing. Christians will take this film very seriously because it will remind them of the pain that Jesus went through, while other people will consider it a pompous overly violent movie. I am a fan of the movie but I realise that that it is far from flawless. If you are curious about this release then it is definitely worth giving The Passion of the Christ a chance.

Not wanting to be outdone, this DVD release has also received its fair share of controversy due to the omission of extras. I am sure we will see a special edition release sometime in the future but you shouldn’t be put off by this release. MGM have produced a flawless transfer and some striking soundtracks. The Passion of the Christ is violent, and is one of the most controversial movies to have been released in recent times. It will continue to divide audience opinions right down the middle, so let the comments begin!