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The Passion of the Christ

This milestone of cinema history is a brutal, violent story of torture, savagery and execution. It's also (somehow) a tale of hope, triumph and glory.

You know the story, and that's the assumption Mel Gibson has gambled upon, showing you in a new and graphic way incidents and characters you know about. But unlike Apollo 13, where you feel the tension despite already knowing the ending, the two hours you spend with Jesus are deeply gritty. Knowing the ending isn't the point; it's seeing the reality of what has hitherto been presented as a spiritualised, sanitised, bowdlerised narrative.

Too often has a preacher (understandably) under-emphasised the physical aspects of the treatment dished out to Jesus; preachers focus on the spiritual truth, and it has to be said that the spiritual anguish of abandonment by God is something I shall now never have to experience. But to watch the beautiful, gentle, warm, kind, loving Lord Jesus being hit, spat upon, beaten, scourged with cruel whips, forced to carry the cross through the streets, and finally nailed to that cross until he carries our sins to hell has a significant spiritual impact.

The evangelistic thrust of the movie starts before the first scene, with a quotation from Isaiah 53 splashed on the screen. In fact, if you were choosing to preach a sermon about Christ's redeeming work on the cross, you'd probably select many of the verses used by Gibson to tell this story. 'I lay down my life for my friends, and you are my friends if you do what I command;' 'this is my body broken for you;' 'it is accomplished.'

The acting is magnificent. The cinematography is outstanding, except for one or two moments when Christ's face is distorted by too close a close-up. The special effects (for although it seems real, it's all been created by make-up and — presumably — CGI). The dialogue is amazing, being Aramaic and Latin (I particularly enjoyed the 'ecce homo'). The direction is purposeful and the selection of action is thoughtful, including lots of flashbacks to key moments in his life. The music is probably good, but when scores are good you don't notice them, and when they're poor they tend either to intrude or to be noticable by their absence.

The most shocking realisation this film brought to me was that the Roman soldiers were not grim-faced troopers obeying a crazed proconsul, but sadistic goons, throughly enjoying the agony of the prisoner, mocking and working hard to inflict as much pain on Jesus as they can. They finished the scourging covered in his blood; blood that was shed for them so that they might be forgiven. Throughout these scenes and many others, we see Satan either lurking or stirring up the crowd to incite even more violence. And just as you would have done, if you'd been the director, Gibson shows us that Satan is defeated as Christ commends his spirit to his Father in Heaven. And just as you would have done, Gibson clearly shows the restored, beautified, happy, glorious Saviour rising from the dead. God's attention to detail is lovely: not only does he raise his Son from the dead, he also washes his hair!

Towards the end of the movie, the Satan character is seen carrying an evil-looking child; this is, I am advised, the antichrist, who is about to be unleashed upon the world now that the Son of God is defeated. But no! The enemy scheme is thwarted by God.

Commitment to historical accuracy is unrelenting, with dialogue and crucifiction technique meticulously researched. Readers of Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter will know about the cat and the details of this most violent and brutal form of torture. Execution seems too clinical a word; this is punishment of an extreme kind, long and drawn-out.

The personal integrity of Jim Caviezel (Jesus) is seen in his eyes, which radiate love and purpose despite the injustice and harsh treatment he receives. Having been a fan of Monica Bellucci for several years (Under Suspicion, Malena, Matrix Reloaded), I was initially pleased to hear that she was involved here (Mary Magdalen). But when confronted with the purity and innocence of Christ, my hormonal reaction to a pretty face seemed tawdry and unworthy.

It was very cool to exit the theatre to see members of my church with excellent leaflets, which many members of the audience took with gratitude. However, no-one was going to kick off or get stroppy having been in the presence of such grace and humility for two hours. In fact, the silence with which the audience leaves the cinema is another powerful blow to your already reeling senses.

Would I recommend it? Well, look at it like this. My mum weeps at Brief Encounter or Snow White, so probably this is not for her. If you don't normally choose to watch 18 cert movies, then this will be a shock (Ebert of Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, US version of Barry Norman, descibed it as the most violent film he's ever seen, and he's seen the lot). Is it torture-porn? Perhaps it would be if it were fiction. But most of the rest of us will find the brutality all the more gut-wrenching because it's not just a true story, it's a true story about someone we know and love. Up to you.

My understanding of the goal and purpose of this movie is to be a meditation. Catholics are great at this; just turning over in their minds the facts of the story, and allowing truth to soak in. We evangelicals can't cope unless there is a clear point of application, and usually this is a good idea, it seems to me. But in this case, a preach at the end would have distracted attention away from Jesus. We can work hard with literature, alpha invites, conversations, even, and talk to people about Jesus.

We went into a nearby pub, and a friend said to the barmaid 'Just been to see that Passion movie; I need a drink.' She immediately entered into a conversation about Jesus. When's the last time that happened? Unbelievers are asking deep questions.

Like with all the best 'message' movies, this one leaves you with more questions than answers. Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Natural Born Killers, Pink Floyd's The Wall, It's a Wonderful Life; there is no application in any of these, but life is enhanced by them all through finding answers to the questions they raise.

So, this is cinema history in the making. Consider The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, Papillon, Woodstock, Star Wars, Terminator 2, How the West Was Won, Toy Story, The Godfather 2, Titanic; each (along with lots of others, admittedly) set new standards in content. effects or cinematography. Passion does it again, raising the bar.

Check out the media report on how Gibson broke the 10 Commandments of Hollywood Movie-Making.

No messing with the award of LeonAndys; this is superb, moving, life-changing and a turning point for celluloid.

Questions:
1 Are the accusations that this film suggests the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus fair?
2 Is this an appropriate theme for entertainment?
3 A film for Christians, since so much background is assumed. Discuss.

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