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Review: A powerful, personal 'Passion'

Movie a graphic, startling evocation of Jesus' last hours

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Maia Morgenstern as Mary and James Caviezel as Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ."

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(CNN) -- For months, TV pundits, writers of magazine articles and newspaper editorials, and religious leaders from Jewish and Christian organizations have been battling it out over the content of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's reportedly $30 million film that he co-produced, co-wrote (with Benedict Fitzgerald), directed and totally financed.

But controversy aside, "The Passion" is ultimately a movie -- and a masterful one at that, obviously the work of an extremely talented filmmaker.

The pacing of the story is beautifully measured. The intercutting between Jesus' early years, the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount, and the final hours of his life not only flesh out the story, but also offer relief from the unrelenting violence in scene after scene graphically displaying the torture leading up to Christ's agonizingly slow death on the cross.

There are a couple of points that I'm sure will garner criticism. Historically, Pontius Pilate was an evil bully with a thirst for blood, but Gibson's screenplay depicts him in a very sympathetic way, portraying him as extremely reluctant to turn Jesus over to the screaming mob of Jews. Yes, the Bible says he was not the driving force behind the death of Christ, but this film sets him up for something approaching sainthood.

And, in a move sure to revive the accusations of homophobia from "Braveheart," for some reason Gibson has decided to portray King Herod as a simpering queen with a bad wig.

Astounding performances

But I digress. With little actual dialogue, James Caviezel is astounding as Christ. His pain, suffering and deep faith are all on display in his every movement and in every intense stare reflected through his amazingly expressive eyes. (Incidentally, Caviezel's blue eyes were colored green by computers. Apparently a blue-eyed Christ would be historically confusing.)

Maia Morgenstern, a major Romanian theater actress, is brilliant as Mary, and another European actress, Monica Bellucci, is excellent as Mary Magdalene.

Moreover, every cent is up on the screen in this $30 million production. The costumes by Maurizio Millenotti are the most authentic (of course, I am guessing here) from that period that I've ever seen. And production designer Francesco Frigeri and set decorator Carlo Gervasi have worked a miracle (no pun intended) by transforming Cinecitta Studios, on the outskirts of Rome, into a deeply detailed and believable Jerusalem of biblical times.

Much of the controversy has been about the filmmaker's beliefs. Gibson is a member of an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic group termed "Traditionalists." This group does not recognize the Catholic Church's efforts to modernize at the Second Vatican Council held in the 1960s, and has been widely perceived to still blame the Jews for the death of Christ (a belief rejected by Vatican II). So, sight unseen, the movie was condemned by many as anti-Semitic.

After seeing "The Passion," it is my opinion that it is not anti-Semitic, nor do I believe Gibson promotes any such feelings in the film. But it is also very clear that anyone who is predisposed towards anti-Semitism could easily twist this film to fit his or her own agenda.

This, however, is nothing new. People have been distorting the Bible to fit their own beliefs for centuries.

Biblical interpretation

Paul Clinton says James Caviezel is "astounding" as Jesus.

There have also been questions regarding the film's historical accuracy. Gibson says his script is taken almost directly from the four biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The problem is that the different versions were written decades apart, and vary greatly in some places concerning the last hours of Jesus' life on earth.

So, if you look at "The Passion of the Christ" as a movie -- and not a religious experience -- and the Bible as its source material, the first thing you have to decide is: Is it based on fact or fiction? Or a fictional account of an actual event? It is historical fact that the New Testament is not an eyewitness account of the life of Jesus: it was written over a period of decades, and decades after the fact. So the Bible and the events depicted in it are open to interpetation.

In the end, this is Gibson's interpretation. Yes, this film is long on torture and seems short, at times, in terms of actual spirituality. But Gibson is an artist and he's allowed to create his vision. Live with it. If you don't agree, don't go.

However, I recommend to parents -- many of whom may be taking their kids to see this film as part of various church-sponsored screenings -- that this is a very violent and graphic film, and just because it is about Jesus doesn't make it suitable for everyone.

What is clear is that if this film ruins Gibson's movie career -- which some wags have predicted (and Gibson has joked about) -- then bigotry has succeeded and freedom of speech has not.

"The Passion of the Christ" opens nationwide on Wednesday, February 25, and is rated R.

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