Appellate Judge Dan Mancini takes a look at the upgraded release of this controversial modern classic.
"He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed."—Isaiah 53
Courtesy of Fox's new Fox Faith imprint, The Passion of the Christ: Definitive Edition gets its second coming on DVD. This time around, the feature is accompanied by a wealth of supplemental material.
Facts of the Case
From Gethsemane to Golgotha, the film depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus's (Jim Caviezel, The Thin Red Line) life. Accused of blasphemy, he is brought before a nighttime kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, a group of Jewish religious leaders led by Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia, Ocean's Twelve). Caiaphas sends Christ to the local proconsul, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov, Alien Hunter), who, in an act of political expediency, scourges Jesus and then has him crucified. On his march from Jerusalem to Golgotha, Jesus is followed by his mother (Maia Morgenstern, Balanta), and two of his disciples Ð John (Christo Jivkov, The Counting House) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci, Malena).
Though I had previously seen The Passion of the Christ, my viewings in preparation for this piece were the first since Gibson got blitzed and reeled off the sort of anti-Jewish sentiments we're used to hearing from a sober Pat Buchanan or General Wesley Clark. As a guy who thought the accusations of anti-Semitism during the film's theatrical release were groundless (though often well-meaning), I was curious to see if Gibson's time in the 24-hour news ringer last summer would change my opinion of his movie. It didn't. It may have changed my opinion of Gibson, but not the content of his film.
Many of the original accusations of anti-Semitism were centered around Gibson's use of The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich as a primary source for his script. The Dolorous Passion is a work based on the visions of a 19th-century nun and is often criticized for its anti-Semitic content. However, the controversial passages of that document are not in the film. Yes, Gibson used it to add details to Christ's journey from Gethsemane to his trial before the Sanhedrin, as well as to the fate of Judas Iscariot; but his movie is free of Emmerich's allegation that the Jewish religious leaders were possessed by demons. The minor pieces of dialogue that might be interpreted (incorrectly, in my opinion) as anti-Semitic come directly from John's gospel. In terms of visual presentation, the bad guys are dastardly and the good guys are righteous (a weakness of the film rooted in both Gibson's career as a big-budget filmmaker and the inspiration he drew from medieval art), but nearly everyone, good or bad, is Jewish. David Johnson summed it up nicely in DVD Verdict's review of the original DVD release:
"Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? I didn't think so, but I'm not Jewish either. The high priest Caiaphas was certainly portrayed as a jackass, but there were a number of Jewish Pharisees depicted favorably. Sure, the mob was Jewish, but so were all the heroes."
But what about the film as a work of art? All things considered, Gibson's famous (or infamous) expression of his faith is a bit of a mutt Ð an arthouse epic with the soul of a blockbuster, or vice versa. Its narrative structure is artfully elliptical, yet its pace is lean and taut. It dares to offer dialogue in dead languages, yet adds a corny joke about Jesus inventing the modern, long-legged table. It's rhythms are accessible, yet its content is challenging and, for some, off-putting.
One of the frequent complaints about the picture is that it offers little context for the suffering it depicts. This would be an odd gripe even if the film didn't present the greatest hits of Christ's teachings Ð from "Love your enemies" to "I am the way, the truth, and the life" Ð in carefully doled out flashbacks. Frankly, I've never understood the lack of context argument. It sounds like a demand that the picture be less artful and more of a saccharine tool for proselytizing in the mode of hokey biblical epics of decades past. I suspect critics of The Passion were either put off by the movie's blockbuster sensibilities, desperately scrambling to safely intellectualize the blunt force trauma of its violence, or had a peculiar beef with the idea of a filmmaker expecting his audience to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the greatest story ever told. I tend to think the first two options were the source of much of the criticism. Hollywood epics aren't renowned for their oblique storytelling, and The Passion of the Christ certainly looks like a lush studio-funded product (though it's wasnÕt). The movie would also be a far more pleasant viewing experience if it simply asked you to consider the meaning of Christ's crucifixion from a safe intellectual distance, rather than depicting the brutality of nailing a human being to a tree so graphically that you half-expect to find yourself splattered with blood when the lights come up in your cineplex or home theater.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom espoused during The Passion's theatrical release, Christians (most of us, anyway) didn't enthusiastically respond to the film out of some knee-jerk right-wing political solidarity, or as a thumb in the eye of those darned Hollywood perverts who doubted the picture's box office potential. We responded because of a personal connection to the story, and an intimate understanding that everything Christ taught amounts to very little without the crucifixion and resurrection. You see, the horrors we witness in Gibson's film do not require context, they are the context. Statements like "Love your enemies" are empty platitudes without them.
If you're among the crowd that considers The Passion of the Christ little more than a beautifully filmed horror flick with faint shadows of religious content, this expanded DVD release may be just for you. In fact, the movie is dense with allusions to Christian theology, and loaded with references to the messianic prophesies and sacrificial system that are the backbone of the Old Testament. Many of the supplements on this elaborate two-disc set help to reveal these allusions and references. Disc One is stacked with four audio commentaries (not counting the commentary for the visually impaired). Two of these deal specifically with the production of the film and its music. The real interest lies in the other two. The filmmaker's commentary includes contributions from Gibson, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff), and editor John Wright (Die Hard: With a Vengeance). The trio does a fine job connecting the artistic choices they made with the film's big ideas.
However, the most interesting of the four tracks is the theological commentary by Gibson, Fathers William J. Fulco and John Batunck, and Catholic apologist Gerry Matatics. The track is a solid analysis of the film's theology, with the two priests providing a wealth of keen observations about what they're watching. Matatics' contribution to the track is fascinating on an entirely different level. One of the remarkable things about The Passion was its appeal to both Catholics and Protestants, due in large part to the way Gibson gently emphasized Mary's importance to the story without explicitly asserting the Catholic view of her as Mediatrix between God and humanity. Matatics Ð a one-time Presbyterian minister who converted to an ultra-conservative form of Catholicism that rejects Vatican II reforms Ð might single-handedly taint the good will of some Protestants. Personally, I didn't find him offensive, but some may. His repeated assertions that Protestants don't comprehend the Catholic view of Mary (as opposed to simply disagreeing with it) are definitely condescending. Still, his presence makes the track livelier and more interesting.
Disc One also contains a text-based commentary labeled "Biblical Footnotes" that offers more biblical context as well as pointing out and defining each of the 14 stations of the cross that are the foundation of all traditional Catholic passion plays.
As if all that weren't enough, The Passion of the Christ: Recut is presented via seamless branching. This slightly watered-down edit of the movie runs seven minutes shorter than the original theatrical version. I didn't watch the entire cut, but I did check out the scourging scene to get a sense of the difference in editing. Tighter shots, alternate angles, and removal of the some of the gorier visuals garnered this version a PG-13 rating when it played in theaters (note: it's a hard PG-13). I suspect it would have been tagged with an R had it been the first version of the flick submitted to the MPAA instead of a softening of the original. In any event, don't think it's a version you're safe to show to your 6-year-old.
Filling Disc One to the gills with audio options appears to have had only a minor affect on the quality of the video presentation. The transfer is slightly softer and not as bright as that of the original single-disc release. It still looks awfully good, though. I didn't see any compression artifacts or other digital noise. Minor flaws in the original transfer, like some blocky edges around the clouds in the film's opening shot, remain in this new release.
The Dolby 5.1 audio in Aramaic and Greek also appears identical to the track on the original release. Unfortunately, the DTS track on the previous version has been dumped to provide space for the multiple commentaries.
The centerpiece of Disc Two is By His Wounds We Are Healed: Making The Passion of the Christ, a feature-length documentary that thoroughly dissects the film's production. It's an excellent making-of.
A section called "The Legacy" contains five featurettes that deal mostly with the history and themes presented in the film.
Disc Two also contains two deleted scenes (one of which was obviously removed to stifle accusations of anti-Semitism, though its dialogue comes from John's gospel), a plethora of still photo galleries, two theatrical trailers, and a couple TV spots.
If you love The Passion of the Christ, this DVD will give you more reason to love it. If you hate the film, this set isn't going to win you over. Unlike the barebones release of 2004, this is a DVD with extras worthy of one of the most successful and controversial films of the past decade.
If audio/video quality is more important to you than supplements, stick with the single-disc release. Its transfer is slightly better, and the DTS mix beats the Dolby treatment.
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• The Passion of the Christ: Recut
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