February 2004 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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The Passion of the Christ  (Excerpts)
Music composed by John Debney
  Advance promo – not commercially available
Running time: 28.35

See also: The Gospel of John

passion of the christ

The soundtrack of John Debney's score for The Passion of Christ is not yet available for review at the time of writing. However, this 28 minute, seven track promo seems to gives a strong flavour of the complete commercial album.

Judging by the track titles the music comes entirely from the last part of the film, where it would appear music plays more or less continuously through the following sequences: 'Jesus is Given The Cross', 'Simon is Dismissed', 'Mary Goes to Jesus', 'Nailed to the Cross', 'The Cross is Raised', 'Jesus is Carried Down', 'Resurrection'.

The music is for orchestra, choir, solo vocalists and ethnic instruments, and like last month's Jeff Danna score for The Gospel of John, would appear to own much to the general approach of Peter Gabriel's work on The Last Temptation of Christ (1989). Debney's score mixes the liturgical tradition with rich string writing, Eastern woodwinds/percussion and soaring choral passages to powerful effect. The music encompasses lush melody, dynamic and bold percussion and carefully crafted atmospheric writing as well as moments of intense, epic drama – 'The Cross is Raised' presents an overwhelming tapestry of percussion, mixed choir and solo male voice before a more contemplative end section. The five minute 'Resurrection' cue is a set-piece of rapture (the Christian answer to 'Now We Are Free' from Gladiator) and introspective wonder as befits history's ultimate feel-good moment.

A more detailed review will appear when the complete commercial album is available, but based on the evidence here this is going to be a very fine disc indeed.

Gary Dalkin

****(*) 41/2

Note: I wrote the piece above on the 18th of February, then on the 19th received the following review… which is interesting from a film music point of view given the comments on the temp track music used, but also of much wider interest given the debate surrounding the film.

W. David Lichty explains…

I had the opportunity to see an unfinished version of Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion Of The Christ.

First the caveats. What I saw was not exactly what will come out on the 25th of February. The greatest difference will be the score, which was temped in Peter Gabriel, in anticipation of a similar sounding score by Lisa Gerrard (Whale Rider, Michael Mann's films). Now it's John Debney (Elf, Sea Quest DSV, and a lot of run-of-the-mill comedies), so the music will, I believe, be entirely different. I think this is a good thing. The ethno-new age stuff was nice, but probably not right for the film? It washed every scene in one, single tone. Unusually, a more 'Hollywood' score, if that's what Debney does, might actually flesh out the drama present in some of the scenes. So I don't know about that yet, but I'll wager that the picture is going to feel different than it did 2 months ago. Also, some effects were not finished, and Gibson was shooting additional flashbacks to insert into a few of the longer stretches, where he thought people would need a break. I felt some of those long places, so I'm glad that he seems to have been aware of them. That's probably all that will change though - about the rest I'm pretty confident, so here goes.

Technical Comments

The cinematography is absolutely rich, saturated in color (and I saw it on projected video!) The settings look right, both artistically and historically. Jim Caviezel disappears, seriously, into the role of the Christ. He's just enveloped in it. He does well with the Aramaic, as does Hristo Shopov, who plays Pilate. They have the most to say, so that's a good thing. Most perform well with the languages, only a few don't. If there are acting failings, they come in the masses, the crowds. They look like they were directed to 'be angry' or 'be shocked', and they play too uniform, but that's all I recall as far as performance faults. The film felt exactly like the two trailers have, the overall tone, the music, the use of slow-motion (which is extensive, but didn't bother me as much as it usually does). It was very like those.

I should mention that I find it difficult to believe that this film was ever intended to be un-subtitled, at least not after the cameras started rolling. When a film has scenes in which dialogue will be spoken but not heard by the audience, the camera becomes keenly focused on details in the performances. There is an excellent example of this in the opening scene of The Magdeline Sisters. Directors know that they still have to communicate to the audience, they don't film unintelligible dialogue in a standard way, with cameras merely watching people talk. The Passion Of The Christ has quite a few exchanges which were shot in this standard way, as if the dialogue would be understood and would deliver the drama.


Those who know the Biblical accounts of these last 12 hours of Jesus' life, the four Gospels, can literally tick off each event one after the other. In that way Gibson has been rigorously faithful to them. I counted only 2 missing things; one was just an unfinished special effect (tearing of the temple's curtain), and one may not actually fall into this time frame anyway, though the narration of it occurs just after the Christ's death is recorded in the Matthew account. As to embellishments, there is very little dialogue added, save when it's necessary. If history says, "Peter called down curses on himself" the film basically puts some in, though there is nothing to actually quote.

There were two flashbacks that were not from the Biblical accounts, one in which Jesus, as a child, falls while running, and his mother runs to comfort him. The other has him as an adult, a carpenter, essentially inventing the kitchen table and chairs, which his mother says, "will never catch on". I don't think either are intended to appear historical (Egypt had dinner tables and chairs long before A.D. 25), the latter playing as a mere lighthearted, human moment, and succeeding at that.

As far as violence goes, for some it will be plenty bad, maybe too much. Still, it could have been far, far worse, given that this is the director of Braveheart, and given what can be known historically about Roman crucifixions and scourgings. The latter, especially, has been done realistically, but still with restraint. Forgive me, this might be tough to read, but Roman scourgings (whippings of the back and such) were done with whips resembling the 'cat of 9 tails', strands of leather with bone and metal shards tied in. These would not just 'stripe' the flesh in lines of blood, but would actually pull some of it off, generally exposing muscle, and often bone. It was so deadly that the Romans' 40 lashes were actually delivered as "the 40 minus 1". The thought was that any one of these might be enough to kill a man, and Rome didn't want anyone dying from an illegal toss of the whip, so to cover the possibility that the bearer of the whip might lose count by one and deliver a fatal 41st blow, only 39 lashes were given.

In The Passion Of The Christ, there is a lot of blood, a lot of agony on Caviezel's face, and one moment where the man whipping Jesus has to tug at the whip to untangle it from his back, but in the end, he has only a striped back. It's very striped, mind you, very red and wet, and many people around me were gasping. The effect is there. Gibson's gotten what he wanted, so his restraint may be deemed 'merciful' by some, but if anyone were to ask, "Was it really that bad?" the only correct answer would be, "At least."

The crucifixion has been presented somewhat graphically before, in Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, and in an early 90's production called The Matthew Film to name two. It's done reasonably well here too, though it is filmed more for striking images than to convey the physical and psychological torment of the event with the detail given the scourging. Gibson includes the resurrection via a few quick shots at the film's end, of Jesus in Joseph of Aramathea's tomb, standing up and, I think, folding his clothes.

So How Was It?

I did not 'connect' with this picture in a traditional movie-going sense. I evaluated it, but that was still a worthwhile use of my time, and I expect to find it so again when I see the finished product. I would not discourage anyone who has an interest in seeing it from seeing it, regardless of their reasons, be they Christian, atheist, cinephile, connoisseur of pop culture - interest on any level probably merits viewing. I would give caveats to those who are overly excited about it, in hopes that they would best be prepared to enjoy what the film is, rather than be disappointed about its not meeting certain expectations they may have.

It is certainly not a standard film, like Zefferelli's, where a screenplay was written to make a flowing story out of the more choppy historical accounts. It's a re-creation. It's a pretty good one, but there is a level of detachment, the kind you might feel if you watch America's Most Wanted, which actually does a nice job with its own dramatic re-creations. Characters aren't so much introduced - we just join them in progress. It is exactly the project Gibson set out to make, the last 12 hours. I think he expects people to know that going in, and he's probably also aware that people generally know enough about Jesus to forego introductions, or that those who don't will easily be able to find out what they've missed.

As a 'movie', a thing to sit through, it's going to play differently for a lot of people. Some have already decided that it is going to be their favorite film of all time. Some already know that they will leave angry about the Jewish issue. Some will expect a 'movie', a classical movie, with a flowing plot, easy flowing dialogue, obviously likable and dislikable characters, and they won't quite get that.

Some will come in with enough background in their minds that this will seem like part five of a mini-series whose first four parts they have just watched. They'll be immediately engaged by it, and will honestly be moved. Some of the same, who insist that their religion be clean and shiny, or merely metaphorical and social, will be so put off by the violence that they will shut down. The words 'was it necessary' will be tossed about afterwards. They'll be offended, and that's probably a good thing. That is one of Gibson's intents.

Some will be upset that the film does not, in clear and simple terms, explain the significance of what it portrays, or even that it doesn't have a clear presentation of 'The Gospels', which would have to include Jesus' virgin birth, probably a clearer presentation of his resurrection, and an explanation of the latter's significance. Again, those events and interpretations don't fall within the scope of the project the film sets out to attempt. Movies are not only about what happens between the opening and closing credits. Sometimes you have to bring your mind with you.

Some will be upset at the lack of scripted embellishment because it will emphasize the movie's adherence to the Gospel accounts as actual history. This may bring up the standard bugbears about their historicity (i.e. implications that they are not). I think that this might also be a goal of Gibson's, and for my money, it's the best thing about the film. Anti-historical arguments have been made by those who underestimate Christendom's ability to defend, on solid and common ground, that issue, and have been ably and repeatedly shot down throughout the history of Christianity and its challengers. It would nice to see that happen again, in a broader, more popular spectrum.

The Controversy

You've got to hand it to the Anti-Defamation League - persistence alone has paid off. It's the old adage, "If you say a thing loud enough, and long enough, people will start to believe it." (who was it who said that?) When is the movie not referred to as Mel Gibson's "controversial" new film? Good grief, I even did it. Apparently the ADL didn't realize that the accounts Gibson filmed have been in print for 1930 years. Or perhaps they have never seen or heard of a film about Jesus before, because the events, even the images, that concern them have been in most of those.

Now to fuel anti-Semitism, the movie would not necessarily need to have any such intent at all, just things that could be perceived badly, and to be fair, the ADL have expressed specific concerns about what they feel will be provocative images which could revive the kind of anti-Semitism they claim has fallen on the heels of Passion Plays produced in the past. That's a valid concern, but only in theory it seems. Last week the president of the Catholic League, William Donohue, announced, "Aside from one Catholic convert in Nazi Germany who was attacked, we have to go back to the Middle Ages to find examples. And in the U.S., there is no record of violence against Jews following any Passion Play." Now I have absolutely no idea how good of a source this man is, but I do know that almost a week later, the very tenacious ADL have yet to even reply to these challenges. Nevertheless, Gibson has actually removed something to accommodate this group, most of whom haven't yet seen the film. I was disappointed to learn that. The Black Muslim movement made similar complaints about Malcolm X, which depicted their group's alleged assassination of that historical figure. Tough for them - Lee left it in, and I applaud him for it. This country hates censorship, and it should, especially when doing it would seem popular, polite, or even sensitive.

To actually be anti-Semitic, the film would have to have embellished the events in the Gospels with additional material of that nature. The Passion Of The Christ just presents what occurred. Gibson shows the Jewish leadership doing what they are reported to have done. If it happened, then it happens. If there is an issue, it is with history, not with a film which merely attempts to represent history accurately. If these folks were challenging whether what happened is historical, I would fully respect their efforts, though they would certainly have a task on their hands. Instead, they're pressuring for censorship, and censureship (if that's a word). Christians, don't tell your story, because we don't like it. That they are particularly concerned with an arousal of anti-Semitism among Christians, whose religion teaches, at its core, that The Christ died for the sins of all people, and even that he laid down his own life, is telling. It comes very close to doing what they often valiantly fight, to being little more than a socially fashionable religious bigotry. The word 'opportunism' jumps to mind.

The film is no more anti-Semitic than Dances With Wolves was anti-Native American (you might recall a tribe of pretty violent guys in that film). Gibson compared it with Schindler's List in his his Diane Sawyer interview. Though I've only heard a clip of that, I have to agree with him there - it's the right connection to illustrate. Viewers of this film will most certainly witness an angry mob of Jewish religious leaders yelling, "Crucify him!". They will see the same putting Jesus through one of the six kangaroo courts he endured that night. But they will also see that Jesus is a Jew, that the people who sympathized and cared for him were Jews, that Joseph of Aramethea, a man on the council which convicted Jesus, but then gave up his tomb to provide him a burial place, was a Jew. They will see that Rome issued the death sentence. Nothing they see will even approach a 'slant' in the direction of anti-Semitism.

Entertainment Weekly has a cover story which actually asks whether Mel Gibson may lose his career over this film. It's hard to imagine why that seems like a reasonable question to them. Do they think the film will flop? It's on course to potentially have a $60 million 5 day opening weekend. If not financially, critically? I think that's unlikely. In the form in which I saw it, it was easily a three star film (out of five), even though I was pretty detached. Why then? Could it be because after this film, everyone will know that Gibson is a Christian? Not just culturally, or socially, but the worst kind of Christian, the kind that really believes it... could it be that? Nah! That would just be Christophobic, and we're all bigger than that.

Aren't we?

W. David Lichty

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