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Published: Wednesday, 3/16/2005

Unrated, and still unsettling

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus in The Passion Recut. Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus in The Passion Recut.
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On Friday, Mel Gibson and Newmarket Films re-released The Passion of the Christ in a slightly softer edition. That is, if your idea of softer is a steel cage match.

Only six of the goriest minutes have been cut to appeal to families and a young audience that might have been scared off or denied entry because of the original's R rating. It's now playing in 950 theaters, it's unwisely titled The Passion Recut, it's unrated, and the timing is meant to coincide with Easter.

Because I have not seen The Passion since this time last year, when the furor and defensiveness surrounding it made it hard to tell whether you were discussing a movie or a religion - and also because Newmarket didn't screen the new cut in advance for critics - I headed out on a recent afternoon to see what was different, and if anything had changed, including my reaction.

Here are some thoughts:

●Gibson explained in a statement that he received so many letters from fans wishing they could have taken grandparents or grandchildren to The Passion, "it inspired me to recut the film to cater to those people that perhaps might not have seen it because of its intensity or brutality."

There are two glitches to this. Newmarket submitted the re-edited Passion to the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board with the hope of landing a PG-13. It was denied. However, while studios are contractually obligated by the MPAA to re-lease their films with a rating, an independent distributor like

Newmarket can do what it likes.

So can a theater, and many - including the National Amusements multiplexes in the Toledo area - are treating the unrated Passion as the equivalent of an R. That means kids still need to be accompanied by an adult.

●Here's the other glitch: Those theaters are absolutely correct.

It's astonishing that Gibson and Newmarket thought they could get a PG-13. I counted roughly 70 lashes to the body of Jesus Christ this time (and that's not counting the ones I missed during a quick trip to the men's room). Gibson warns in his statement that "This is still a hard film." He's being modest.

At about the 50-minute mark, you witness 60 more minutes of unrelenting torture, with tiny flashbacks to Christ's teaching. To those who say the suffering inflicted on Christ is the point - and it is certainly Gibson's point - you won't be disappointed. (On the other hand, toning down a bit of the violence makes those short moments of context pop out better now and give the film a slightly better-rounded feel).

●As for the edits: The sound of the blows are not quite as deadening. When the nails go through Jesus' hands at the crucifixion, there's less of a sickening squish. Visually, it gets more complicated. When hands are nailed, we do not see the penetration. We see palms and nails, a close-up of the hammer, then a shot of the crowd. When Jesus is whipped, a few lashings are unedited, but a number have been replaced with alternate camera angles. That infamous scourging scene, for instance, the moment when a cat-o'-nine-tails gets whipped across Christ and flecks of skin splatter the camera: The flecks are gone - your flinch remains.

●This raises another question: If witnessing the brutality in all its blood-soaked realism is necessary to comprehend Christ's sacrifice, as so many of the film's admirers insist, then what is to be gained from a softer version?

I don't question the seriousness of Gibson's beliefs, or the honor of his intent, but he's painted himself into a corner in which every lash he edits from the final version presumably makes The Passion that much less of a film - that much less devout. Indeed, without every splatter of slashed meat on display, without our bearing witness to the gory details of those nails pounded through Christ's hands, isn't Gibson denying the visceral impact of the violence and the flagellation that made Passion unique?

Or could it be Gibson has unintentionally proven himself wrong? We might not see the actual meat being torn from the bone - well, not quite as much - and there may be slightly less graphic geysers of blood this time around, but the impact is harsher because of those edits.

Your brain fills in the agony - Hitchcock would have agreed.

●What could have been cut?

The demon babies, which are all played by dwarves, and make you wonder if Jewish groups should have been the only ones protesting the film last winter.

It's a very David Lynch-ian way of handling evil, though watching the film again, I noticed a lot of the scenes take their language directly from bad thrillers. Faces slide suddenly into view. Howling monsters shriek in ear-piercing Dolby Digital. And there's barely a child in the film who isn't used as a surrogate of evil.

Another welcome edit would have been the scene in which Christ invents the dining table.

●What's better?

The horror kitsch and silent-film effusiveness of the acting is so pronounced, Hristo Shopov's portrayal of Pilate stands out as the only character with some dimension and inner life. And this time the sequence in which Simon helps Christ bear the weight of his cross, gently reminding him the suffering is almost over, is more moving than I remember.

●What's odd?

Two things: In some theaters one of the trailers shown before The Passion Recut is the preview for Ridley Scott's, Kingdom of Heaven, an upcoming adventure epic about the bloody crusades waged between Christians and Muslims during the 12th century. Gives unexpected meaning to that line about those living by the sword dying by the sword.

The other oddity: Bob Berney, the president of Newmarket Films, said in the Los Angeles Times last week he's hoping the re-release of The Passion becomes an annual Easter event.

"It has nine lives," he said.

Thanks, but I'm fine with It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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