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Review by Brad Green:
“Think about the crucifixion,” Mel Gibson has been quoted as saying in reference to the bloodiness of his cinematic Passion Play, “there’s no way to sugar-coat that.” Yet while the film has courted controversy for its graphic violence, its dialogue in Aramaic and Latin and its rigid adherence to the stations of the cross, Gibson the modern movie-maker couldn’t resist sprinkling the austerity with cinematic convention. In context, slow motion shots, hammy performances in nearly all of the Roman roles and a crescendo of the soundtrack that climaxes at Calvary, border on the saccharine.

While debate has raged about Gibson’s conservative brand of Catholicism and whether the film is anti-Semitic, its artistic merit has split critics like the Reformation split the Church in the 16th century. One of the reasons, I believe, is that the movie features great moments, but lacks the coherency to capitalise on them. When I listen to this soundtrack I can’t help but notice that its biggest moments are more effective divorced from the film, and that the film itself would have been better off without them. 

There are basically two elements to the score. The first uses world instruments and archaic scales to create atmosphere; it is intriguing on CD and works well in parts of the movie. The second element of the score relies on pounding drums and various choral elements. It is probably the most attractive feature of the soundtrack for the album buyer, though I contend that the film could have done without such overt exultance. 

Listening more closely to the music on CD, it is also noticeable that composer Debney weaves both threads together at times, and the soundtrack is certainly an impressive work in itself. Debney is making a big step up here from light comedies, and he must have been struck by the irony that one of his most recent scores prior to this was for the Jim Carrey romp Bruce Almighty. (Another oddity is that with Jim Caviezel as the Christ in The Passion, both films have an actor with initials “JC” playing God-on-Earth!)

The reason Debney’s tonal texturing is effective in the film is that we can almost imagine it being diegetic. There are effects that sound like rustling wind as we swoop into the ethereal light of the Garden of Gethsemane, and whether or not there were actually any duduk, erhu and ancient Armenian oud exponents in Jerusalem circa 30 CE, or indeed a solo female vocalist intoning in Aramaic in a reverberant temple hall with an open door, Debney uses exotic modalities to convince the ear that these sounds could easily be drifting across the hills as the momentous events unfold. 

On the other hand, I truly doubt there was a chamber orchestra in a Temple backroom as Peter denied Jesus. This cue features a lovely melody on flute but is far too sentimental for the film. It’s also hard to imagine a big string section and full-blown chorus striking up in the vicinity of Golgotha to inspire the tormented figure on the cross to fulfill his destiny. They could be angels singing I suppose, but God seems too busy darkening the skies to conduct the choir. Nevertheless, Debney combines stylistic components of Gregorian chants, Byzantine and Western masses in some impressive cues that would be triumphant in a standard biblical epic and will provide more entertainment for most listeners than many of the dissonant trills and tonal layering of the atmospheric tracks.

But what works on CD isn’t necessarily good for the film artistically. We know the story, and with such uncompromising visuals we hardly need emotional cues. Personally, I believe a better film would have resulted from pared back music and, as the director originally intended, no subtitles. I don’t have much faith though that Gibson’s bank manager is a disciple of this philosophy. 

Published April 29, 2004

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TITLE: Passion of the Christ
ID: 399700 115888
SCORE: John Debney

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