- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” opened on Ash Wednesday in 2004, so an anniversary engagement for the Easter season of 2005 always loomed as a logical follow-up.

The initial theatrical performance had been overwhelming: about $370 million in domestic box-office grosses, which grew to $611 million worldwide.

I’m not sure whether admirers were expecting a reissue along the lines of “The Passion Recut,” a title with an oddly brusque and utilitarian ring. Now that “Recut” is in circulation at several hundred theaters nationally, moviegoers can observe the first stage in what may prove an ongoing process of modifying a famous picture. The impact was keyed to prolonged, graphic atrocity sequences, illustrating the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. The style of depiction that earned the original version an R rating for violence could undergo further tinkering and refinement as the movie makes it way toward the television networks and syndication markets.

“Recut” failed to secure a less restrictive rating, but it illustrates that movie editing does lend itself to effective softening. The word “softening” was used by Mr. Gibson himself in a “personal statement” about the new version.

“I have toned down some of the more brutal scenes without removing them or compromising the impact of the film,” he explained. “By softening some of its more wrenching aspects, I hope to make the film and its message of love available to a wider audience … I received numerous letters from people all across the country. Many told me they wanted to share the experience with loved ones, but were concerned that the harsher images … would be too intense for them to bear. In light of this I decided to re-edit ‘The Passion of the Christ.’”

The producers describe the new edition as an “unrated” version. It has not been re-rated officially by the Motion Picture Association of America, and theater managements are likely to continue regarding it as an R-rated movie. According to Bob Berney, the president of Newmarket Films, “Passion’s” distributor, “The goal was to try and reach toward a PG-13 level, but the MPAA felt it still was an R due to the overall intensity … So we are going out unrated and perhaps it’s ultimately somewhere in between. The end result is a shift in tone and balance that makes the film more accessible to a wider audience.”

The running time of “The Passion Recut” is four minutes less than the original. Amateur scholars who purchased a copy of the DVD edition will be able to do a cursory comparison. It appears that a preponderance of the re-editing is devoted to the first atrocity sequence, when Jim Caviezel as Jesus is being scourged by Roman soldiers. The new version goes lighter on images of flails and flesh-rending devices striking the actor’s back repeatedly. It also seems to eliminate the blows that struck below the waist. A wallop over the right eyebrow has also been deflected, creating a minor continuity gap: there’s no longer a precise image to account for the eye being swollen and shut in subsequent scenes. The context continues to make severe injuries of many kinds easy to imagine.

Since it was the first torture session that gave the movie a seemingly relentless fixation on brutality, a re-edit that reduces the amount and duration of the abuse might shift tone and balance in useful ways. You also get the impression that Mr. Gibson had expanded somewhat on the reactions of emotionally stricken eyewitnesses, particularly Maia Morgenstern as the sorrowing Mary. The flashbacks that punctuate the cruelty and the procession to Calvary seemed more effective. Perhaps the director took some criticisms to heart and orchestrated these welcome fragments of memory and ministry a bit differently. They no longer seem to emerge from a wholly demented state of mind.

At the end of the day, Mr. Gibson’s “Passion” will always invoke images of an actor affixed to the cross while his body is cross-hatched with lacerations and drenched in blood from head to toe. Filmmakers usually have so much alternative footage to work with in the editing room that a considerable range of options from the discreet to the ghastly is feasible when portraying something dreadful. A PG-13 variation on the original movie may be within reach.

Wherever they are, the changes haven’t dismantled the original version. When Bernardo Bertolucci’s sex shocker of 30 years ago, “Last Tango in Paris,” was reduced from an X to an R rating, it lost most of the initial sex scene between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. That encounter was somewhat essential when considering the rest of the bad affair. “Recut” avoids incoherent spasms while trying to navigate the ratings scale. The Gibson company has drawn closer to an optimally “accessible” version to supplement their “uncompromising” original.

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