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The Passion of the Christ
  • Composed by John Debney
  • Sony Classical / 2004 / 54m

The most controversial movie in years, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ attracted much passion from many different camps.  It was roundly condemned by many – predictably, before they had seen it, mirroring the situation with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (not to mention Monty Python’s The Life of Brian).  Much of the criticism seemed to stem from views held by Gibson’s father which – however ridiculous and offensive they may be – have no real bearing on this movie any more than they do on Lethal Weapon or Mad Max.  Is it anti-Semitic?  I don’t see how any reasonable person could arrive at that conclusion – saying it’s anti-Semitic is like saying Patton is anti-German – because some people in an historical movie are evil does not imply that the filmmaker believes all current members of that people are evil.

Whatever your persuasion, it is surely difficult not to be moved by the movie.  It contains the most visceral violence I’ve seen in a major movie and many people in the cinema with me were frequently turning away from the screen, simply unable to watch (inappropriate aside: I haven’t seen anything so sickening in a cinema since the last time I saw an Adam Sandler movie).  Is the violence justified?  Certainly.  Gibson’s point couldn’t be made otherwise.  This isn’t a colourful piece of escapism like The Robe or The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s a serious look at a short stretch of Jesus’s life.  Whether you are a believer or not, it is difficult not to watch this story of a man being tortured, abused and ultimately killed for holding a certain set of beliefs and fail to think that so little has actually changed in the intervening 2,000 years, during which time Christians have fought other religions frequently and, of course, fought amongst themselves (taking a quick look a couple of hundred miles away from where I type this, in Northern Ireland, shows how religious fervour can still be so destructive of life today).  Acting wise, the movie is blessed.  In the central role, Jim Caviezel is excellent.  He somehow manages to evoke pain and suffering along with nobility, grace and majesty.  But the supporting players push the film to a higher level still – most notable are Hristo Shopov, who plays Pontius Pilate as a pathetic, sorry figure and; Rosalinda Celentano as a menacing Satan.

John Debney

John Debney

Musically, Gibson faced a difficult choice.  As most people will know, the movie is entirely in Aramaic (save for a few brief scenes in colloquial Latin!) with English subtitles.  This echoes Gibson’s drive for authenticity throughout the project.  Of course, authenticity in the score would be very difficult since so little is known of the music of the period and what little is known would likely be unpalatable by a modern audience.  Apparently, Gibson seriously considered leaving the film unscored, but this would not have been right – there is so little dialogue, the music is needed to carry the movie along sometimes.  It was widely reported that James Horner had signed to write the score, but this turned out not to be the case – whether it was second thoughts on the part of either Gibson or Horner is not known.  Then, Lisa Gerrard was hired, but what she wrote wasn’t really what was needed, so Gibson took a chance and made the boldest and most surprising piece of composer assignment I can remember (and I can remember a lot of composer assignments) by hiring John Debney, veteran mostly of juvenile comedies in recent years.

While at the time he seemed a very strange choice, in retrospect the decision to bring Debney on board seems one of genius.  A devout, committed Christian himself, he was clearly going to be very moved by the film and respond to it on a deeply emotional level.  Horner would perhaps have brought a more easily-recognisable theme, but it is easy to imagine a score by him for this being a little heavy-handed and overwhelming (the visuals are overwhelming enough without an overly manipulative score); and as for Gerrard, while it’s certainly true that there is an air of Gladiator about some of Debney’s music, she does seem to be a bit of a one-trick pony, so to speak, and Debney’s music for female vocalist is (to use a facile, banal phrase) “more classical” than hers would likely have been.

Clearly, Debney was not going to write a score like King of Kings or The Robe here; they would blatantly be inappropriate.  It must therefore have been a real challenge to come up with the right approach.  The right approach it most certainly is, however – an eclectic mix of the ancient and modern, it fits the film like a glove and is in turns contemplative, reflective and inspirational.  The opening “The Olive Garden” introduces the idea of a female vocal soloist, which works very well.  “Bearing the Cross” could easily be described using words which will instantly attract disdain from lovers of classic film scores, “world music”, with its mix of deep wailing male vocals, eastern woodwind, electronic and live percussion, an orchestra and choir, but it works very well – infinitely better than Gladiator did, for example.  The comment that electronics shouldn’t be used in a film set in this period is somewhat asinine – violins and trumpets weren’t a part of the period any more than Yamaha was; and clearly a composer must take great care when doing so. But he must take no more care than he must when orchestrating his music for the symphonic ensemble – recreating the sound of the period is not an option, but creating a sound that evokes the period clearly is.  And if a composer feels best able to do that with electronics, so be it.  Here, Debney incorporates them seamlessly and they work very well.  

“Jesus Arrested” is a considerably more hard-edged piece, ambient in nature but not without attraction, particularly from the fluttering winds and mysterious vocals.  Debney is creating an atmosphere of calm anger (if such a thing is possible) – noble resignation, perhaps.  “Peter Denies Jesus” is one of the more orchestral pieces, and one centred around a theme of magnificent beauty yet tinged with sadness and regret, as befits the scene it underscores.  “The Stoning” returns the mood to that of “Jesus Arrested”, before the subtle yet moving “Song of Complaint”, a traditional melody adapted by Debney.  “Simon is Dismissed” features some massive percussion along with wailing, both vocal and instrumental, from a variety of sources; the kind of piece that sounds awful on paper, but which works very well.  The remarkable “Flagellation” sequence in the movie is distressing and uncomfortable, but the music plays slight counterbalance, opening as it does with restrained, lyrical impressionism.  It does develop into a considerably more mournful piece, but even then it has a great effect when placed against the frenzied scenes on screen.  

The most beautiful track on the CD is “Mary Goes to Jesus”, a simply gorgeous piece introduced by solo female vocal before the strings swell to present a fantastic theme.  Debney achieves something his more celebrated peers do so rarely, which is to write a sweeping piece for large orchestra dominated by strings that avoids all schmaltz and sentiment.  It’s emotional, yes; manipulative, no.  “Peaceful but Primitive” returns to more ethnic stylings; again it’s a little like Gladiator, but again it’s done with a touch of class and never sounds like instrumental pop music. 

From then on, there is a 25-minute sequence of music to end the album which is simply magnificent.  The “Crucifixion” sequence (which effectively includes the following track, “Raising the Cross”, as well) is tragic and moving, among the best that this score has to offer, building from a slow, deliberately-paced opening to an orchestral and choral cacophony in the middle section, painfully beautiful, but even that is overshadowed by the vaguely John Williams-like passage for augmented string section that follows, which is stunning.  “Raising the Cross” raises the choral element, a more blatant and less subtle piece perhaps, but it’s good stuff.  “It is Done” brings back the restrained, dignified sounds of earlier sections of the score, with the solo female vocal now taking on a gentler, easier air.  It’s a piece that’s full of anguish and misery, but it’s done so in a way that makes for simply compelling listening.  “Jesus is Carried Down” continues the emotional journey, a worthy accompaniment to a painful sequence.  Finally, “Resurrection” ends the score with an air of hope.  The actual resurrection in the movie is shown for barely a couple of seconds, but Debney takes his cue from it and this is actually the end title piece, with an anthemic theme for deep choir, orchestra and synthesised percussion.  For a moment it may sound like it’s strayed from Media Ventures, and the arrangement certainly does nothing to dampen that impression, but it is clearly a piece of music written from the heart, and is uplifting and majestic and a perfect conclusion to this score.

Many – myself included, I have to admit – were bemused by Debney’s appointment to this film – but how we must eat our words.  He has often shown promise, but almost invariably on simply wretched movies.  The Passion of the Christ is the first film of any real substance he’s got to work on (it’s a long way here from The Scorpion King and Bruce Almighty).  A criticism often used of his previous works is that, while they were regularly very well-crafted, they rarely seemed to show much of Debney himself.  Well, this is the complete opposite, clearly a work of great passion for the composer; we can only hope that he gets to score movies of this prestige more regularly.  I would refute any allegation of the music being dreary or depressing: it clearly has to convey a certain atmosphere, but it does so with beauty and, well, passion.  Shades of Gladiator and The Last Temptation of Christ there may be, but this is quite obviously music coming straight from Debney’s heart, and The Passion of the Christ is a wonderful album.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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