The media circus surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ threatens to overwhelm the movie itself, and critics and audiences seem predisposed to love it or hate it based on the director’s neo-conservative track record, his dad’s Anti-Semitic interviews, and the sheer gall of a studio actor investing $25 million in an art film that basically reinforces his own dogmatic belief system. I wish I could report that it was all hype and bluster—any movie deserves better than to be prejudged sight unseen. The same intellectuals and liberals who fought for the right to have Martin Scorsese share his perspective in the insightful, committed, and thought provoking The Last Temptation of Christ are the same ones who are now flogging Gibson. He’s Mel, and his movie is a broadsword testament to righteousness. But, then again, so was The Triumph of the Will, The Birth of a Nation, and Black Hawk Down.
Despite the film’s unfair pre-release hype, I have to say that The Passion pretty much does all the things its detractors expected it to. The Pharisees are presented as leering, jewel-laden, greedy Jew stereotypes, and almost singularly responsible for whipping their fellow Israelites into a mad dog fervor. Herod is an effeminate orgy-throwing Caligula. Unlike Scorsese’s Christ, this Jesus (played with one-note intensity by a lean, mean James Caviezel) should basically be accepted as the messiah because Gibson says so. In Last Temptation, we see how much the sacrifice costs Jesus because we’re given an extended scene-for-scene glimpse at how much he gives up to die for mankind’s sins. Jesus here is given an extended beating for virtually the entire running time of the picture, with a few flashbacks detailing his love-one-another philosophy thrown in for good measure. In essence, he’s a stick-figure meant to be projected upon.
After a brief and beautifully photographed opening in the Gardens of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays by moonlight and confronts a gender-bent Satan (an eyebrow-less Rosalinda Celentano, whose lines where dubbed over by a wispy masculine voice and whose wheeled around by dolly and occupies Jesus’s peripheral vision), the Jews dole out the first of several beatings. Thus begins the non-stop maul fest. Jesus is already getting socked to and fro with metal fists that will send the faint-hearted running for the aisles long before the coup de grace: a Grand Guignol finale on the cross, complete with spikes, flayed skin, battered eyes, shattered limbs, and a crown of thorns.
Some have accused The Passion of being sadistic, but where were those mouths when Arnold Schwarzenegger was blowing off people’s kneecaps in Terminator 2, using a civilian as a bullet-riddled shield in Total Recall, or slicing off James Earl Jones’s head in front of the masses in Conan the Barbarian? It’s hypocritical to point fingers at a movie that revels in the exact opposite: a masochistic portrait of a hero able to endure the suffering most action figures deal out toward others. In that respect, The Passion is really not much different from most big-budget Hollywood spectacles—many of them starring Mel Gibson.
Unfortunately, The Passion doesn’t actively study the violence inflicted on Christ as much as it aggressively celebrates it and uses it to torture its audience. Christ gets hung up on the cross and asks his Father to forgive his victimizers, because they know not what they do. Then, a crow flies down and pecks out a non-believer’s eyes, a temple is destroyed, the villains are chastened or humiliated (and it’s heavily implied that they’ll rot in hell), the Old Testament skies open up, and three days later Jesus casts off the shroud and looks frighteningly trim. (The film is in Aramaic, but this final scene needs no translation: Jesus might as well be shouting propaganda like, “Let’s roll!”) Not unlike Gibson’s character Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, Caviezel’s Christ takes a beating but—come the Resurrection—he’s gonna come back and kick some ass.
The film is technically well-made, and carefully constructed by screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (who previously adapted Flannery O’Connor’s stunning evangelical rage novel, Wise Blood, for John Huston). Many of the secondary characters have compelling story arcs, most notably the spineless Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), who marches grimly toward his inevitable non-decision. His conflict rests between not just the angry mob and the maddeningly blank Christ, but between his manhood and his pitying wife (Claudia Gerini). Feral and gibbering Luca Lionello also makes a vivid impression as Judas Iscariot, pursued not only by his festering guilt but by CGI demon children, all the way to the hanging tree. Secondary figures like the unlucky bastard, Simon (Jarreth J. Merz), drawn in to help Christ drag the cross to Golgotha are given more than the cursory treatment usually doled to them in bibilical epics.
If only Gibson didn’t impose his larger-than-life directorial choices upon what might have been a human story (or, at least, the story of the Son of God who walked among the humans and broke bread with them). Jesus Christ is remote, a Superman among men, and his teardrops shake the earth. Gibson has the audacity to show Christ bear the cross in real time, challenging the endurance of his audience—he augments the overall terror of the Crucifixion by having the cross hit the ground like thunder about 15 times. Every sound effect, every whiplash camera move, every special F/X sensation, is steroid-induced and augmented by a bloated score that implies the heavens are opening whenever Jesus speaks, or stares, or bleeds.
The Passion is the definitive George W. Bush feature, and can be noted as a product of its time. If not explicitly anti-Semitic, Gibson’s images imply that everyone who disagrees with Jesus (or participated in his death) has got another thing coming, and anyone who questions why they should believe in his sense of justice ought to seriously contemplate changing their mind—even though the film posits absolutely no justification for loving or following Jesus. Or maybe you should follow this Christ because the Jews are so cowed and cruel, the Romans are vicious or inept or drunk, the homosexuals are mindless pigs, the women are so deferential with their perpetually lowered eyes, and if Christ is the only viable image of manhood and heroism in sight, then you’d better get down on your knees. Gibson’s Passion is Punch Drunk Christ!