As an agnostic with a mystical bent who’s also something of a non-fan of Mel Gibson, I am either the worst — or the best — audience for The Passion of the Christ. After all, if Gibson’s movie were to work on me, then it will have done more than just preach to the choir.
In a perfect world, I’d be able to overlook all the baggage that comes with The Passion; however, Gibson’s high-profile, right-wing, homophobic, misogynistic pronouncements, and the movie’s equally high-profile, built-in controversy, make that impossible. These things inevitably play into The Gospel According to Mel — not in the least because Gibson hasn’t just made a movie about Jesus Christ, he’s made a statement.
Let’s get two things out of the way: Gibson’s film is far from being the much-touted, strict reading of the Gospels, and it is not inherently anti-Semitic. On any number of occasions, the film strays pretty far afield from the Bible and seems to rely quite heavily on 19th-century Catholic mystic Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which contains a lot of “visionary” material that made it into the screenplay by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood).
Unlike Gibson’s film, Emmerich’s writings are apparently anti-Semitic in the extreme. Gibson’s Passion, however, at least attempts to make it clear that the human agencies involved in the death of Christ are only acting out the roles provided for them — that nothing is being (or indeed can be) done to Christ that Christ doesn’t allow. However, it would be decidedly ingenuous to say that the film is incapable of generating anti-Semitic feelings.
To grasp Gibson’s premise, it’s necessary to actually think about what’s occurring on the screen — and with as emotionally charged a topic as this, that’s perhaps a problematic tack to take. Moreover, The Passion takes the usual route of movies about Jesus Christ in its making Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov, Alien Hunter) into a relatively sympathetic character whose actions may not be admirable, but are at least understandable; at the same time, the film gives short shrift to the motivations of the Jewish high priest, Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia, The Order).
Apologists for the film have argued that, based on their reading of Caiphas’ facial expressions during the scourging, the priest appears more complex than might be expected — but that’s a personal call of questionable validity. What’s indisputable is that Gibson definitely does not give Caiphas anything like the complexity he affords Pilate. In addition to this, there’s the matter of Gibson’s depiction of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano, The Order) as a deliberately androgynous figure (bearing, perhaps, a not-coincidental resemblance to Sinead O’Connor), while the director presents us with a decidedly effeminate Herod.
Given Gibson’s public stance on homosexuality, it’s hard not to wonder what he’s trying to say here. In fact, it’s hard not to question what he’s up to with the whole Satan business itself, which is expanded far beyond the temptation in the garden. Lucifer pops up throughout the film at various moments to enigmatically watch the proceedings — once carting around a miniature demon to mock the mother-son relationship of Christ (Jim Caviezel) and the Virgin Mary (Maia Morgenstern, Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula), this small devil looking disturbingly like Mini-me from the Austin Powers movies.
Gibson also afford Judas (Luca Lionello) with a horde of childlike demon figures to help drive him to suicide. At moments like these, the director’s film begins to look like outtakes from Brian Helgeland’s The Order, and the line between Gibson’s perceived intentions and a horror movie becomes pretty indistinct.
In many ways, in fact, The Passion could qualify as a horror film. Everything you may have heard about the movie’s extremely graphic violence — almost to the point of being sadistic — is true. The scourging of Christ goes on for what seems like forever, and were it actually encased in a horror film and not in a religious drama, you can bet the movie would have been sent back for edits or slapped with an NC-17 rating. This, of course, is the point behind Gibson’s approach — to show the incredible cruelty and horror of what was done to Christ, and to point up what Christ put himself through in his efforts to save humanity.
And that’s certainly noteworthy when compared to the often absurdly stoic depictions of these same events that have been part and parcel of other movies. Yet I have to admit that I was probably more moved by the lashing depicted with suggested intensity in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar than I was by Gibson’s graphic presentation. I understand his attempt, but I was far more repelled by the bloody violence than moved by it.
I don’t think that the scourging or the crucifixion should be prettified, but neither am I quite sold on the approach taken here. Part of this may stem from Jim Caviezel’s performance. Caviezel definitely makes an authoritative Christ, albeit a typically Anglicized one, despite the array of ancient languages featured on the soundtrack; for me, however, he was almost completely lacking in the one essential for the man — charisma. I was horrified by what was happening to him, but that was as far as the movie took me.
I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity of Gibson’s attempt, but the results hit you more in the stomach than the heart — at least they did for me. I do think the use of ancient languages on the soundtrack is mostly a stunt, which is about the same level I place Gibson’s well-publicized “cameo” appearance as the hand that drives the nails into Christ on the cross — despite the director’s claim that it’s an expression of his realization that Christ died for his sins. (This is not without cinematic precedent either, since in Ken Russell’s allegorical Christ story, Tommy, it’s Russel’s own hand that deals the death blow to the Mary figure, and it’s his foot that kicks his “messiah” in the head.)
All in all, though, I believe the film is a testament — and an often inspired one — to Gibson’s personal beliefs; still, it touched me less than any number of previous film versions of the Passion story. Yes, Gibson’s movie is good on any number of levels, and it will undoubtedly find many admirers. It’s also destined to be endlessly discussed and debated — and that’s as it should be, since the issues involved are big, impacting both believer and nonbeliever alike.
See The Passion for yourself, but be prepared for it to be brutally violent, and bloody.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke