THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST directed by Mel Gibson, written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, produced by Gibson, Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety, with Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Francesco De Vito and Monica Belluci. 127 minutes. An Icon production. An Equinox Films release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 71. Rating: NN
Mel Gibson has every right to make a film about the last 12 hours of the life of Christ. The bizarre project is plainly motivated by his deeply rooted Catholicism. There can't be a studio executive in Hollywood who'd think, "A nice long movie in Aramaic and Latin - that'll pack 'em in." But does anybody actually want to see two hours of Catholic torture porn?
That's what The Passion Of The Christ amounts to. It starts with Jesus (Jim Caviezel) being arrested in Gethsemane and ends with him dying on the cross. (Gosh, I hope I haven't spoiled the ending for anyone.)
In between, we see him brutalized by the Jewish soldiers who capture and deliver him up to Caiphas, and then tortured severely by Roman soldiers who don't seem to realize that if you want the condemned man to get his cross up the hill, maybe you should stop beating him along the way.
The torture scenes are unflinchingly graphic and go on for what seems like forever.
This is probably the film's chief selling point. The Passion is not an investigation of the founding philosophy of Christianity. Nor is it an exploration of the Christ's execution as a moment in the political history of the Middle East. It's not even about Christ's God-man duality.
Gibson's intent is to show what Christ went through on the way to his sacrifice. Frankly, I don't want to know what it really feels like to be scourged half to death and nailed to a piece of wood, and I was raised Catholic. I can guess that it feels fucking horrible.
The real problem with The Passion Of The Christ is that Gibson is a true believer. He knows. And certainty is a deadly starting point for an artist.
Compare this movie with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ, in which the Catholic Scorsese and Protestant Paul Schrader use their text to ask questions about the nature of their protagonist. They don't have answers.
And, while we're on the subject of the Scorsese film, Schrader addresses the language question on the DVD version.
"Of course, they spoke Aramaic, but you don't want to do that."
Because Gibson starts from certainty, he doesn't really have anywhere to go. In addition to Last Temptation, other films have have used the subject to good effect. King Of Kings is often derided as simple spectacle, but it's an interesting movie about imperialism, a political film hidden in a Bible story.
Gibson's approach decontextualizes the Passion. The story as it's told here gives us no idea why the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council, is so upset by Jesus and wants him dead.
I've studiously avoided reading all the articles on the controversy surrounding the film so I could view it as independently as possible. Does it blame the Jews for Christ's death? It's pretty hard not to if you go back to the source material. Does it blame Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg and the Bronfmans for Christ's death? No.
Of course, what The Passion Of The Christ avoids is the fact that Christianity is based on blood sacrifice. It doesn't matter if the Jewish power structure killed him because he threatened the status quo or the Romans killed him to keep the Jewish power structure quiescent. He died to take away the sins of the world. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: the Lamb of God is sacrificial. That's why, according to believers, he was born in the first place.