Christ Not Almighty

Gibson rehumanizes Jesus in The Passion of the Christ

Where Gibson makes his most distinctive mark on the material (aside from the temporal elongation and violent detailing) is in the perspective he attains—not so much the "how" of the story, but the "who"—and in the work he does with his actors. Rather than depicting the action solely from the point-of-view of Jesus' disciples, or from the omniscient perch so common to religious epics, he brings us the perspective of both Jesus himself and, more frequently, that of his mother, Mary, played magnificently (and nearly wordlessly) by the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern. Following her son through every step of his final journey, accompanied by the redeemed courtesan Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), her escalating expressions of maternal anguish achieve a kind of wrenching, intestinal poetry that becomes the throbbing emotional core of the film. Which is essential, given that Caviezel himself, while bringing an impressive authority to his performance, must spend nearly every scene (with the exception of brief flashbacks to the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.) buried under mounds of blood and prosthetic scars. Moreover, it's one additional way in which Gibson illustrates the transcendence of his material beyond a strictly religious interpretation. Gibson seems at most points to care less about converting nonbelievers than about asking every viewer, regardless of background or belief, to feel. Watching this mother's tears fall upon the ground that will soon be stained with her child's last drops of blood, most will be hard pressed not to.

The media brouhaha about The Passion of the Christ is discussed elsewhere in this issue, and the life-imitates-art parallels between the film and the fuss are far too obvious to belabor. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must have missed that recent issue of Entertainment Weekly that featured as its cover an artist's rendering of Gibson on the cross, sporting a crown of thorny 35mm film.) I would, however, like to say a few words about Mel Gibson, who is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, the subject of many women's fantasies (case in point: my mother's hairdresser keeps a picture of him in her stall that's larger than the one of her own husband), and who has had to pay a price for not conforming to certain people's notions about how such a man should behave. (How many other filmmakers have ever been held accountable for the beliefs of their elderly fathers?) On that same cover of Entertainment Weekly, a headline questioned: "Can Mel Gibson Survive The Passion of the Christ?" And make no mistake, Gibson has done the unthinkable—not by directing and financing a movie about Jesus, mind you, but by speaking openly about the emptiness of wealth and fame, by daring to question the integrity of The New York Timesand (most sinful of all) by reminding Hollywood that there are conservatives in its midst more conservative than Governor Ah-nuld. In short, Mel Gibson scares certain people, and such behavior doesn't earn you friends in this town. But Gibson exudes a confidence that says he doesn't need them anyway, thank you very much. Which, of course, only scares them all the more.

The Passion of the Christ was directed by Mel Gibson; written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Gibson; produced by Gibson, Bruce Davey and Stephen Mceveety; and stars Jim Caviezel and Monica Bellucci. Now playing countywide.

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