Christ Not Almighty

Gibson rehumanizes Jesus in The Passion of the Christ

In the new film directed by Mel Gibson, a good man is arrested on trumped-up charges, flagellated nearly to death, then made to carry a heavy wooden cross to the place of execution as his captors continue to pummel his frail, bloodied body. All the while, the man's own mother and disciples bear witness, watching on in pained, helpless horror. As do we . . .

You see where this is going: that the film in question is called The Passion of the Christ and that its protagonist is no ordinary human being, but Jesus of Nazareth. Try forgetting this, though, just for a moment—indeed, it may be necessary to do so in order to clear one's mind of the incessant media fracas that has swirled around this production ever since it was announced that "Mad Mel" Gibson had plans to film the Jesus story in Aramaic and Latin—and you may well find (as I did) that Gibson has made a big, bold, nightmarishly beautiful film not just about the dawn of the Christian faith, but about the awful tendency of human communities (wherever and whenever in the world they may exist) toward self-preservation through scapegoating and intolerance. The Passion of the Christ will certainly have special resonance for Christians, but even those indifferent or hostile to the film as history or theology may find themselves moved by its potent depiction of physical, psychological and religious oppression.

The Passion of the Christ is, let it be said, not a particularly subtle film. As reports have suggested for months, the intensity of the violence Gibson puts on screen is graphic and discomforting (and makes Braveheart look decidedly kid-friendly). When Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is whipped by his Roman captors, his blood sprays out from all sides, painting both his torturers and the ground below. At one point, a large hooked instrument lodges itself in Jesus' side, taking part of his flesh with it when it's yanked away. As he proceeds through the streets of Jerusalem en route to Golgotha, Jesus repeatedly falls, pulling the crushing weight of the cross down upon him. This is all enough to make crucifixion itself seem, as one character indeed suggests, less punishment than reprieve. And by honing in on these final moments of Jesus' mortal life—the locus of all traditional Passion plays—Gibson has effectively put a magnifying glass over a series of events that, in most prior tellings of this tale, occupy perhaps 20 or 30 minutes of screen time. (There is much slow motion, to boot.)

Some early reviews of the film (and I'm talking about the ones written by people who've actually seen it) have been critical of this overall approach, suggesting that The Passion of the Christ's depiction of the Roman soldiers' inhuman treatment of their prisoner is too unrelenting, even illogical. Yet, to my eyes, the effects Gibson achieves are brutal without being desensitizing—his admittedly aestheticized bloodshed is a world away from the action-movie auto-erotica of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer and, to be truthful, more than a few movies Gibson himself has starred in over the years. Instead, Gibson here seems engaged in an effort to re-sensitize his audience to images of human suffering in a cinematic (and videogame and television-news) era in which such images have themselves become something of a lingua franca. What you won't find in The Passion of the Christ is the formal purity of a film like Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest or the documentary-style lyricism of Passolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (or, for that matter, last fall's superb The Gospel of John), but rather the color-saturated wide-screen cinematography, "impact" editing and amped-up digital soundtrack that are the calling cards of the high-end Hollywood studio picture. Ultimately, it comes as no surprise that Gibson once considered leaving the film's Latin and Aramaic dialogue (effortlessly spoken by its multinational cast) unsubtitled, for this is a movie that speaks fluently in the language that moviegoers around the world now understand better than any other—that of the blockbuster.

Shot by Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff), The Passion of the Christ opens on an impossibly blue, moonlit night in the Garden of Gethsemane, where a terrified, sweat-drenched Jesus prays to his Father to save him, moments before being seized by guards sent out by the high priest Caiaphas from the Jerusalem temple. And while these early moments are burnished with eerie, surrealistic touches—a skulking, slithering, androgynous albino of a Satan figure; Judas Iscariot fleeing from demonic apparitions—what will surprise many about the scenes that follow, given all the pre-release controversy, is their familiarity. Which is to say that, in its presentation of everything from Jesus' interrogation at a highly irregular meeting of the Sanhendrin (and later by Pilate) through to the crucifixion itself, the film (adapted, by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, from the four Gospels and, controversially, from the published visions of a pair of 19th-century nuns) does not differ significantly in content or ideology from the modern cinema's other mainstream renderings of these events (from De Mille's The King of Kings through Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazarethand beyond). This extends to the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against Gibson and the film, but which really stem from issues that some people have with the biblical accounts themselves. True to their primary sources, Gibson and Fitzgerald depict a cabal of the Jewish religious authorities—here portrayed in a distinctly less caricatured fashion than in many earlier films—as Jesus' primary nemeses, while pointing up the fact that Jesus himself, as well his supporters, were themselves Jewish.

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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