Underneath its pretentious trappings, including Latin and Aramaic dialogue (with English subtitles), Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is just a religious exploitation movie - in the same genre, if not the same league, as The Exorcist.
Gibson's marketing has targeted fundamentalist Christians who go to family films or to none at all. If they haven't been to movies regularly in the decades since slasher films revolutionized gory makeup, they won't know what hits them. Understandably, they may confuse the crude power of seeing a blameless prophet pummeled, flayed, punctured, gouged, torn, nailed and speared with something spiritually potent and divine.
Gibson mounts a convincing crucifixion, but his victim is the audience. The Passion of the Christ aims its metallic cat-o'-nine-tails at the viewers' nerves.
Forget its way-holier-than-thou sanctimony and aura of class. In this rendering of Jesus' final 12 hours and crucifixion, Gibson fills his soundtrack with alternately hellish and heavenly choirs - the religious-film equivalent of tension music. The buzzing, eerie sound design and leaping demons imbue much of the first half with a carney-huckster's ambience, akin to midnight movies such as Cabin Fever.
Gibson cuts scenes of Jewish and Roman guards banging Jesus and his brethren around in a jolting, insensitive action-movie way. Gibson often resorts to what movie editors call "shock cuts," whether of Jesus taking a forced bungee-jump off a bridge in chains or a raven plucking out a crucified thief's eye. And he goes in for bald and shameless contrasts, between Jesus' degradation and espousals of universal love and Mary's watching her son beaten and stretched out on the cross and reminiscing about his bouncing boyhood and young manhood.
Gibson drops us in his Savior's sandals with Messiah-cam shots of an unforgiving Jerusalem filled with taunting and tormenting crowds. He deliberately halts the pace of Jesus' agonies with slow motion, so we can't miss a single drop of sweat or blood. He even invents an androgynous bald Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) to tempt Jesus into laying down the holy burden of human sin. Gibson also conjures up a couple of street urchins who are to Satan what Thing One and Thing Two were to the Cat in the Hat. Along with other little devils in kids' clothing, they succeed in goading Jesus' betrayer, Judas (Luca Lionello), into suicide, with a rope he filches from a donkey carcass.
Gibson employs all these Gothic touches to concoct the most blatant white-robe/black-robe melodrama: Jesus against the sadists and quislings of a whole world ripe for Satan's plucking. Jesus manages to keep centered as Jewish guards arrest him and Jewish priests humiliate him and Jewish thugs beat him before turning him over to the sensitive Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), who has an even more sensitive and proto-Christian wife (Claudia Gerini). When things are at their roughest, Jesus focuses on his mother Mary (Monica Bellucci) - along with Mary Magdalene (Maia Morgenstern) and John the Disciple (Hristo Jivkov), an earthly trinity of sympathy when just about the entire planet inexplicably turns against him.
When Pilate asks the Jewish priests and mob how the newly scorned, brutally scourged Jesus could be the same man welcomed into Jerusalem five days before, he doesn't get an answer - and Gibson can't supply one to the audience. Told throughout at a keening pitch, The Passion of the Christ doesn't allow for analysis, except, tellingly, when Pilate tenderly asks his wife about the nature of truth. Jesus never fully states his spiritual message. By default, you must chalk up the film's horrific events to the Jewish priests' political paranoia and their ability to foment mass hysteria. The isolated Jews who take pity on the hero are like the good Germans in a World War II movie.
Is it anti-Semitic for Gibson and his co-writer, Benedict Fitzgerald (who previously botched the script to Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood), to pin the blame so squarely on the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia), and let history's cruel Pilate off the hook? Not if their goal was staying true to the letter of the various Gospels; the movie's major problem is that it's anti-human. But even literalists may feel that Gibson goes overboard, depicting Caiaphas as a man peculiarly obsessed, who doesn't stop haranguing the Galilean until he takes his final gasps on Golgotha.
The late Dwight Macdonald used to complain that New Testament movies totally displaced guilt for the crucifixion from the Jewish authorities to Pilate; The Passion of the Christ errs in the opposite direction, making the Romans nothing more than the Jews' hit men. Of course, Gibson is such a coarse moviemaker he may have come to rely on Caiaphas simply because he felt he needed to have a sole, clear-cut villain, like Edward Longshanks in Braveheart.
In its lack of genuine soul or aesthetic inspiration, the movie brings to mind Macdonald's great comment, "On the basis of such films, we are neither a Christian nor an artistic nation."
During his ghastly whipping at the hands of Roman guards and his long journey through Jerusalem to the place of crucifixion at Golgotha, Jesus keeps averting his gaze from Satan and training it on Mary, and is thus able to continue his quest. Like the rest of Gibson's big ideas, it's remarkably simplistic. Gibson's "theology" is all pain and endurance; he believes that he can measure the profundity of Jesus' sacrifice by the extent of his suffering.
In its own sanguinary way, The Passion of the Christ offers a movie-land rendering of religion. Jesus becomes the Rocky of Messiahs: He goes the distance with Satan. When the resurrection arrives at last, and his ketchup-pancake makeup disappears, you half-expect to hear "Gonna Fly Now."
The Passion of the Christ
Starring James Caviezel
Directed by Mel Gibson
Released by Newmarket
Time 125 minutes
Sun Score *1/2
A reference to the cast in the review of The Passion of the Christ in Wednesday's Today section transposed the names of the two lead actresses. Monica Bellucci played Mary Magdalene, not Mary, and Maia Morgenstern played Mary, not Mary Magdalene.