Film Reviews: Thursday, February 25, 2004
Cross Words

Jesus suffered for our sins. Now Mel Gibson wants us to return the favor.

By Kristian Lin

Mel Gibsonís The Passion of the Christ is different (to say the least) from the biblical epics that Hollywood did a fine business in through much of the 1950s and í60s. Itís possibly the first big-budget movie to be aggressively marketed to evangelical Christians in the post-Moral Majority era. Itís also controversial, mostly for addressing the historically loaded question of Jewish responsibility for Jesusí death. Gibson has cynically contributed to the furor through his provocative and often contradictory public statements, and his camp touted a papal endorsement of the film that was later denied by the Vatican. Heís also played up the angle that Hollywood didnít want him to make the film, subtly pandering to the unspoken prejudice that Jews control Hollywood/the media/pop culture, and positioning himself as a Christian entertainment-industry renegade.

Of course, whatís on screen is most important for our purposes ó movies live longer than marketing campaigns. Whatever else you might say about this one, itís identifiably a Mel Gibson film and undoubtedly springs from his genuine religious convictions. It starts with Jesus (Jim Caviezel) in the garden of Gethsemane and proceeds through his arrest, trial, and ultimate death by crucifixion. Gibson directs with as little regard for subtlety as in his previous films, The Man Without a Face and Braveheart. When the high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) tosses Judas (Luca Lionello) his 30 pieces of silver, it has to be in slow motion, and Judas has to drop the bag so the coins scatter noisily over the floor, and he has to pick them up. If you think that shot early in the film is excessive, you have no idea whatís in store.

Thatís because the film is a seemingly endless litany of Jesus being brutalized. This will come as no surprise to moviegoers familiar with Gibsonís well-documented history of playing characters who are tortured or otherwise physically scourged. In making this film, he gets to write his own personal martyrdom complex on a really big canvas. Though I wouldnít take a child to this movie, I myself have no objection to the extreme violence on display here. Thereís no point in sanitizing the manner of Jesusí death. By all means, Gibson should be graphic. The problem is that he seems to be concerned with nothing else. He dwells lovingly on Jesusí flayed body as heís punched, kicked, slapped, and ó especially ó whipped. (I tried to count the instances of this and lost track around 100.) Gibsonís monomaniacal zest for all this pain is numbing and disturbing for the wrong reasons.

It also helps make his film anti-Semitic. I donít think Gibson meant it to be. He takes steps to mitigate his portrayal of the Jews; we see priests who object to the handling of Jesusí trial being escorted from the temple, and there are Jews weeping and wailing on the way to the crucifixion alongside the ones who are throwing rocks and spitting at Jesus. Yet we still have the images of Caiaphas and his fellow priests wearing sidecurls and shawls, leading an angry Jewish mob calling for Jesus to be crucified even after heís been whipped almost to death. That tends to overwhelm any kind of context. (The film also lapses into homophobia in depicting Herod and his court as a bunch of drunken effeminate clowns.) The filmís defenders might correctly say that the Romans here are as evil and as culpable in Jesusí death as the Jews. The thing is, we donít have to worry about worldwide anti-Roman sentiment.

Gibson had the latitude to be more balanced, because his film is not strictly faithful to the Gospels ó he includes appearances by a creepy-looking Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), and Jesusí Jewish guards knocking him over the side of a bridge, which comes from a vision by a 19th-century German nun. So he could have softened his portrayal of the Jews further ó and didnít. The film is probably fine for American audiences, but Iím greatly concerned about how it might play in European and Middle Eastern countries where anti-Semitism is more entrenched.

The anti-Semitism aside, the film fails notably at conveying Christian values. Gibsonís single-minded focus on a narrow timeframe means that all but the most basic of Christís teachings are omitted. Jesusí exhortations toward peace, brotherhood, and forgiveness are boiled down to a few sound bites. We donít sense what makes him such a threat to the established order, much less his divine love for humanity that led him to lay down his life. In fact, we have no idea who he is or what he stands for; he lacks the distinctively human qualities of his counterparts in better movies, whether itís the tormented self-doubting loner in Scorseseís The Last Temptation of Christ or the unswerving political rebel in Pier Paolo Pasoliniís The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This Christ is just a doll for the director to stick pins into ó literally, as Gibson shows up as a centurion who hammers a nail into Jesusí hand. By emptying his movie of everything except Jesusí suffering and the people inflicting it on him, Gibson has created a personal and highly idiosyncratic religious vision, yet one thatís so self-indulgent and depressing that it offers little to either believers or nonbelievers.

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