THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald
With Jim Caviezel, Maia Morganstern, Monica Bellucci, and Hristo
In Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” the rapper observes
that “you can rap everything except Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But
if I talk about God, my record won’t get played.” The same resistance to
organized religion holds sway in the film industry. When I first heard about
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, whose $25 million budget came out of Mel Gibson’s
pocket, I expected a certain flop: his equivalent of Gus van Sant’s
GERRY. The facts that it’s spoken in subtitled Aramaic, and Gibson wound
up selling the rights to an independent distributor after a studio bailed
s seemed likely to seal its fate. I didn’t realize just how skilled
he, his publicists and Newmarket Films are at milking - not to mention stirring
Being a gay, half-Jewish atheist, I don’t think I’m the intended audience
for THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. In fact, its marketing has gone a long way
towards portraying people like me as the Other, ready to stomp on good Christians
like Gibson in the name of political correctness. However, it’s not so easy
to pick one’s spectators. Grisly avant-garde films like Stan Brakhage’s
THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES, which depicts an autopsy, and Peter
Kubelka’s UNSERE AFRIKAREISE, which graphically depicts tourists hunting
in Africa, have found an audience among fans of extreme gore and mondo movies.
A decade or two down the road, I wonder who will look back fondly on THE
PASSION OF THE CHRIST. As Jason Shawhan has observed, it may bring together
Christian fundamentalists and S/M enthusiasts.
The Other has struck back. Long before THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST opened,
critic David Ehrenstein cited Nazi propaganda as Gibson’s inspiration. In
last week’s VILLAGE VOICE, Richard Goldstein tore into the film for violence,
comparing it to CARRIE, RESERVOIR DOGS and slasher movies (not meant
as a compliment), and anti-Semitism. At the end of the article, he
admitted that he hadn’t seen it, rendering his points moot. However, he pointed
out that he wasn’t allowed to attend an advance screening. The film’s publicists
did their best to make sure that it would preach to the converted first and
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST begins in a dark garden. Jewish police have arrived
to arrest Jesus (Caviezel). Jesus then faces the rabbi Caiphas (Mattia
Sbragia). He’s charged with blasphemy and abused by a crowd. A surprisingly
sympathetic Pontius Plate (Shopov) wants to let him live, However, he lets
Jesus be tortured publicly, leading to calls for crucifixion. Pilate winds
up giving in to these demands.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST feels like an entry in an apocryphal genre: late
‘70s Italian splatter Biblesploitation. Nothing if not personal, that
personality is closer to eyeball-gouge fetishist Lucio Fulci than Cecil B.
De Mille, much less Carl Dreyer. (It never would have gotten an R rating
had it been about any other subject.) Despite the benefit of Caleb
Deschanel’s pretty cinematography, Gibson and Fitzgerald’s storytelling has
little rhythm. Flashbacks attempt to set the story in some cursory context,
but they’re so brief and awkwardly placed that the film would be better off
without them. The crucifixion is moving and surprisingly well-staged, but
a coda that looks like the setup for a sequel ruins the elegiac mood. Gibson
throws slow motion, point-of-view shots and quick edits around as if desperate
to juice the action up.
The portrayal of Caiphas isn’t exactly flattering, but the film’s anti-Semitic
overtones probably have more to do with its reduction of supporting
characters to leering grotesques than any outright hatred. Nuance is not
Gibson’s strong point. Additionally, his disdain for all things queer
is at work again. King Herod is a swishy queen with a penchant for wigs and
eyeliner. His court’s decadence comes straight out of Fellini’s SATYRICON.
And you know they must be really depraved if one of them keeps a pet cheetah!
More subtly, Satan is portrayed as a pale, sexually ambiguous androgyne.
He’s played by a woman, but voiced by a man.
Caviezel has real charisma and - more importantly for the film’s demands
- a gift for soulful torment. The makeup department also deserves plenty
of credit: by the halfway mark, he’s covered in pounds of latex and gallons
of fake blood. If there’s something pornographic about THE PASSION
OF THE CHRIST, it lies in the objectification of his body, rather than the
violence itself. He’s treated as a bag of plasma, with a new money shot every
time he’s whipped or stumbles. It would take a Bresson or Tarkovsky
to find the spiritual within this bluntly fetishistic display of wounded
Christ suffered for our sins - that’s Gibson’s one and only point. There’s
a great film to be made about the spirituality of sacrifice. Actually, Lars
von Trier has already made it: BREAKING THE WAVES. But the difference between
Gibson and von Trier is one of dynamics and tone: von Trier portrays
a happy marriage as convincingly as degradation.
At best, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST makes Christianity look like an unappetizing
glorification of pain and suffering; at worst, it treats Jesus’ death as
an excuse to indulge Gibson’s
long-standing martyr complex
. If you want to hear a stirring testament of faith, listen to “Jesus Walks.”
If you want to see the ethos of Christian forgiveness played out in
the modern world, check out the Dardenne brothers’ THE SON. Judging from
the popularity of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, devout believers are getting
much more out of it than I did, leaving me feeling like the Other again.
A really powerful religious film ought to be able to speak to the unconverted.
This one left me shaking my head in disbelief.