THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Directed by Mel Gibson

Written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald

With Jim Caviezel, Maia Morganstern, Monica Bellucci, and Hristo Naumov Shopov

**

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 - controversy.

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 foremost.

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 flesh.

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.