The Passion of the Christ
Director: Mel Gibson. Cast: Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Luca Lionello, Jarreth Merz, Fabio Sartor, Francesco De Vito, Hristo Jivkov, Mattia Sbragia, Rosalinda Celentano. Screenplay: Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald.

What hath Mel wrought? It's the question on everyone's lips lately, meaning that by late February, the cinema of 2004 already has what 2003 never really yielded: a genuine love-it-or-hate-it movie, a bonafide popular phenomenon that isn't a sequel or a franchise picture. In fact, it's a movie that every studio in Hollywood refused to make, and yet now, while a host of Oscar hopefuls that never truly ignited the public imagination (Master and Commander, Mystic River) compete for valuable multiplex real estate against the inevitable midwinter onslaught of films no one cares about (Torque? Twisted?), that most retro of all retro fashions, the Biblical epic, has cleared a path for itself right to the very apex of op/ed furor and mass-cultural obsession.

No one, of course, can possibly have missed what a deeply, entrenchedly conservative moment our culture is currently inhabiting, except for those crazies who think contemporary America isn't conservative enough, many of whom greeted the fleeting apparition of Janet Jackson's breast like the looming of a new Gomorrah and, in their reinvigorated sense of threat, demanded that new ramparts and turrets be mounted around the castle-keep of heterosexual marriage. (If you keep reading below the fold of the newspaper's front page, you eventually find out that Haitians are murdering each other in the streets; Janet must have really pulled something at their Super Bowl halftime show.) If we're back in the business of New Testament cinema, one would like to see the version in which the diseased priorities of the world-bullying Romans are called into pointed critique by Jesus' compassion for the disenfranchised.

Mel Gibson, go figure, has not made that movie, though the movie he did make has proved every bit as incendiary. True to the usual pattern of things, some of the mosted heated assertions both for and against Gibson's Passion of the Christ have arisen in quarters where the movie hadn't even screened yet. The difficult task of separating testimonials from rumors and fabrications is further complicated by a total blurring of denotation and connotation. Is the Judaism of Christ's captors and prosecutors reported as objective, historical fact in Gibson's film or is it angrily, maliciously underscored as an outgrowth of (and blanket prompt for) anti-Semitic ire? Is the notorious degree of corporal violence in the film an inevitable fact in a story about crucifixion or an object of the film's own voyeuristic self-fascination, a prurient stylistic touchstone, an end in itself?

I didn't come into The Passion of the Christ with any particular axe to grind, though I frankly wasn't expecting to be very impressed. After the vainglorious way in which Gibson slavered over his own martyrizing torture and death in Braveheart, I was not eager to see the same treatment afforded the Savior of the Gospels—not because, as a curious non-believer, I am particularly protective of the Savior or of the Gospels, but because I am protective of cinema, and I don't wish it to be used to re-stage the same bathetic scenes of wound-baring bravado over and over. Some of my favorite movies in the world, like Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, take religion and struggle as their explicit subject, but their exquisiteness usually derives from tact, simplicity, and quiet, not from emotion writ large or the histrionic self-importance of the auteurs.

I must report, though, after taking my seat in a densely crowded Thursday-afternoon matinée (!), that The Passion of the Christ didn't strike me as particularly offensive by the standards of either religion or art—even if, at the same time, I didn't find it on aesthetic grounds to be nearly distinguished enough within its genre or its moment to be worth all the hubbub. The only really effusive response I took away from The Passion of the Christ is that I hope Mel Gibson never again says a word about his movie and is not goaded by others to do so, because his own accounts of the film's ideology and of his quite particular ideas about Catholicism have, almost without exception, been more disastrous and upsetting than anything in the film itself. It's become a sort of reverse case of the old adage—hate the filmmaker, love the film—except that both of those verbs are far stronger than the person or product in question really merit.

Because the movie, famously, brackets its depiction around the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, encompassing his capture, torture, and gruesome execution, the potentials for both enlightenment and insult are sharply limited, for better and for worse. The Jewish Pharisees can't really be vilified, because the movie doesn't comprehend the reasons for their antagonism or the actions that have sparked it, much less attributing any of this to an essential quality of their religious worldview. Caiphas and his cohorts are simply people who want Jesus dead, just as John or Mary Magdalene are people who want him alive. Meanwhile, it's amazing how little sense of Jesus, of his beneficent teachings, or of his implicit threats to hegemonic social order one would attain with only this film to go on; brief flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount or the Last Supper are so lacking in narrative or scriptural context that the audience is entirely relied upon to fill in everything they already know about this sublime character. Or else, not to fill it in, because strangely for a picture of such obvious zeal, The Passion of the Christ barely needs Jesus to be Jesus. Through most of the movie, he is a betrayed friend, a public cause, and, above all, a desecrated body, all of which representations seem designed to arouse our sympathy or provoke our horror quite apart from any specificities of identity. One should hardly pretend, of course, that the singularity of Jesus is unimportant to how we receive the movie, but the key point is that we as audiences must supply the dramatic and theological stakes to a movie that dares to submerge all of them, or at least make them implicit, beneath the brute fact of bodily suffering, an experience of pain that would take on a universalized aspect if the outrageous degree of torture didn't set itself off as such a special case.

The immersion in bodily trauma is almost unprecedented: Jesus' body is lashed with whips and scoured with hooked cat-o'-nine-tails, the crown of thorns is bloodily imposed around his skull, and he repeatedly buckles beneath the massive, ghastly weight of his own cross, well before he is nailed to it, suspended from it, and speared in the abdomen while he dies upon it. I'm not sure it's the most violent movie I have ever seen, or even of the last year—Kill Bill, Vol. 1, recently arrived to the local second-run house, still makes quite a case for itself. Yet the solemnity of this violence, and the concomitant stripping-away of characterization, narrative breadth, or even much dialogue as ameliorating forces gives these assaults an especially repulsive character. The mealy details of all of Jesus' wounds would still be less repulsive if he, Mary, his apostles, his prosecutors, or his torturers had any psychological interiority to weigh against the exterior spectacles. The only film that comes to mind as similar in its reduction of the human person to its material corps is Pasolini's SalÚ, but in any such auspicious comparison, Gibson's film emerges as the less intriguing. A film like The Passion, about how physical torture absents the mind and leaves only the suffering body (a major tenet of academic and political interventions for some decades now), is less revealing and less challenging than one like SalÚ, which suggests how certain political systems themselves, fascism especially, evaporate the psyches of their subscribers, sanctioning corporal atrocity because the moral dimension of human life is anaesthetized with the rest of the brain. Whether or not I agree with this thesis of Pasolini's is less important than its own boldness as a claim, and still less important than the director's formal ingenuity in devising and delivering a program of images that communicate it so effectively. Gibson's film, powerful though it is, awakens our horror by showing us horror—a more obvious strategy, so there is less for the artist to work out and less for the audience to take away.

Almost everything in the movie is manifestly calculated to attain the remarkable level of embodiment in Gibson's images. Some friends I know have asked if Jim Caviezel gives a good performance as Jesus, and I find this an impossible question to answer, because he, like the actors playing Mary, Magdalene, Caiphas, John, Peter, and Judas are all enlisted more as visual icons of emotion than as thinking personalities; hardly any normal standard of competence in acting applies. The dialogue, bizarrely rendered in colloquialized Latin and Aramaic rather than the Greek idiolect which I understand would have been more historically accurate, almost feels gratuitous. Gibson's visceral and imagistic approach is only impeded by words, and yet the glottal thickness and unrecognizable sounds of the spoken Latin make even the characters' language seem like bodily acts. The soundtrack warps and heaves even more groaningly than that of Master and Commander, especially when the cross itself is hewn, carried, and mounted in place, and the highly credible sets and locations are photographed so that all their sandy, stony texture feels almost palpable. To these extents, the design of the movie feels well-integrated in all of its dimensions, even if this very design is inherently restricted to one, repeating notion of the body's materiality within a harshly material world. (A fascinating counter-experience after seeing The Passion of the Christ is to rent or watch the 1912 silent feature From the Manger to the Cross, which engages about equally despite being the quietest and least materially robust of all Jesus films.)

Judging, though, from Braveheart and now from The Passion of the Christ, Gibson's instincts for filmmaking are buried way down in his guts, and often to the viewer's dismay, Mel Gibson's guts seem like a pretty weird and uncontrollable place. Even when his mind seems to have settled on a governing logic for a film—William Wallace's biography as epic, rabble- rousing battlefield epic, or Christ's passion as the grossest murder in recorded time—he still can't help spiking this framework with all kinds of odd juts and unnecessary outcroppings. There's a lot of clutter, ranging from specific shots or music cues to entire subplots or characters, that drag badly on these films, whose momentum and priorities clearly lie elsewhere. This is the aspect of Gibson that shoe-horned that limp, prettified romance with the Sophie Marceau character into Braveheart, and it's back in full effect at a variety of levels. Epidemic slow motion. Erratic music. Gargoylish guilt-beasties who hound Judas after his treachery, until the sight of a maggoty donkey carcass finally pushes him over the edge into suicide. Herod's court as a Gibsonian nightmare of sensual decadence, pretty-boy sodomy, and melancholic Africans. A point-of-view shot inside a falling raindrop, rather preciously couched as a celestial teardrop in a movie that is elsewhere so dour and stern.

The Passion of the Christ's biggest problems lie less in its overall conception than in these momentary digressions and affective cheap-shots. In general, the movie is stalwart in its pace and its intentions, and I think it earns its right to be. The austerity of several images and passages is quite admirable, but like Jesus on the march to Calvary, if the simile isn't too crass, the film falls down over and over in approaching its certain conclusion. Poor Caleb Deschanel, the esteemed and inspired cinematographer, and film editor John Wright virtually have to reinvent the film's whole aesthetic in some sequences just to keep up with Gibson's oscillating moods. The blue-filtered Gethsemane sequence and its supernatural aftermath nearly recall the lavishly camp colorism of Coppola's Dracula, while other shots in Nazareth or close-ups on the grieving women could be taken from a Majidi or Makhmalbaf movie—and then there's the whole interlude in Pilate's imperial palace, where the very-Hollywood costuming and furrowed-brow emoting of the actors turns the whole enterprise into a shields-and- sandals pop epic. Claudia Gerini, as Pilate's wife and advisor Claudia, is a dead ringer for Connie Nielsen in Gladiator.

The Pilate passages differ in another way from Gibson's template, because for whatever reason, Gibson has decided we should spend some time with Pilate, hovering over his shoulder as he considers Jesus' fate and listening in on the marital summits where Claudia urges clemency while Pilate frets about the chance that his Roman superiors may see him as a weak governor. Many critics have implied that this shift in the film's texture, affording Hristo Naumov Shopov the film's one opportunity for an actual performance (it's fine, but no great shakes), creates an empathetic connection to Pilate that is missing from the other characterizations, particularly those of the Pharisees. I'm inclined to disagree, because it seemed clear to me that Pilate was ultimately a craven obeyer of political exigencies over moral ones, while Caiphas, for example, was following the edicts of a religion which constituted his one frame of ethical reference—and which, by any reasonable standard, Jesus momentously troubled with his professions to be the Son of God. Here is where I think the structure of Gibson's film, eclipsing almost any glimmer of pathos in a popular medium all but driven by that economy, convinces us that The Passion "likes" Pilate, when in fact the real case is that Pilate is the one character offered to us in a way we like. I'm not sure what The Passion of the Christ gains from this atypical portrayal, just as I haven't made up my wind what on earth to make of the Satan figure embodied by Rosalinda Celentano (confirming almost 70 years after Marlene Dietrich that the devil really is a woman). Both of these cases, however, seem like formal breaks or intrusions that are worth mulling over, rather than the more simply excessive or straightforwardly vulgar inserts like the hounding spirits or the hydraulic blood-rivulets raining out of the cross.

Again, the sharp discipline at The Passion's core, refusing in any large way to soften or even to dogmatize the deathly proceedings, draws a kind of admiration on its own terms, even if the illumination provided by those terms or the motivation behind them is somewhat less than clear, and even if discipline is flouted in the most obvious and cheapening ways at stray moments in the film. One wonders if The Passion of the Christ ultimately asserts that the human world was limited to its material existence until Jesus sublimated our whole experience of life with the spiritual and ethical profundity of his death; the coda of the film, an incongruously luminous image of resurrection after such a heavy, weighty diegesis, seems to support this view, though I'm not sure the Gospels really do. Still, the bodily grounding of the film is at least consistent, except when it lapses, the movie is handsome except in the jarring moments when it isn't, and the propulsive, higher-cause conviction of the enterprise is gripping, minus those moments where traces of Gibson's superficial persona register too strongly. Our one scene of a happy, pre-prophetic Jesus, manfully sawing away at a new dinner table, hopping around with self-consciously virile aplomb, and teasing his mother with physical ribbing and raffish sarcasm... well, it reminds us of a certain someone.

A Mel Gibson movie about the death of Jesus turns out not to be the screed it could have been, and it mostly resists the impulse to look fondly on itself or call attention to its creator. The Passion of the Christ isn't a fully transporting experience, and the style and mode are a little too heterogeneous to come together right, even though some images have a pared-down majesty (Mary's helpless hands raking the salty soil at Golgotha, Christ's fists gripping a post while the rest of him crouches invisibly, bloodily behind it) and the main line of the film is tough and mercifully directed away from any outright and inevitably off-putting theological debates. I am not sure I liked this movie, and I have no impulse to see it again, but I admire it more than I do a lot of the films I see. I could probably be swayed further in the direction of praise or distrust, but before that happens, I'll have to hear more targeted and convincing responses to the movie it is, rather than the movie it could have been, or was rumored to have been, or is imagined by its director to be. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Best Original Score: John Debney
Best Makeup: Keith VanderLaan & Christien Tinsley

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Freedom of Expression Award
Satellite Awards: Best Director

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