Great sincerity often blinds one to one’s own follies, and The Passion of the Christ, like most films dealing with the Jesus story, has its powerful moments and its goofy moments. Director Mel Gibson, as we’ve all heard ad infinitum by now, is a devout Catholic, and he approaches the material with a kind of robust reverence. Much of the filmmaking is accomplished and sure-footed; monotonous as the last hour is, it’s paced like a shot. And Gibson does give the grateful audience one mild laugh, when Jesus (James Caviezel), in a flashback, is kidding around with his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern, in probably the best performance). Still, the whole affair left me feeling rather remote and unmoved. By emphasizing the agony of Christ’s last day to the near-exclusion of all else, Gibson has made a strange experimental film that he offers as an act of faith, but which seems more like an act of directorial hubris.
Much has been made of the film’s brutality, and I suppose it’s helpful to warn people who haven’t been to the movies much in the last thirty years that this isn’t the sanitized crucifixion of, say, King of Kings. After all the talk about it, I had steeled myself for something that would turn my stomach and rock my foundations, but, image for image, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen if, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of violent horror movies. The difference here, as in Saving Private Ryan (which also came with media warnings for the elderly), is the sheer repetition and relentlessness of the bloodletting. When Jesus’ back is scourged, first with routine whips and then with sharp metal-tipped flails, and then the Romans turn him over so they can whip the front of him too, Gibson is giving us far more than we need to get the point. The violence becomes numbing, meaningless.
At certain points, Gibson seems ready to go all the way into the horror genre. A bald, androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) makes an early appearance to tempt Jesus, then haunts the betraying Judas (Luca Lionello) to suicide. Phantasms and grotesquely deformed children appear to Judas, and he hangs himself near a horse’s maggot-infested corpse. The episode has the ooh-spooky tone of one of the Omen flicks (so does a moment when a disbeliever on the cross next to Jesus is visited by a hungry crow), and Gibson isn’t a subtle enough director to pull off these moments of spiritual dread — they just come off cheesy. Sadly, Gibson is still indulging his homophobia, too, even here, in the episode wherein the decadent, fey King Herod taunts Jesus.
Cinematically, Gibson gets some things right. The use of subtitled ancient languages (Latin, Aramaic) lends the movie a rhetorical gravitas that Martin Scorsese’s rather more colloquial The Last Temptation of Christ sorely lacked. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel lights with an eye for mood, as if this were bible noir. Gibson consciously moves away from an epic flavor, shooting almost the entire movie very close in — there can’t be more than a handful of medium or long shots. Some of the practical details of the crucifixion, such as turning the cross over to hammer the nail points flush against the back of the cross planks, certainly show that Gibson has done his homework.
It’s all more or less skillfully done, but at the center of The Passion of the Christ is anguish without context; of course, you’re supposed to bring the context with you — most of us know the story leading up to Jesus’ death. But narratively, it makes for an awfully lopsided experience. Why fixate so much on the physical horrors of the story? The catalog of torture becomes squalid and borderline sadistic, and sadism at tedious length is no more interesting or illuminating than anything else at tedious length. (And poor James Caviezel is given very little to do besides suffer; he comes off as the most blank movie Jesus in many years.) If you went into the film with no knowledge of Christianity, you might come out wondering why a religion could be so obsessed with torture and agony as the central image of its faith. That’s because the movie equates redemption with physical ordeals — it’s a macho-man interpretation. How much can Jesus take? He took a lot, man — just look at all that punishment he’s taking. That was one tough motherfucker. Powerful for a while, until its power begins to seep out somewhere in the second hour, this fraction of a story reduces one of history’s most galvanizing legends to an endurance test — a sort of Xtreme Sport for martyrs.