The mere idea conflicts with nearly every perception I carry about people’s faith in higher powers. My family belonged to no denomination of religious following in any capacity through my upbringing, but as I observed it in those around me I acknowledged one consistency in them: the idea of a deity empowered people to do good things in the world, and treat others with respect and dignity. Those, by all measures of church-oriented teachings, are the fundamental values of having faith, not the ones that involve punishing oneself for merely existing in the shadow of one man’s tragedy. I felt bad for many of those sorts of followers as I sat and watched “The Passion of the Christ” in stunned silence, but those young peers of mine stuck out the most. What would they think now, watching their savior be brutalized to long and exhaustive lengths? Would they be overcome with depression in knowing that the picture is wall-to-wall violence, removed from a perspective they might decipher as enlightening? Or would they be forgiving of the gratuity, because it falls in line with their idea of his immense sacrifice?
Common rhetoric insists that because I am not a follower of the Christian doctrine, I am not the right person to be making assessments of this undertaking. But by making a movie about his staunch conviction and giving it to a general populace to absorb, Gibson is now treading on my home turf and must face the repercussions. His movie is a short-sighted, sensational and perverse foray into the primitive dark ages of theology, an exploitation of faith values that insists the “why” is much less important than the “how” when it comes to asking questions about Christ’s selfless surrender. By contrast, Martin Scorsese’s far superior “The Last Temptation of Christ” now plays like the antithesis of those perspectives; not only did it want to understand Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person, but cared enough about the material to think outside the proverbial perspective of a flawed fundamentalism. Here is a movie that forgets the notion of context to simply expose us to 127 minutes of nonstop suffering, reducing its figure to a slaughterhouse victim in the horror movie that apparently was the end of his life.
The film stars Jim Caviezel as Christ, arguably the ideal casting for this role; with piercing eyes and a gentle face, he embodies the necessary qualities to portray such a divine figure, even apart from dialogue and interaction (though the movie gives him little to work with that way). As the movie opens, Jesus is cornered by a group of priests who have come to arrest him for heresy, after he is sold out by his friend Judas (Luca Lionello). Apostles attempt to protect him from the ambush, but Jesus submits calmly to their arrest; after being teased and taunted along a journey back to Jerusalem, he is then put on trial, where he is asked one key question that inevitably sentences him to death for blasphemy: “Are you the son of God?” And so begins a long and unending foray into the final 12 hours of Christ’s life, which involve him being chained, starved, beaten, sliced open with razor whips, allowed to bleed out and then tormented cruelly as he must carry his own instrument of death – a giant wooden cross – to the top of a distant hill and through crowded streets of morbid onlookers.
In between many of these lengthy exposures to violence are the silent, sobbing acknowledgments of Christ’s friends and loved ones, each of whom are left powerless in an eyewitness account of their figure being mauled beyond ordinary comprehension. Some of their reactions, as brief as they are, are plausibly moving; Maia Morgenstern does a good job of playing Mary, whose eyes swell with tears while her lip must remain stiff, and Monica Bellucci is heartbreaking as Mary Magdalen, especially as she faces the realization of losing her greatest protector. So haunting are their faces that one wishes we could spend more time with them, comprehending the gravity of their loss from more psychological implications. And then, in a brief moment, the movie even offers up a morsel of possibility when it flashes back to a moment between Christ and his mother, which shows them in more joyous times. Why is it there? One could argue that in a different time, well before Gibson overwhelmed his screenplay with chaos, that an actual story was being developed here – one that included ideas, dialogue, characterization and exposition. In their staunch support, some suggest there is no need for any of these, because the director’s intent is to bypass the details that are already well known to arrive at the moment of his great surrender. Those are the sorts of people who have no business making movies.
No endeavor about this event was ever going to restrain itself in bloodshed. So frequently and insistent are the details about Jesus’ death that they have painted vivid portraits in many a mind, even those that don’t deal directly with his teachings. But just as we charge, say, a horror movie with building us up to the frenzy of a graphic act, doesn’t Gibson have a responsibility to deal, even at face value, with the moral circumstance of his subject? The violence that Jesus undergoes for two hours is utterly reprehensible, but worse yet it is graphic with no psychological entry. That makes it gross instead of sad, depressing instead of shocking, and useless instead of relevant. And some of it, I wager, is so exhaustingly cruel that it creates distinctive logical divides. If we must believe, indeed, that the son of God was susceptible to the fate of ordinary human beings, that means his body too must have had physiological limitations. So much blood is spilled here that it defies realism. How did he not lose consciousness from so much blood loss? By the point of his ascent towards crucifixion, wouldn’t his body have already fallen into shock, if not immediate death? The movie is so obsessed with these violent implications that it even foregoes artistic consistency, particularly in a final act that shows Christ dropping his cross in slow motion at least half a dozen times. The moment is replayed not for visceral effect, but for perverse enjoyment.
The fact that all of this transpires in the shell of a film that is highly stylized and drenched in impeccable production values creates added ambiguity. Should such qualities at least be applauded? Shouldn’t we allow technical triumphs to rise above limitations with source material? My feelings are that a subject this heavy can only be a detriment to the work of the technical wizards; they are putting their sweat into a project that diminishes them for the pleasure of an unending visual assault. It certainly didn’t have to be this way, and it’s not as if the story of the crucifixion hasn’t produced already stirring endeavors over the course of the last hundred years. Think of a plethora of biblical film adaptations that deal with the source, either directly or marginally; what do they have in common beyond their subject matter? Even ineffectual projects are done in the spirit of sincerity. For most filmmakers, the existence of such a figure is the catalyst to consider one’s own purpose – to think about the impact our decisions have on others, how we can accept differences of opinion, and how important it is to live by universal mantras of love, freedom and goodwill. “The Passion of the Christ” is not a realization of any of those standards. It is a scare tactic. And by the end of Gibson’s strange fascination with Christ’s intense and wordless suffering, one is left with the image of a director caught in ecstasy of his own brutal display of power – something that I suspect might contradict the thinking of the man that died for our sins in the first place.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Historical (US); 2004; Rated R; Running Time: 127 Minutes
Jim Caviezel: Jesus
Maia Morgenstern: Mary
Christo Jivkov: John
Francesco De Vito: Peter
Monica Bellucci: Magdalen
Produced by Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, Stephen McEveety and Enzo Sisti; Directed by Mel Gibson; Written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson