Thundering into theaters with the level of hype that usually accompanies a "Star
Wars" movie, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (IMDb listing) arrives with much
speculation on its historical accuracy, anti-Semitism, and gruesome visuals. I'm
no theologian, nor do I dare take on the Christians in terms of the spiritual
weight this film might impress on some. I'm just a critic who stands in the
corner and suggests that "Passion" might be a courageous, visceral, boldly
artistic motion picture, but that it doesn't make a very convincing dramatic
Opening at Judas' betrayal of Jesus Christ (James Caviezel, "Frequency") in the
garden of Gethsemane, "Passion" details the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus.
The film chronicles Jesus' accusation of blasphemy from the Jewish temple
leaders, to the trial overseen by a conflicted Pontius Pilate, and his eventual
torture and crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. "Passion" goes into great
visual detail on how this biblical event came to be, and blows all
other Jesus films away with its ruthless eye and Gibson's unwavering belief
that, well, more is more.
Most other adaptations of Jesus' life tend to tell the whole story; taking
Jesus from birth to death, allowing the audience to absorb the potency of his
sacrifice as well as his horrific suffering. Gibson's "Passion" does away with
the pesky life story, instead rushing like a freight train without brakes into
the horrific suffering almost immediately. After all, this is the filmmaker
who concluded his Academy-Award winning film "Braveheart" with the disemboweling
of the hero. But that moment was startling, triumphant, and grotesque all at the
same time since nearly three hours of character development preceded it.
"Passion" doesn't afford the viewer such luxuries, and for those who might be a
little fuzzy on the intricacies of the crucifixion, this film will offer no help
or deeply felt understanding of the event, only wincing and uncertainty.
It's Mel's vision after all, bravely funded by his own money to avoid studio and
political intervention, and I am deeply respectful of that. Whatever historical
or biblical inaccuracies are present could easily be forgiven since this is
Gibson's take on events, not the Bible's. Dramatically, "Passion" is in a bit of
a shambles; without the crucial composition of witnessing Jesus' miracles and
gospels over the years, the eventual payment for his deeds lacks the spiritual
punch that Gibson is bending over backwards to sell. There is brief intercutting
to the Last Supper, and one of Jesus' sermons to his followers, but the rest of
the film is devoted to bloodshed and suffering. "Passion" feels incomplete, and even though the tale has been covered
hundreds of times on film, the entire movement of his life is essential if there is to be
an emotional jolt at the nailing of Jesus' hands to the cross, the forceful
placement of the crown of thorns, or even when Jesus gives himself over to the
proceedings, knowing that he is fulfilling his destiny.
In fact, the strongest moments of the film are not from Jesus'
perspective, but from those seen through the eyes of Mary, Jesus' mother (intensely
played by Maia Morgenstern). Morgenstern portrays her character as a mother who
simply wants help her son (a child she once protected from all harm) and not the
messiah the crowd believes him to be. Three brief flashbacks are provided to see
Jesus and Mary's tender relationship from infant to man, and these are the three
best scenes in the film, providing an emotional touchstone to work from, and
involving no blood to rile up the senses.
Backstory, or at least a deeper investigation of the characters, might also have
saved the film from the anti-Semitic overtones it's been plagued with. In "Passion" the
Jewish characters are clearly a part of the engineering of the crucifixion. Pontius Pilate is
also a conspirator in the death sentence, but Gibson allows this character to be
torn over his decision, and not sure what the right course of action is to take.
The Jewish characters are not painted with this level of dimension. Neither are the Roman
guards, whom Gibson ultimately reduces to a mob of gorillas to make his "bad guy"
point. I wouldn't say "Passion" is anti-Semitic
or hateful, rather, it's oddly selective in whom it wants to depict as having a
conscience about the death of Jesus.
Finally, it's the bloodshed that makes the "Passion" stand out from its
competitors. Gibson, no stranger to brutality, has made good on his promise to
illustrate every inch of violence inflicted upon Jesus by the hands of the
Romans. Gibson doesn't flinch from showing the audience the chunks of flesh
ripped from Jesus' body as he's whipped to a bloody pulp, the agony of the
nails being driven through his palms, and the defeat of the body and mind as
Jesus continually drops to the ground, carrying the wooden cross to his fate.
That's not to mention numerous savage beatings along the way, Judas' vivid
suicide, some Nicolas Roeg-ish nightmare imagery of Satan and his influence, and
another attempt to infuse reality into this Biblical story: by having birds peck
out the eyes and bits of scalp from those crucified along with Jesus. "Passion"
is R-rated and deservedly so, and anyone thinking of bringing children under
15 should have child protection services called
on them immediately. Not only is the film caked in blood,
but it also has a touch that would make Herschell Gordon Lewis proud: gurgling
blood-spurt sound effects. Gibson's aim is to stick the audiences' face right
into the anguish. It's a bull's-eye hit with alarming precision. But without
an emotional hook or narrative spine, "Passion" quickly corrodes into an empty
experiment in shock cinema.
Putting an artistic expression of this shape and explicitness is brave of Mel
Gibson, and "The Passion of the Christ" is a profoundly felt and memorable film.
But who will feel the spirituality and the depth of the story outside of the
already converted and Mr. Gibson himself?
Filmfodder Grade: C