Months before anyone had ever seen a final cut of The Passion of the Christ, the hullabaloo was already in full voice: “It’s anti-Semitic propaganda!” “It’s a beautiful expression of religious belief!” “Mel’s dad is a Nazi nutcase!” “The Christian-hating media are out to sabotage Mel’s movie!”
Simmer down, everyone. The Passion of the Christ is here, and it’s not worth all the spilled ink.
There’s no reason to believe that this film isn’t a genuine act of devotion on the part of director Mel Gibson, a conservative Roman Catholic. He poured his own money into the production and had to know that he was going to be at the center of a firestorm. But Gibson has also masterfully manipulated the controversy surrounding the film, casting himself so stridently as a persecuted man of faith that his press tour has practically become his own Way of the Cross. The nonstop coverage has all but guaranteed that people who ordinarily would never watch a religious film will see this one, little suspecting that they are in for a vaguely pretentious would-be art epic.
Gibson’s take on The Greatest Story Ever Told deals almost entirely with the final earthly hours of Jesus (Jim Caviezel). It opens with Jesus’ agony in the garden and jumps promptly into the betrayal by Judas (Luca Lionello) and Jesus’ subsequent arrest. From there, it’s on to all the most familiar touchstones from the Passion narrative—the reluctant sentencing to death by Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), the agony of the Way of the Cross, the crucifixion itself—only occasionally interrupted by flashbacks to the Last Supper and the Sermon on the Mount.
The big picture is familiar enough, but Gibson is out to make the suffering of the Savior more real than it has ever been before. And on a certain, purely visceral level, he succeeds. The Roman soldiers scourge Jesus with implements of torture that rend chunks of flesh. Blood pours from the wounds caused by the crown of thorns. This is no Passion for the squeamish.
Yet a lot of the time, it’s also far too operatic for its own good. The Passion of the Christ clocks in at around 125 minutes, but about 45 minutes of that could have been shaved off if Gibson had taken every slow-motion scene and converted it to regular speed. The Jewish high priests tooooooossss Judas his blood money. Jesus faaaaaaaaalllls to the ground beneath the burden of the cross. The result runs completely against the object of making Jesus’ torment urgently real. It’s hard to understand how a slow-motion shot of the nail piercing Jesus’ hand—accompanied by a picturesque fountain of blood—is more wince-inducing than watching the hammer fall in real time.
That’s only the most frequently recurring example of how Gibson’s penchant for melodramatic theatricality gets in the way of his goal. Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) makes regular appearances in the guise of what appears to be a Goth party kid, on one occasion carrying an equally pallid dwarf (huh?). Cackling Roman soldiers and mob-mentality Jews alike all sport identical rotting teeth, as though the very face of evil were always in need of cosmetic dentistry. The orchestrations blast out at all the most terrible moments, and a story that was supposed to be crucially real becomes—well, just a movie.
If anything feels surprisingly real in The Passion of the Christ, it’s the pain of Jesus’ mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern). A figure of patient saintliness in most biblical yarns, Mary here feels for the first time like exactly what she is: A mother watching her son literally torn to pieces. As dutifully as Jim Caviezel groans and wails as Jesus, his suffering feels like Method overkill next to Morgenstern’s ashen face of maternal terror.
As for the alleged anti-Semitism, I suspect The Passion of the Christ will turn out to be a cinematic Rorshach test that fulfills everyone’s preconceptions. Mel-bashers will point to the machinations of high priest Caiphas and Jesus’ line placing the blame on “he who delivered me to [Pilate];” sympathetic viewers will refer to Simon, the Jewish man who helps carry Jesus’ cross, and to the Roman soldiers’ gleeful sadism. It would be time better spent if those on both sides could recognize that Gibson—faith or no faith—hasn’t made a film nearly as vibrant as all the shouting about it.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, **.5, Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Rated R