It’s a motion picture that won’t ultimately add up to most audiences — outside of those already converted — but it remains a vivid and original creation regardless of its flaws. Thundering into theaters with the level of hype that usually accompanies a “Star Wars” movie, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” 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 experience.
Opening at Judas’s 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’s 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, as well as blowing all other Jesus films away with its ruthless eye and Gibson’s unwavering belief that, well, more is more.
Most other adaptations of Jesus’s life tend to tell the whole story; taking Jesus from birth to death, the audience is allowed 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 part 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’s miracles and gospels over his 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’s sermons to his followers, but the rest of the film is devoted to bloodshed and suffering. “Passion” feels incomplete without seeing more of Jesus at work, and even though the tale has been covered hundreds of times on film (much like heist movies and pictures about high school girls recently), the entire movement of his life is essential if there is to be an emotional jolt at the nailing of Jesus’s 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 even through Jesus’s perspective, but those seen through the eyes of Mary, Jesus’s mother, intensely played by Maia Morgenstern. The actress 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’ve also saved the film from the anti-Semitic overtones it’s been plagued with. The Jewish characters are clearly a part of the engineering behind the crucifixion of Jesus, and in “Passion” are depicted as mercilessly so. 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 such dimensions, along with the Roman guards, who Gibson ultimately reduces to a mob of gorillas to make his “bad guy” point with a big Sharpie underlining. I wouldn’t say “Passion” is anti-Semitic or hateful, just 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’s 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’s 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, say, 15 years-old to see this film should have child protection services called on them immediately. Not only is the film caked in blood and intensely vicious, 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. That’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’ll feel the spirituality and the depth of the story outside of the already converted and Mr. Gibson himself is a mystery to me.Rating: C