(Originally posted on 3/12/04)
Sick. That’s the simplest way to describe Mel Gibson’s medieval mutilation film The Passion of the Christ. Other ways would be: execrable, disquieting, and shameful. Gibson’s film, based on a mixture of the Gospels and the prophesies of 18th century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerick, dramatizes Christ’s last twelve hours on earth as a sadistic nightmare of beatings, humiliations, beatings, agony, and more beatings. The overwhelmingly graphic violence inflicted upon Jesus -- in the film’s signature Scourging middle section, he’s flayed until his body becomes a bloody patchwork quilt of grisly wounds -- is depicted with fetishistic fervor. The implication, it seems, is that Christ’s teachings of generosity, altruism, and kindness aren’t nearly as important to Gibson’s reactionary brand of Catholic faith as are the gruesome details of his suffering. It’s as if we were back in the 1300s.
Gibson, who has always been on the hit-you-over-the-head side of the directorial spectrum, has legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel shoot most of this unpleasantness in gorgeously composed, voyeuristic slow motion so we can revel in every piece of torn flesh and sprayed drop of blood. This interminable lingering on physical agony -- although expertly shot in lush browns and grays by first-rate cinematographer Caleb Deschanel -- is nothing short of depraved. Why, one can’t help but wonder, is the crucifixion not enough? Why does Gibson seem to feel that Jesus’ sacrifice only really matters if it was accompanied by not just pain, but unholy viciousness? And why has Gibson decided to supplement this mayhem with horror movie rejects like a bald, androgynous Satan (played by Rosalinda Celentano) and some ghoulish demon children?
Sporadic soft-focus flashbacks provide pre-game highlights -- the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, Jesus palling around with Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and saving Madame Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) from a rocky death. Yet these fleeting interruptions from the film’s crucifixion fixation fail to convey why Jesus was so captivating to his followers and so intimidating to the powers-that-be. As written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Gibson (and portrayed by Jim Caviezel with his eyes perpetually rolled up into his forehead), Jesus is a cipher of no dramatic interest. Gibson, uninterested in taking a detour away from his crimson-stained spectacle to provide some context, lazily takes for granted that audiences will come to the film already knowledgeable about Jesus’ life. Unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the film doesn’t present Jesus as a fallible (or even three-dimensional) individual. He’s just a punching bag for Roman whips and swords.
Then, of course, there’s the film’s rabid anti-Semitism, which turns what might have been merely a nauseating sermon into a preeminent example of 21st century hate-mongering. Despite the film’s supposed dedication to factual accuracy -- such as all that authentic Aramaic and Latin dialogue, and the script’s supposed adherence to the Gospels -- we’re given a troubled Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shapov) who’s uneasy about condemning Jesus. This is not just an artistic liberty; it’s fiction. The way history remembers it, Pilate so loved crucifixions that he was reviled by his fellow Romans and eventually had to be removed from his Palestinian post by the Empire.
Whereas Gibson transforms Pilate into a sensitive, sympathetic soul, he makes sure that the Jewish priests (led by Mattia Sbragia’s Caiphas) are stereotypical hook-nosed, money-grubbing demons driven by a single-minded desire to kill Christ. In the process, he simply ignores the Gospels’ varying (and therefore inconclusive) accounts of Jewish culpability in Christ’s death, the Vatican II absolution of the Jews as Christ-killers, or that Jesus was actually ordained to die on the cross not by a specific group of humans, but by God himself. The Jews are clearly meant to be the film’s nominal villains, cravenly calling for crucifixion, pressuring Pilate to acquiesce to their bloodthirsty demands, and then gleefully watching his torture and demise.
In response to the wave of controversy surrounding the film, Gibson took out the English translation for the film’s most controversial line (from Matthew 27:25: “His blood be on us and our children,") at the last minute. Nonetheless, given how well this sentiment complements the director’s odious agenda, he may as well have left the subtitle in. In Gibson’s Passion, Roman cruelty (personified by the brutish thugs who whip Jesus raw) is counterbalanced by Pilate’s uneasiness over punishing Christ. With the exception of a few peripheral, nameless characters, however, Jews are portrayed with no such subtlety or nuance. They’re simply ferocious monsters who want Jesus dead.
After Jesus has been hoisted up on the cross and Gibson’s opportunity to depict more physical punishment against his martyr messiah has passed, a crow swoops down from the sky and pecks out the eye of another crucified criminal. In its gratuitousness, this final violent moment perfectly encapsulates the director’s appalling fascination with bloodshed. Worse, by using The Passion of the Christ to resurrect the notion that Jews killed Christ, Mel Gibson has (wittingly or unwittingly) added more fuel to the newly emboldened anti-Semitism currently raging throughout Europe and the Middle East. In the process, he’s made his reprehensible film a truly lethal weapon