The Passion of the Christ (Review)

YOU GET inured to graphic images in this job. As a film critic I've had thousands, perhaps millions, of violent scenes imprinted on my retina. But I can't recall a movie that has depicted torture in such lavish, fetishistic and excruciating detail as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

The Passion of the Christ (Review)

YOU GET inured to graphic images in this job. As a film critic I've had thousands, perhaps millions, of violent scenes imprinted on my retina. But I can't recall a movie that has depicted torture in such lavish, fetishistic and excruciating detail as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Much of the controversy around the film has focused on religious issues - from charges of anti-Semitism to concerns that Gibson is rallying the Christian right with a literal interpretation of the Bible. But what's most astonishing about The Passion is that it's so luridly secular. Gibson has made a movie about flesh, not spirit - flesh that's kicked, beaten, flayed, punctured and lacerated for what seems like an eternity. Those sacramental items, the body and the blood, acquire a whole new meaning, one that owes more to Hollywood splatter movies than the Gospels. I'm not sure Jews ought to feel offended by The Passion, but Christians should. Anyone stepping into this movie from another planet, knowing nothing about Christianity, would assume it's a barbaric cult of blood sacrifice.

Right-wing Christians tend to regard Hollywood as a snakepit of carnal pleasures, a soulless dream machine tempting us with images of sex and violence. Gibson, however, appears to have made a deal with the devil. Although he's said he feels his movie was directed by none other than the Holy Ghost (I can't wait for the director's cut), it's more like the work of a sorcerer's apprentice, conjuring buckets of blood in the name of the Lord. Biblical epics, from Ben-Hur to The Robe, have always wielded a double-edged sword, titillating us with loincloth nudity and gory mutilation, then soothing our inflamed souls with the salve of spiritual redemption. But those sword-and-sandal movies exploited religious faith in the name of entertainment. With The Passion, it's the other way around.

The movie covers the last 12 hours of Christ's life. And to magnify his torment, Gibson pulls out every cliché of Hollywood melodrama - from the opening scene in the Garden of Olives, where spooky suspense music indicates that Jesus is about to have a very bad day, to the Demon Seed leer of a child in the arms of an androgynous Satan.

The problem with The Greatest Story Ever Told is that we know how it ends. The truly devoted still love to relive it over and over again, as a form of armchair worship, which is why there's such a lucrative trade in rapture movies made-to-order for the Christian market. That's why producer Garth Drabinsky's Christian-financed The Gospel of John found a healthy audience last year despite a plodding script that's a word-for-word replica of the Scripture. And the makers of the 1979 film Jesus claim that 5.6 billion people have seen it (counting repeat customers), although I've never met any of them.

By focusing on Christ's final hours, The Passion leaves out The Greatest Story's most familiar touchstones - the miracles, which are usually trotted out as a litany of greatest hits. Jesus, portrayed with stoic conviction by Jim Caviezel, is barely a character; as the movie progresses, he's reduced to an icon of raw physical suffering. Gibson occasionally breaks from the torture to indulge in cozy, backlit flashbacks - including a wacky conversation between Jesus and his mother about a table he's built. Mary (Maia Morgenstern) asks her carpenter son why he made the table so tall. He says it's for rich folk, who like to sit up high. And as this joking Jesus shares a laugh with Mary, it's as if he's just a regular guy who loves his mom but happens to be the Son of God. For most of the film, Mary simply looks on in anguished silence as her boy accepts his fate. Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) has a similar role. As for Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), a hooded creature with no eyebrows and a snake under his or her robe, he or she is just a tease, like an apparition from an Ingmar Bergman movie. The real villain is Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia), the Jewish high priest who sics a lynch mob on Jesus. Whether or not the movie is anti-Semitic, one can see how his character might inflame anti-Jewish sentiment.

The only compelling drama in The Passion turns on the indecision displayed by Pontius Pilate, who's portrayed with intriguing complexity by Bulgarian actor Hristo Naumov Shopov. But story gives way to spectacle as Pilate delivers Jesus to a gang of Roman skinheads, who beat the bejesus out of him with a grisly arsenal of whips and scourges, turning his body into a crazy quilt of blood. Horror congeals into tedium as the torture goes on and on, continuing through the interminable dead-man-walking march with the cross, until Christ's arms are wrenched out of their sockets and the camera closes in for the money shot - spikes being hammered through His hands in Dolby stereo.

Gibson swears all this happened. I'm still looking for the place in the Bible where a crow plucks out the eye of the bad thief on the cross next to Jesus. But that's not the point. I have no quarrel with filmmakers tweaking, even wildly transforming, fiction or non-fiction for the sake of art. What's maddening is Gibson's preposterous claim that his pageant of sadism accurately represents both the Gospels and history itself. The special-effects gore in The Passion is a device, and all it represents is the filmmaker's desire to provoke a visceral reaction. Gibson is an old hand at this. As the star of blood-drenched epics such as Braveheart and The Patriot, he's experienced at channelling gore into sentiment. Martyrdom seems to be his thing. Even in his more comic roles, as Mad Max and Lethal Weapon's Martin Riggs, he reveals a taste for self-flagellation.

But as he tortures his Jesus (and his audience) with The Passion, Gibson is using cruelty to induce a spiritual response. It's doubtful that he'll convert any non-believers. At best, the movie invites a kind of voyeurism among ordinary moviegoers. As with pornography, curiosity soon gives way to revulsion, then boredom. A lot of landmark Hollywood blockbusters, from E.T. to Titanic, achieve a transcendence utterly lacking in The Passion. Yet despite the excoriating reviews, I keep running into people who are dying to see it for themselves. Mel's medicine show has become a media event, a potent mixture of celebrity, religion and snake oil.

The busloads of evangelical Christians (and schoolchildren) who are being urged to see The Passion as an act of faith will be exposed to levels of screen violence utterly foreign to their experience, the kind of torturous cruelty seen only in hard-core genre films. A lot of them will also be seeing their first subtitled movie. With all the dialogue in Latin and Aramaic, Gibson adds a mysterious patina of authenticity. (Never mind that those imperial skinheads would have spoken a dialect of Greek, not Latin.) Actually, what I liked best about the film was the strange sound of the language. America should make more blockbusters in Aramaic and Latin.

The Passion is undeniably exotic. How often do you get to see an American foreign-language blockbuster directed by a Hollywood fanatic on a mission from God? After all the savage reviews, we can only wait for the backlash, for someone like Quentin Tarantino to proclaim Mad Mel a genius. To give Gibson credit, with The Passion he's passionately striving for art, trying to paint the modern equivalent of a Caravaggio canvas on an actor's body. But in a world engulfed by holy war, it's one scary picture.

Maclean's March 8, 2004