Passion of Christ Review

by Jonathan F. Richards (moviecritic AT prodigy DOT net)
February 27th, 2004

IN THE DARK/Jonathan Richards


Directed by Mel Gibson

In Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles

R, 126 minutes

    The Passion is an empty vessel. For emotional and dramatic impact it relies almost entirely on what the viewer brings to the theater. There is hardly any sense of character beyond what one may already have in one's head or heart. What little bits of recognizable humanity are allowed to slip in - a sermon here, a bit of frolicsome carpentry there - are soon overwhelmed by cascades of violence, and drowned in buckets of blood.

    It is not only the neglect of the character of Jesus from which this movie suffers. In writer/director/producer Mel Gibson's guilt-ridden exercise in the mortification of the flesh, nobody is seen to act out of discernible motivation. There is precious little indication of what fuels the actions of the supporting cast, Jews or Romans. The brutishness, blood lust, sadism, and bottomless hatred expressed by the priests, the mob, and the Roman soldiers are picked up in media res, assumed as an underlying truth about the human condition.

    Mr. Gibson, who won his box-office popularity in Lethal Weapon and his directorial Oscar with Braveheart, shows here that when he bleeds from his tank the impish humor that leavened those violent movies, he has nothing left with which to get the engine started. His focus here is on a graphic and visceral recreation of what he imagines must have been the physical suffering of Jesus in the hours leading up to his crucifixion. The resulting repetitious symphony of sadistic violence loses its power to move or shock, because in dramatic terms it is two hours of undifferentiated brutality. The soldiers flay and flay until Jesus's skin hangs in bloody strips from his body; then they give him his cross to bear, point him up toward Calvary, and flay some more. Again and again Jesus falls in slow motion. It's as if Gibson was so consumed with the urgency of getting the suffering across that he forgot the rest of the message.

    The movie opens in the dark, misty garden of Gethsemane, where an anguished Jesus (Jim Caviezel) awaits the betrayal and arrest he knows will come. Off in the shadows, a smirking Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) lurks and tempts. Judas arrives with a party of soldiers, and after Jesus has already identified himself to the arresting officers, Judas plants the kiss of betrayal on his master's cheek. The soldiers clap Jesus in irons and immediately set about bludgeoning him; by the time he appears before the high priest Ciaphas (Mattia Sbragia), he is covered in blood and bruises, with an eye swollen shut. Judas, horrified by what he has done, rejects his thirty pieces of silver, but it's too late for repentance; he's beset by demons, and goes and hangs himself.

    The only person for whom this movie troubles to show the inner workings of character is Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), seen here as a well-intentioned bureaucrat in the mold of a Colin Powell, desperately trying to find a compromise solution to a deteriorating situation forced upon him by others. The demonstrators are getting restless, caught up a mindless fervor we recognize as the kind of ecstatic religious extremism which fuels suicide bombings and mob violence around the world today. "Give us Barabas!" they shout, and Jesus's fate is sealed.

    But as the movie and the Gospels make clear, his fate was sealed long before. Free choice is not an element here. Jesus knows what his fate will be, and who will play what parts in it. "Not my will, but thine, be done," he prays, surrendering himself to God's plan. And by this light, the Jewish mob, and the high priest, and Pilate and the Roman soldiers and Judas and Peter are no more in control of their actions than the wind that blows through the trees of Gethsemane.

    The arguments that will rage about this movie will be centered on the issues of violence and theology. The controversy that has preceded it into theaters concerns the question of its alleged anti-Semitism. There are elements to support this charge. Christ tells Pilate that he, Pilate, has no power to condemn him: "It is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin." This can be read as naming Judas, or Ciaphas and by extension the Jews who follow him (or even God, the ultimate power behind the delivery.) It is probably no more damningly anti-Semitic than the pages of the Gospels. The more troubling issue may be why Mel Gibson has chosen this time of growing anti-Semitism in much of the world to bring this case.

    Another issue of timing that attaches to this movie is its release in a United States election year when a man who cites his born-again Christianity as perhaps his most defining credential is running for reelection to the presidency. The Passion waged a pre-release campaign of carefully controlled screenings urging church leaders to promote the movie among the faithful. The energizing of that electoral base might be coincidental, but not

    The most serious violence done by this movie may be to the image of Christianity as a positive message of love and forgiveness. A thief on a neighboring cross jeers at Jesus and immediately gets his eyes pecked out by a vengeful crow. It is a wrathful God indeed who is at work here.

    But while The Passion will succeed for some and fail for others as theology, it fails as a movie because of the single-mindedness of vision that blinds the filmmaker to the elements of storytelling a movie needs to spread its case beyond the faithful. Without that, Gibson is merely preaching to the choir.

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