All Agony and No Ecstasy in Mel's Passion
By Fernando F. Croce

After months of hand-wringing and heated rumblings -- everything from anti-Semitism to homophobia to voyeuristic violence -- The Passion of the Christ has opened, and the world didn't end. In fact, I haven't heard of any picketing getting in the way of the film's smooth sail to socko box-office numbers (more than $100 million in its first weekend). So much for a "risky" project whose vision was supposedly so uncompromising that it might jeopardize the Hollywood future of its millionaire creator, actor Mel Gibson.

If I come off as unduly cynical by focusing on audience numbers when nothing less than the man's faith is on the table, I hasten to add that massive attendance has probably always been among the bigger concerns surrounding the project. All the much-publicized hoopla prior to the movie's release, including Gibson's strenuously diligent striving for period authenticity (like having characters speaking ancient Aramaic, which J. Hoberman quipped sounded more like Elvish), was part of a strategy to bring paying viewers in, believers and nonbelievers alike. I don't doubt Gibson's sincerity in what he says in his film (or at least in what he thinks he says), but I think it is na´ve to see The Passion of the Christ as an oasis of immaculate faith rising out of the soulless jungle of Hollywood. Here is a movie that is, after all, upfront about being not just an account of the pain and death of Jesus, but THE account of the pain and death of Jesus -- the crucifixion to end all crucifixions, in glorious Technicolor, that will shock faith into all ye sinners. Cecil B. DeMille would have dug that hook.

DeMille was, in fact, one of the first filmmakers to realize the inherent cinematic potential of the Stations of the Cross in his 1927 The King of Kings. D.W. Griffith and other pioneers did it well before him, followed by filmmakers as varied as William Wyler, George Stevens, Nicholas Ray, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Martin Scorsese, and Denys Arcand. (And I'm not even counting the unofficial Calvary portrayals found in works by Luis Bu˝uel, Frank Capra, Sergio Leone and Abel Ferrara, to say nothing of Sylvester Stallone.) The effectiveness of these versions flunctuated variously, but they were mostly satisfied to leave the unspeakable agony of the cross to the imagination.

No such maidenly restraint for Gibson. Jesus (played here by James Caviezel, in a physically expressive but charisma-free performance) here is repeatedly punched in the face, spat on, flung about like a rag doll, and has his limbs dislocated -- that's before the first spike is driven into his palms. No physical detail is too small for the lenses: when the crown of thorns is placed in Jesus' head, it is pressed down into his scalp in a mega close-up. In what is surely the most protracted flagellation sequence in film history, Christ is flayed by bestial Roman soldiers donning hook-studded whips until his body is but a mass of bloodied, torn skin. By the time flesh is being hammered onto wood, audiences' wish for the horror to just end will outdo Jesus'.

Granted, The Passion of the Christ expresses the physical ordeal Jesus went through in his final hours with more present-tense immediacy than any other Biblical film. Unfortunately, Gibson's filmmaking, as monolithically single-minded as his Catholic fundamentalist beliefs, fails to connect flesh with soul. A purity of style is needed to project the transcendence and rapture of religious feelings onto celluloid -- Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard (whose Hail Mary, a work of far greater depth and spirituality, was greeted with the kind of hostility deserved by The Passion) had it. Gibson, by contrast, is just doing an extended, bizarrely displaced reenactment of his own disembowelment at the end of Braveheart, full of slowed-down action, cathedral lighting, wailing choruses and LucasFilm SFX.

For all its willed emphasis on the transforming aspects of corporeal suffering, the movie is doggedly earthbound, weighted down by Gibson's morbid fascination with Jesus as a human punching bag. Narrowing the focus of the story of Jesus down to his agonizing martyrdom should not necessarily reduce him any more than Dreyer reduced Joan of Arc by focusing only on her trial and death at the stake in his immortal The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). However, by lavishing so much time on Christ's death (we only see brief glimpses of his life in quick flashbacks), Gibson is prone to saying that his ability to withstand the cross is what should be remembered, rather than his love and compassion, his teachings and ideological radicalism.

Born and raised as a Roman Catholic, I believe anybody can have his or her own view of the Gospel. If Gibson wants to have the Pharisees glower like bad guys in a silent film, it's his right. If he wants to slash Mary and Magdalene into sobbing cameos while expanding hands-washing Pilates into a sensitively conflicted leader, I say go for it. If he wants to have Satan slink around like the brother/sister of the Robert Blake weirdo from Lost Highway, well more power to him. What worries me is that so many people will take the film as the Holy Writ, when it is really about as spiritual as Gladiator. If using Christ's name to create this kind of oppressive, reductive exploitation isn't a sin, then it should be.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on March 7, 2004.

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