Passion of the Christ: By Mel Gibson

Easily the most controversial film to have come out of Hollywood in a long time, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a visually bold, relentlessly violent epic that suffers from a shallow, undernourished narrative. Indeed, there’s a considerable gap between Gibson’s spiritual and artistic intent and the overall emotional impact of the film.

In my interview with Gibson, he stated bluntly: “My intention for this film was to create a lasting work of art and to stimulate thought and reflection among diverse audiences of all backgrounds.” While it’s premature to determine the film’s “lasting” artistic merits, the amazing thing about The Passion is that it has stirred controversies and has been condemned by various groups—not just Jews—sight unseen.

Judging by what’s depicted onscreen, the scope of the text is rather narrow, amounting to a brutally graphic portrayal of the last twelve hours in Jesus’s life. A composite account of The Passion assembled from the four Biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the screenplay was co-written by Gibson (who also functions as producer) and Benedict Fitzgerald, who had written other controversial films such as John Huston’s Wise Blood.

The story opens in the Garden of Olives (Gethsemane), where Jesus of Nazareth has gone to pray for the Last Supper and where he resists the temptations of Satan (Portrayed by actress Rosalinda Celentano with no eyebrows and a maggot in her nose and conveying a sexually ambiguous image). Betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Jesus is arrested and taken back to Jerusalem where the leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy. His trial results in a condemnation to death, which Jesus embraces with love.

The vast majority of screen time is taken by the crucifixion, a long, painful, gory process that’s portrayed in such brutal and graphic details that eyebrows were raised in Hollywood when the film received R rating, and not the more restrictive NC-17. The Passion is a prime example to the double standards that operate in Hollywood when it comes to film’s two most inflammatory issues: sex and violence. Nudity cannot be shown on screen (Bertolucci’s The Dreamers was slapped last month with the punishing NC-17), but extremely violent movies, such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill—Vol.1 and now The Passion, can get away with R rating.

It’s too bad that Gibson decided not to dwell on the intricate historical and political context, for The Passion provides background that has not been seen in previous religious epics. Hence, when Jesus is brought to Pilate, Palestine’s Roman Governor, the latter listens to the accusations, but, realizing he’s confronting a major political conflict, Pilate defers to King Herod in the matter. However, fearful of the consequences himself, Herod returns Jesus to Pilate, who then gives the crowd a choice between condemning Jesus or the criminal Barrabas. Displaying a primal lynching mood, the mob chooses to set Barrabas free and condemn Jesus.

The film’s most narrowly stereotypical portrait is not of the Jewish characters, such as Mary the Virgin (played by the Romanian-Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern) or Caiphas the High Priest, but of the Roman soldiers, who come across as sadistic Barbarians with whips and nails. Presenting an already tortured Jesus to the crowds, as if to say, “Is this not enough,” Pilate washes his hands of the bitter dilemma and hands over Jesus to the Roman soldiers, ordering them “Do as the crowd wishes.”

All of the intriguing events are presented in the first reels. The second half of the film, by far the weaker, is a step-by-step (literally) depiction of the crucifixion, as Jesus is ordered to carry the Cross through the streets of Jerusalem all the way up to Golgotha. The excruciatingly brutal journey is interspersed with flashbacks of the young, handsome Jesus and his preaching for love, forgiveness, and redemption. However, Gibson misses the opportunity to describe what exactly in Jesus’ preaching made his sermons revolutionary, deviant, and (for some) blasphemous. As writer-director, Gibson commits another error by turning Mary Magdalene (played by the beautiful Italian Monica Bellucci) into a silent character with no personality—or dialogue—of her own.

In the concluding act, The Passion opts to be a more intimate family drama. Undergoing his last temptation—the fear that he has been abandoned by his Father—Jesus overcomes his fear, looks at Mary, his Holy Mother, and makes the pronouncement which only she can fully understands, “it is accomplished.” He then dies “into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and at this moment of truth, nature itself overturns.

Aiming for authenticity, The Passion is entirely subtitled. For the first time in a Hollywood religious epic, all the characters are heard speaking the languages they would actually have spoken at the time. This means Aramaic for the Jewish characters, including Jesus and his disciples, and “street Latin” for the Romans. Contrary to popular notion, Greek is not so relevant to the story since it was mostly spoken by intellectuals.

Filmed in Italy, The Passion was mostly shot in two locations. The crucifixion scenes were filmed in the beautiful city of Matera, in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy, where the Pier Paolo Pasolini shot The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1965), one of the most interesting films ever made about Jesus. The second location is a single mammoth set of Jerusalem (shot at the famous Cinecita Studios on the outskirts of Rome), reconstructed by production designer Francesco Frigeri and set decorator Carlo Gervasi.

The most impressive dimension of The Passion is its visual look, inspired by the religious work of famous artists. Director Gibson has specifically instructed his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel (who had shot Gibson’s star vehicle, The Patriot) to make the movie look like the paintings of Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio, whose images display a lifelike glow from sharp contrasts of light and darkness—and are imbued by both spirituality and violence.

There’s no doubt that The Passion is a personal film that bears intense spiritual meaning for Gibson. Like other filmmakers, Gibson seems to have channeled deeply personal anxieties and beliefs into his film. The commitment to make The Passion stems from a personal crisis about 12 years ago that found Gibson on the verge of suicide, forcing him to reexamine his own faith, and in particular to mediate upon the nature of suffering, pain, forgiveness, and redemption.

This personal dimension should not elevate the film—or exempt it from rigorous and detached criticism—but it might indicate a new path for Gibson as movie star and director. The movies that made Gibson an international—bankable in Hollywood jargon—star are the Mad Max movies and the Lethal Weapon buddy-action pictures of the 1980s. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Gibson’s last directorial effort was the 1995 Oscar-winning epic Braveheart, which brought to life a rebellious hero of Scotland’s thirteenth century, or that in his 2002 thriller Signs, he played Reverend Graham Hess, a man who confronts an alien invasion—and his own crisis of faith.

Ultimately, what’s disappointing about The Passion is the gap that prevails between its level of intent and level of execution. Intellectually speaking, the film is rather slender in ideas and characters, carrying itself mostly through a spectacle of images and sounds. Moreover, Gibson’s rendition of the story—and Jesus’ sermons—is so basic that audiences of different creeds will be able to read into the film and interpret its messages according to their own belief systems. Not surprisingly, the film is extremely divisive not only within the Jewish community, including some who perceive it as anti-Semitic (See Sidebar below), but also within various Christian groups.

There seems to be a consensus, however, that though Gibson has put his heart, soul and money—the budget is estimated at 25 million dollars—he is also one of the shrewdest filmmakers around when it comes to promoting his epic. Benefiting from a controversy that began even before the film went into production, The Passion is using a very savvy and expensive marketing campaign that will see the film play on unprecedented number of screens (about 2000) and positions it not just as a religious epic but as a must-see media event.