Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a demanding movie but not for reasons you might expect given the outcry in the media over its violence. The violence, as graphic as it is, is quite appropriate to the material and, frankly, not that repellent in an age when we’re bludgeoned with far worse in our movie culture. No, Gibson’s movie is demanding for reasons more essential to its storytelling.
The story itself is simple: Jesus is arrested by the Jewish priests because they see him as a threat to their power. After a severe beating, they take him to Pilate, the local Roman governor, and demand that Pilate condemn him. Pilate just wants peace and order, and he doesn’t find cause in Jesus’ message and his actions to warrant any politically sanctioned punishment. To appease the Jewish elders, he has Jesus flogged–in a particularly brutal sequence–to a broken, battered pulp. When even that doesn’t sway the priests, he sends him to Herod who also sees in Jesus little cause to fret over. He shoos Jesus away. Still, the priests demand his crucifixion. Pilate’s now in a real pickle, fed up as he is with regional uprisings: he desperately wants to keep his subjects from fomenting agitation. He gives the priests a choice: either free a notorious murderer, Barrabus, or Jesus who, at worst, is a loon with a Messiah complex. They choose to free the murderer and condemn Jesus. So, Jesus picks up the cross and off he goes.
As Jesus, Caviezel takes his lashings convincingly and exudes an aptly noble presence. Gibson’s direction, however, is prone to frequent shows of dramatic silliness: His representation of Satan, for example, as a hooded, androgynous creature, slithering along the edges of this story eying Jesus with a mix of malice and seductiveness, is just too broad to take seriously — more in keeping with a comic-book villain than a truly captivating personifications of evil. And what’s with that hideous man-child Satan’s toting around? These are simply unfortunate decisions on Gibson’s part that undermine the emotionally resonant material that forms the backbone of his story.
The political aspects of Jesus’ persecution are also very sketchily developed: the Jewish priests, for instance, are but caricatures, and Herod is but a preening she-male. Gibson never delves deeper into the issues of Jesus as a Jewish threat. I realize that may be overstepping the bounds of The Passion but, having said that, those very bounds restrict the dramatic obligations of this material. To simply depict the torture of Christ is not enough to support a feature length movie: it makes Gibson’s devotion seem fetishistic, obsessed with the gory physical details of torture and crucifixion.
In his defense, however, The Passion is not anti-Semitic. Gibson’s script is actually quite balanced: true, the Jewish priests are absolutely villainous (drawn rather like farcical Shylocks). But there also are so many sympathetically portrayed Jews–whether believers or just average citizens — absolutely mortified by the treatment inflicted on a peaceful man. The question of anti-Semitism is irrelevant and ill-placed here. On that note, Gibson’s portrayal of his Roman torturers is just as cartoonish as that of the Jewish priests so, in a sense, the two balance each other out.
The worse thing about The Passion is its haphazard script with respect to its politics and its character development. Jesus is not adequately humanized, or really fleshed out beyond this angelic presence who constantly utters profound aphorisms to his disciples. I wanted more from Gibson, particularly because Caviezel is so clearly dedicated to this material. It’s a disservice to Caviezel and also to the rest of Gibson’s terrific cast that their roles and interrelationships are not fully and compellingly developed.
Again, this is not the purpose of The Passion: It assumes that the viewer is already intimately aware of these details as prerequisite to watching the movie. But, on the level of storytelling on film (which is the standard that Gibson should be accountable to, at least from a film critic’s viewpoint), it’s a fatal flaw. The only dynamic that is truly affecting, and fully developed, is the one drawn between Jesus and his mother. It is devastating to see her anguish as she watches her son go to his death. It’s an elemental relationship that anyone can immediately latch on to despite the flaws in The Passion’s script. Maia Morgenstern’s performance is tremendous, transcending Gibson’s sparse material.
Rather than dwell on the minutiae of torture and suffering, Gibson should’ve more keenly focused on the history and politics surrounding Jesus’ death, as well as on character and backstory, and on the resounding and life-affirming message that Christ wanted to convey. In short, Gibson’s passion is all over this film, and his faithfulness to text is admirable, but his resorting to mawkish, superficial tactics blows the tone off-course from time to time. Still, the marvelous cast thoroughly devoted to the material compensates, setting Gibson’s material right and redeeming it ultimately.
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson, Benedict Fitzgerald
Cast: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Hristo Jivkov, Francesco De Vito, Monica Bellucci