Mel Gibson's Religious Labor of Love Proves Mostly Labored
For all the controversy that has raged over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ this winter, the final, released version of the film is anti-Semitic in only the mildest ways. The stereotyping routinely aimed at African-Americans and Middle Easterners in Hollywood releases is as bad as anything directed at Jews here. And given how boring Gibson's movie is, prejudice is the least of its problems.
In fact, the pre-release debate over The Passion of the Christ provided far more drama than the film itself. The discussion, after all, involved real ideas and true give-and-take--two qualities missing from the movie. Moreover, the debate wasn't hampered by James Caviezel's wooden acting nor by John Debney's soporific synthesizer score.
Caviezel plays Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century, itinerant preacher in the Roman colony of Palestine. This son of a Galilean carpenter advocated nonviolence, gender equality, and the redistribution of wealth, thus getting on the wrong side of the colony's political and religious leaders. But Gibson, the action hero who directed and co-wrote this new film, never mentions the social-reform aspects of the Nazarene's preaching. Instead, Gibson emphasizes Jesus' mysticism, as if it were his vague, New Age pronouncements that antagonized the local rulers.
The movie opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where the heavy-handed nature of Gibson's direction is immediately apparent. The grove of olive trees is bathed in a cobalt-blue mist--to make sure we don't miss the melancholy mood--except for a single shaft of golden light that happens to fall where Jesus is kneeling. And to make sure you understand just how much this meditating figure is suffering, Caviezel shakes his hands as uncontrollably as a histrionic, silent-movie actor.
Why does Jesus feel so overwrought? Gibson never bothers to tell us. Maybe the filmmaker wants to avoid the whole issue of whether his protagonist was a worldly reformer or an otherworldly messenger. Or maybe he assumes that everyone in the audience has memorized the New Testament and that the director's only responsibility is to illustrate those verses as vividly as possible. In either case, Gibson and his co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald abandon the basic requirements of storytelling--giving the characters credible motivations and real choices.
Judas (Luca Lionello--like most of the supporting cast, a European actor all but unknown in the States) strides into the garden with a troop of Jewish soldiers, who arrest Jesus and drag him off to an impromptu midnight trial before a court of stern rabbis in long, salt-and-pepper beards. Why do the rabbis hate him so? And why does Jesus respond so stoically? Again, Gibson never bothers to explain. There's a conviction on trumped-up charges, and the rabbis haul Jesus to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the only person who can pronounce a death penalty. Pilate seems reluctant to side with either Jesus or the rabbis, but Gibson never explains why.
Pilate orders that Jesus be scourged almost to death, in hopes that that will satisfy the rabbis without turning Jesus into a martyr. Now, at last, we're in the arena of blood and guts, territory where the director of Braveheart feels at home. His protagonist is chained to a stone and two madly cackling Roman soldiers attack him with thin, peeled branches and then with leather strips tied to beads and razors. Gibson's camera zooms in with pornographic fascination to record each time the skin is sliced open, peeled off, or gouged out. As the scene goes on and on, it produces a strange reaction. On the one hand, it's physically repulsive and riveting, for never has a flogging been so painstakingly documented. On the other hand, it's emotionally underwhelming, for the screenwriters have never given us a chance to understand why the victim is being punished so, or why we should care one way or the other. Maybe Gibson thinks it's enough to call him Jesus, but we're never convinced that Caviezel, a second-rate Hollywood hunk, is even a first-century Semite, much less one capable of inspiring such fear and hatred.
After that, it's more of the same. A crown of thorns is pressed into Jesus' head, and he is forced to carry a cross made from two heavy logs through the streets of Jerusalem and up Mount Calvary, where his hands and feet are nailed to the logs with giant iron spikes. Every so often, a disconnected flashback returns us to Jesus' earlier life, but these interruptions are more distracting than illuminating.
All the dialogue is delivered in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin with English subtitles, and Gibson has obviously gone to great lengths to get the architecture, costumes, and milieu of the time and place just right. But his devotion to realism suffers several telling lapses. For one thing, all the Jews in the film bear obviously Semitic features except for Jesus, his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern), and his disciple Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci, best known here from the Matrix sequels). These three have classical Aryan features even though they are just as Jewish as their neighbors. And not only does Gibson feel compelled to present a physical manifestation of Satan, but the director gives the devil the pale, effeminate mien of a gay stereotype.
All this would be a lot more worrisome if The Passion of the Christ weren't so deadly dull. But it is. Evangelical Christians may flock to the box office out of a sense of duty and might even be able to convince themselves that the absent character development and gratuitous violence don't really matter. No one with the slightest bit of skepticism, however, should find this movie the least bit interesting.