- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Mel Gibson, a great one for mortifying the flesh, takes this impulse about as far as it can go in terms of brutal depiction, symbolic gravity and emotional endurance in “The Passion of the Christ.” A relentlessly excruciating re-enactment of the arrest, abuse and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the movie has been timed to open on Ash Wednesday and aspires to attract devout spectators who might ordinarily shun pictures that make a prolonged and elaborate spectacle of physical torture and suffering.

As an actor, Mr. Gibson has a vivid history of soaking up punishment dating back at least as far as “Mad Max.” In the two films previously directed by Mr. Gibson, “The Man Without a Face” and the Academy Award-winning “Braveheart,” he portrayed a modern character with a disfigured face and a medieval Scots warrior, William Wallace, who was tortured and executed after being captured by an English army. Indeed, the hearsay about “Passion” suggested a feature-length reprise of the final sequence from “Braveheart,” with the ordeal and martyrdom of Christ trumping the ordeal and martyrdom of Wallace.

This hunch may not prepare you for the sheer intensity and duration of the torture sequences in “Passion,” which purports to distill the last 12 hours of a sacred life and finds it structurally difficult to weave impressions of Christ’s ministry into a scenario calculated to dwell on visceral cruelty and pain. There are flashback snippets within the Final Act format imposed by Mr. Gibson and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald; for example, a welcome moment of domestic affection between Jim Caviezel’s Jesus and Maia Morgenstern’s Mary in the years before his messianic calling. The filmmakers also make room for fleeting reminders of the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper.

However, these episodes lack the sustained eloquence and resonance one associates with Gospel study or with such earlier biblical epics as George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” which opted for extended biography and dramatized crucial events from the Nativity to the Resurrection. The Gibson focus is extremely narrow and — let’s face it — persistently sadistic. Perhaps this emphasis was an emotional necessity for a believer who has identified himself as a celebrity sinner tormented by dissolute despair before reaffirming a belief in Christ. The presumption that Mel Gibson’s cinematic form of witness will be an edifying or transcendent perspective for every believer (or sympathetic nonbeliever) is debatable at best.

There’s not a persuasive amount of biblical authority for Mr. Gibson’s obsession with torture. As a practical matter, he has taken liberties with terse, circumspect accounts in the Gospels. For example, Luke 22: 63-65: “And the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him. And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face and asked him, saying, ‘Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?’ And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.”

John 19: 1-3 seems to be the source for singling out Pontius Pilate as the authority figure who orders the torture sessions: “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe … and they smote him with their hands.”

That’s about as explicit as the New Testament gets when describing the mistreatment. Mr. Gibson takes it upon himself to linger over beatings and rendings of the flesh. These transform Jim Caviezel’s body into a canvas of lacerations and bleeding wounds. If anything, it’s a morbidly artistic achievement for makeup supervisor Keith Vanderlan, who makes the actor resemble an abstract by Jackson Pollock, using red as the exclusive pigment.

Mr. Caviezel, whose earlier roles had emphasized soulfulness to the point of monotony, proves a stirring choice as Jesus in every scene where the character is still capable of thought or speech. There comes a point when the performance is obscured and then obliterated by simulations of physical abuse. One of the conceptual defects of the skimpy flashbacks is that they tend to emerge from Jesus’ memory as he’s being brutalized. Linked to a progressively delirious mental state, they lack the weight they should have as essential episodes in a portentous story.

An accomplished cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel of “The Black Stallion” and “The Right Stuff,” gives the historical backdrop and ominous context a consistently haunting, tactile immediacy. The opening sequence, set in the Garden of Gethsemane, is especially impressive, blending a fog-shrouded mood of apprehension with the singularity of dialogue in Aramaic, arguably the most inspired innovation in this production.

While there’s scant justification to question Mr. Gibson’s spiritual sincerity, his judgment is often open to question. Sometimes on aesthetic grounds, ranging from the superficial — does it make sense to use slow-motion and conspicuous trick shot effects in a movie that wants to sustain the illusion of an ancient historical setting? — to the crucial — how much brutality do you actually need to see to be sensitized to Christ’s suffering, or anyone’s suffering?

At the very least, Mr. Gibson has put himself on the spot for emphasizing the horror of the Passion at the expense of redemptive aspects. Given his way of compressing the narrative, the resurrection becomes an ambiguous footnote. While he depicts the high priests of the Jerusalem temple and the Roman military as co-equal heavies, identifying bloodthirsty contempt with the former and wretched brutality with the latter, any modern vandals who want to exploit “The Passion” as a pretext for hooliganism are going to find synagogues a more convenient target than Roman barracks.

People who have to deal with anti-Semitism on an ongoing basis have a right to feel uneasy about the Gibson “Passion.” Does the filmmaker himself relish the thought of being the handiest scapegoat in the world for any anti-Semitic outrage that might occur in the weeks ahead? Mr. Gibson may be causing trouble for people who haven’t been begging for trouble.

This pious beau geste needs a merciful note in retrospect that it seldom encourages while accumulating atrocity footage.

**

TITLE: “The Passion of the Christ”

RATING: R (Prolonged and graphic violence in a biblical setting)

CREDITS: Directed by Mel Gibson. Screenplay by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mr. Gibson, based on the Gospels of the New Testament. Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Production design by Francesco Figeri. Costume design by Maurizio Millenotti. Special makeup effects by Keith Vanderlan. Music by John Debney. In Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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