the passion of the christ (2004)


director: mel gibson

jim caviezel, monica bellucci, maia morgenstern

The first clue anyone should have about what to expect from Mel Gibson's fantastically controversial The Passion Of The Christ is the title, once simply The Passion.

A passion play was medieval Europe's summer blockbuster, an enactment of the crucifixion of Christ for a largely illiterate audience, performed at Easter when people gathered at mass and marketplace. They were solemn but crude; spectacle and fear mixed with piety.

Gibson's Passion, like the marketplace spectacles that inspired it, is adamantly a movie and, despite any statement the director has made inspired by his own religious conviction, is not to be confused with the Gospels, or anything like a whole picture of the life of Christ.

The film begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is crippled with anguish moments before his ordeal is about to begin. When the soldiers arrive, it's also the debut of Simon Peter: Action Hero, as the chief apostle defends his master with a display of slo-mo swordplay more appropriate to Jet Li.

Shadowing Christ throughout his torment is Satan himself, pale and androgynous (a female actor was given a male voice) and given to erupting from the shadows to torment Judas, Christ's betrayer. True to the medieval spirit, Gibson's passion play is a demon-haunted world, grotesque and fearful.

It's also violent, so much so that despite its 18A rating (anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult, as classifed by the province of Ontario), it would be irresponsible to bring any child to see it. What Gibson strives to show is the beating, flaying, torture and brutal death of a man, in agonizing, even sadistic detail. The crucifixion alone would be hard to watch, if it weren't preceded by an almost endless, bloody whipping by thuggish Roman soldiers.

Almost before anyone had seen Gibson's film, it was accused of anti-Semitism, a charge that has contributed to months of publicity. Over those months, Gibson has trimmed his film of almost any overtly anti-Semitic dialogue or imagery, so much that if you wanted to be generous, you could say that The Passion Of The Christ is more anti-Roman than anti-Semitic.

But there aren't any Romans around anymore, while any Jew can reasonably fear that, like the passion plays of the middle ages, it's possible that Gibson's film might inadvertently inspire or reinforce bigotry. In Gibson's film, there are Jews who condemn Christ, and Jews who beg that He - a Jew, as Gibson takes pains to show - be spared. But that might not be enough.

But this isn't the fatal flaw of Gibson's movie. The heartrending, suffocating violence of Gibson's film, wholly committed as it is to showing Christ's suffering and sacrifice as a man, barely allows Christ's sublime message of love and redemption to break through. It's a film about Christ's awful death, with mere hints of His wonderful life, and that's simply tragic.