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In theology and history, the Passion
of Christ describes His suffering, specifically the physical and spiritual agonies and
indignities of His final hours, culminating in His crucifixion. Mel Gibsons Passion is nearly two hours of watching Jesus
body being reduced to a bloody pulp. The film takes its narrative raw materials from the
tradition of the European Passion plays and some scenes of the crowds of Jews echo
historic photographs of the Oberammergau festival of
one hundred years ago. However, Gibson plunders the visual vaults of Cinemascope-era
Hollywood to produce just another over-hyped Hollywood blockbuster.
The film is a virtual catalogue of Christian iconography of the American evangelical school, piling up one living tableau after another, from Michelangelos Pieta to the crowds of hypocritical Pharisees straight out of Griffiths Intolerance. Gibson states he was so impressed by Pasolinis The Gospel According to St. Matthew that he used the same locations. For all that, this film is firmly rooted in the fantasy traditions of such predecessors as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator, and Triumph of the Will. James Caviezel was chosen for the Jesus role, in part, because he betrays hints neither of the Semite-appearing Jesuses of Byzantine iconography nor of the androgynous Jesuses of Carravaggio. In a flashback near the end of the film, there's a head shot of Caviezel looking like Warner Sallmans model for his 1941 Head of Christthat firmly athletic, and firmly WASP, vision of an American Christ.
Gibsons Passion is just thatthe richness of the Jesus material is diluted to broad, shallow brush strokes; only that which dramatizes the physical agony and suffering is included. There is scant dialogue and there is no plot or character development. Gibson delivers the broadest cliches, telling his story almost purely in images, all the more emotionally overwhelming because the camera caresses the violence and lingers lovingly and obsessively on each and every assault and injury on Caviezels body.
The film depicts a man being persecuted by a bunch of angry, revenge-bent Jews whose leader is implacable. This Jesus person must die for blaspheming. The Jews (presumably the Biblical Pharisees) insist that the Roman leaders take responsibility and execute Jesus. Gibsons Roman leaders (as opposed to the sadistic legionnaires) are reasonable and modern and, well, leader-like, especially when contrasted to the portrayal of iron-willed, intolerant and vindictive Jews. Pilate seems a very reasonable and politically astute man who bends over backwards to give Jesus every opportunity to slip out of the noose. Jesus resolutely refuses. Indeed, the overall impression the film creates is that Jesus and the Pharisees leader are locked in a personal battle of wills in which Jesus is going to prove himself rightbeing grievously wrongedeven if it kills him, literally.
Media hype has focused on the purported gratuitous violence of the film, but how can a film that explicitly states it is about the agony and suffering of Christ not be applauded for a rare bit of truth in advertising of Hollywood Bible flicks? In fact, in the tradition of Riefenstahl, this film is, by turns, very pretty or sublimely beautiful to look at. However, the cast of characters is remarkably Disneyesque. Jesus is betrayed by his closest friends and charismatically inspires total strangers, simply by allowing them into his presence. (This is much the effect the film seems to have on its current admirerssimply witnessing the film is enough to elicit rapturous conviction.) His mother sacrifices in endless silence and dogged devotion. John is puerile and ever at the ready. Herod, portrayed as a bitchy queen, surrounds himself with fellow freaks and perverts. Gibson adds a blue-skinned, androgynous Satan, played by Rosalinda Celentano, in the garb of a stock sci-fi alien type. By the end of the film Jesus has come to resemble Popeye, one eye swollen shut, the other computer-enhanced to create an eerily glowing, otherworldly-dreamy visionarys eye. The more he is reduced to mincemeat, the more athletically serene he appears in crosscut flashbacksbefore-and-after imagery on steroids.
Gibsons Passion is blatantly propagandistic, while coyly demurring any such thing. Perhaps the creepiest aspect of the film is its unflinching, unblinking, all-seeing eye of God-the-Son. The films value clearly lies in its role as media event and object for endless spin, from every camp in the current United States cultural wars. That is has been crafted and is being hyped in the tradition of Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will is about as creepy as it gets.
- Les Wright