(With Easter upon us — and with Mel Gibson hard at work on The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection here’s a reprint of the review of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ on the 15th anniversary of its original release.)

★★ (out of four)
STARS Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci

There is no reason to doubt Mel Gibson’s sincerity when it comes to religious matters. His fine Vietnam War drama We Were Soldiers was that rare film to present its characters as devout Christians touchingly drawing their strength from God, rather than as the Bible-thumping, hypocritical rubes found in most Hollywood features. Likewise, such works as Braveheart and Signs were also imbued with deep spiritual undercurrents. Yet oddly, The Passion of the Christ has been created not so much by Gibson the True Believer but by Gibson the Sadist.

Many of Gibson’s movies, whether it’s Payback or The Patriot or the aforementioned Braveheart, have displayed a fetishistic fascination with blood and guts, and Passion is no exception. In relating the saga of Christ from his betrayal by Judas at the Garden of Gethsemane right up through the crucifixion, Gibson has basically taken the greatest story ever told and turned it into a snuff film.

The pacifist teachings aren’t even allowed to take a back seat to the beatings and humiliations suffered by Christ — instead, they’re securely locked away in the trunk, with Gibson paying them only fleeting lip service through a series of clumsily integrated flashbacks that play like a sampling of Christ’s Greatest Hits. The picture’s emphasis is squarely on employing the best visual effects, makeup designs and slo-mo camerawork that money can buy to lovingly reveal every whip mark slashed across Christ’s back, every thorn driven into His head, every nail hammered into His flesh. It’s Kill Bill for the hypocritical branch of the religious right, an unrelenting orgy of evangelical ire that’s about as subtle as those vintage educational films on venereal diseases that the US Army would screen for its recruits.

It’s not that I was offended or put off by the film’s excessive violence; on the contrary, an honest depiction of this tale probably needs to showcase such degrees of brutality up close and personal. But what’s sorely missing from the movie is any meaningful context. Martin Scorsese’s superb 1988 offering The Last Temptation of Christ — still the best and most affecting religious flick ever made (Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth lands in runner-up position) — worked because it presented us with a Christ who was both fully God and fully man, not an untouchable icon but rather an immediate figure working through the pleasures and perils of life itself.

By contrast, Gibson’s focus is so narrow that his film never gives us a sense of Jesus the Man — all we get is Jesus the Martyr, who’s forced to spend a tedious two hours incessantly beaten by spittle-spraying Roman soldiers. It’s as if instead of the wide scope of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg had decided to make a movie showing a single Jewish prisoner being stripped and sent to the showers. Or if instead of providing us with the expansive breadth of Roots, Alex Haley had opted to concentrate on the whipping and castration of one individual runaway slave. These are attention-grabbing, perhaps even worthwhile, endeavors, but ultimately they would exist within a narrative vacuum, and — if we’re to honestly examine their merits as works of popular culture — they would probably leave most paying customers feeling unfulfilled.

Jim Caviezel and Mel Gibson on the set of The Passion of the Christ (Photo: Newmarket Films)

Of course, this film’s proponents would argue that since we’re already familiar with the story of Jesus, we can fill in the blanks ourselves, but to me that feels like a cheat, a way for Gibson to get out of the sensitive side of the story in order to focus on its more sensationalistic aspects. It’s as if Gibson (who, in addition to directing, also co-wrote the script with Benedict Fitzgerald) has taken a New Testament tale and filtered it through Old Testament sensibilities.

Needless to say, the mood is grim throughout, which means that Gibson’s more fanciful touches awkwardly stand out and almost verge on camp. Satan appears at various points as an androgynous creature who bears such a striking resemblance to a ’70s glam rocker that I half-expected David Bowie to saunter out at any minute to take part in a duet of “Suffragette City.” Two monstrous children who torment Judas would seem better-suited to an Omen sequel, while one particular demonic minion — a bald baby with an adult’s face — inspires more chuckles than shudders (one critic has already referred to him as Satan’s own Mini-Me).

As Jesus, Jim Caviezel looks aptly beatific, yet he’s so hamstrung by the one-note depiction that he never registers as anything more than a symbol. Other performers, including Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene and Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern as Mary, ably handle their equally sketchy parts. Curiously, the most fully rounded character is Pontius Pilate (well-played by Hristo Naumov Shopov), who is presented as a decent — even sympathetic — ruler who feels for Christ but who’s ultimately too weak to stand up to His bloodthirsty persecutors. When the most developed character in a movie about Jesus Christ turns out to be a Roman, it might mean that the man in charge was losing his religion after all. In short, there’s no power or glory in Gibson’s tedious retelling.


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