The Passion of the ChristTHE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Leaving a screening of The Passion of the Christ, I felt pummeled, confused, and very, very angry, feelings I can't imagine director Mel Gibson wanting to inspire with his cinematic take on Jesus Christ's last 12 hours on earth.

But maybe I'm being a bit Pollyanna here: The film seems all but designed to start hateful, unresolvable arguments, and create bitter contention between people of different faiths. It's not merely a bad movie - though it certainly is that - but, in my opinion, a dangerous one; a paean to cruelty and intolerance and suffering in the guise of being about forgiveness, redemption, and ultimate sacrifice. And it puts audiences who don't care for it in an awful position. If you find Gibson's tactics as a director deplorable - if, like me, you abhor the movie as a movie - you still find yourself having to defend your own beliefs against the beliefs of those who find Gibson's work miraculous; it's not your taste that's being questioned but your faith. (Gibson is on record saying that the film's more vociferous critics are merely extolling in "anti-Christian sentiment.")

As The Passion has been a dream project of Gibson's for years, I have no reason to doubt him when he calls his film a work borne of love, but the result is absolutely hateful, a nearly constant barrage of sadomasochism and unimaginable violence that completely trashes Jesus Christ's teachings of love and fellowship. There's really no way to convince those who find the film transcendent that it's anything but; the best I can offer is some solace to others who found The Passion as excruciating as I did.

Now I'm no historian or theologian, so I'll leave questions of the film's historical accuracy and the widespread claim of Gibson's (onscreen) anti-Semitism to those much wiser than I; you should have no problem finding intelligent op-ed pieces on The Passion in any print medium you choose. What I am is a serious moviegoer, and judged solely as a movie - judged, as Gibson would like, as a work of art - The Passion is almost unendurable. (If the film were about anyone other than Jesus Christ, I can't imagine anyone having the stomach to sit through the movie's two hours of torture and bloodshed.) Though it's generally well lit by the brilliant cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and the scenes where Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) slithers across the screen display some suggestive creepiness, the movie is a sickening, odious assault practically from moment one, when Jesus (Jim Caviezel), ruminating in the Garden of Gethsemane, receives his first thwack! in the head by the Jewish guards who have been tailing him. (The sound effect is indistinguishable from that of a sucker-punch in one of Gibson's Lethal Weapon movies.) From then on - and remember, we're only in the first five minutes here - it's a grueling series of beatings, whippings, flagellations, and the inevitable crucifixion, presented in mind-numbingly gory detail, and gruesomely accentuated by Gibson's obsession with the slow-motion shot; scene after scene features Christ falling, screaming, and bleeding in agonizing close-up, and the monotonous slow-motion - two-thirds of the film must be protracted in this manner - makes every one of these sequences feel eternal. He uses the effect so often, and with so little variety, that Christ's suffering begins to seem a fetish for Mel Gibson.

Had we been given any context as to why Christ's adversaries wanted him destroyed - why he was such a threat to both the Romans and Jews in power - this endless torture might carry the weight Gibson certainly assumes it has. But Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald don't appear to have much interest in Christ as a person, or even as the Son of God; onscreen; he's merely a body to be tormented. Christ, as a character, is abstract to the point of being a cipher, and Jim Caviezel isn't allowed to give his role any shadings; the film's flashback sequences, showing a more reflective Christ, are as obvious in their beatific serenity as the torture scenes are in their harrowing ugliness, and Caviezel fails to make any sort of impression whatsoever. Yet this is a film where no actor ends up looking good; Gibson directs the performances, particularly of the shrieking, keening masses, so hysterically that The Passion begins to resemble a road-company production of Marat/Sade (or Jesus Christ Superstar, when the film's mincing Herod showed up, complete with extra-heavy black eyeliner, and all I could hear was Josh Mostel singing "You are the Christ / You're the great Jesus Christ ... ") Aside from Caviezel's vacillations between glassy-eyed rectitude and anguish, the cast's only performance options are to look stricken (Maia Morgenstern's Mary, Monica Bellucci's Mary Magdalene, Hristo Naumov Shopov's Pontius Pilate) or deranged (just about everyone else); you end up feeling badly for the performers, not their on-screen alter-egos. There is only one star here, and Mr. Gibson never lets you forget for a second that it is, in fact, himself.

Whether pumping up the soundtrack to make sure we don't miss a moment of the migraine-inducing cruelty, or thrusting Christ's bloody, scarred body at us in the closest of close-ups, Gibson begins to seem a sort of pornographer of violence; it's Macho Blowhard filmmaking, a continual reminder that Mel Gibson isn't afraid, dammit, to show us the pain that Christ endured. (As a director, Gibson is a bully: The flashbacks are structured so that Christ's teachings to his disciples - the film's sole moments of emotional reprieve - always appear in the midst of The Passion's most stomach-churning effects. By forcing them to look when they want desperately to cower, Gibson is punishing any audience members who attempt to shield their eyes from the carnage.) But what, exactly, is the point of all of this? Do people really need to be shown Christ's sufferings in such grisly, CGI-enhanced detail to be taught the lessons of The Passion? Why are Christ's homilies of understanding and brotherhood almost totally ignored in favor of such an unremitting horror show? To my mind, The Passion of the Christ is despicable for any number of reasons, but what galls me the most about the work is Gibson's absolute insensitivity, not just toward the Jews, seen here as bloodthirsty, vengeance-hungry louts - which is certainly loathsome enough - but toward anyone who had expected more from Gibson's dream project than an exploitative slasher flick in art-film drag. Legions of the faithful may be attending the film in record numbers, but I can't imagine what, exactly, they're taking home with them, and God have mercy on the young kids in the audience forced along by their parents; Gibson's film has the (certainly) unintentional effect of making the tenets of Christianity - a theology based on the teachings of history's most influential pacifist - look absolutely terrifying.

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