Tempest in a Testament
On Opening Day at 2,800 theaters, the final Ash Wednesday screening of The Passion of the Christ is sedate and not very full, a calm in the eye of the storm. Given months of media frenzy otherwise sacred to Super Sundays and March Madnesses, the political, social, ethnic and religious rants, the critics who write about it "based on reliable sources" but boycotting or proud to be boycotted from press showings, it is hard to approach the Event purely as projected celluloid yet avoid treading on religious toes.
In 1889, Chekhov wrote to a poet admirer of "the hope that my ['A Boring Story'] will provoke a certain noisy reaction in the enemy camp, for in our age of telegraphs and telephones abuse is the sister of advertisement." Whatever sincerity, fanaticism or cynical opportunism one attributes to Mel Gibson and Newmarket Films, the work is here at last and needs to be dealt with on its merits and flaws.
Detailing the final twelve hours of Christ's human life, The Passion of the Christ offers up a new, masculinely physical version of the story so familiar to any five-year-old in the Western World that there can be no prevarication or suspense. Emphasis must fall on interpretation of motivation, however nuanced (or not), and on the realization of pre-ordained actions. We should lay aside PR chaff about miraculous lightning strikes, thirty-third birthdays, a pregnancy (of Maia Morgenstern, "a renowned Romanian actress of Jewish descent" who is the film's Mary), and cast and crew's "life-changing conversations." Ditto the touted dead Latin and Western Aramaic, learned by rote with accents that would have convulsed speakers of AD 30.
To mixed reviews, centrally or tangentially, renditions have concentrated on epic spectacle--twice-done King of Kings and Ben Hur, The Robe, The Silver Chalice (for which Paul Newman publicly apologized), Barabbas, The Greatest Story Eve Told (which credits Carl Sandburg as "Creative Associate") -- or "modernized" the material for Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Alongside the witty allegorical Jesus of Montreal, notable controversial exceptions were The Gospel According to St. Matthew, where angry Marxist Jesus has a socioeconomic agenda, and The Last Temptation of Christ, with a Savior racked by human failings, fears and desires.
The latter three furnish food for thought, while The Passion belies Gibson's "intention to create a lasting work of art and stimulate serious thought and reflection" and offers no such pleasure. In fact, "pleasure" is exactly what it does not offer. Though Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) comes across as a troubled CEO stuck in the sticks with his sensitive wife (Claudia Gerini), and though some others have crises and turnarounds -- Simon the Cyrenian (Jarreth Merz) and tormented Judas (Luca Lionello) -- this is not a work of subtlety or nuance. As a contrast to the concept of macho good, there are the androgynous Stargate-like Satan (Rosalinda Celentano, her voice dubbed by a male) and fey Herod, but no shadings of doubt are permitted. From Gethsemane to Golgotha, vision is on gore, the physical suffering of Jesus of Nazereth. And bloody it is.
Like Cool Hand Luke stripped of irony, Rocky or Rambo without the slurred stoicism, Max or Martin Riggs with wisecracks omitted, James Caviezel as Jesus is a two-hour whipping boy, a botched bullfight and walking butcher shop whose miraculous teeth remain evenly intact. But whereas Hitchcock could horrify with a hundred frames' watery chocolate syrup swirling down a drain, Gibson's overkill drowns in dyed corn syrup. After the first publicized doses, it bores.
Period detail is crippled by underlit interiors and forty percent night shooting; Roman armor copies Ricardo Montalban's chest in Star Trek II, peasant robes are dull burlap sacks and Sanhedrin guards resemble dandified Samurai. A handful of flashback snippets can give no background to the life and brief ministry of the Son of Man, nor, despite pious pronouncements that passion derives from Latin "'suffering' but also profound and transcendent love," is the central glory of the Resurrection granted more than a five-second militant Christian coda.
With little beyond brutality on-screen, reaction depends on what the individual brings to the film beforehand. A pastor friend says that people need to realize the pain of Jesus, but while one does not question the director/producer/co-writer's belief in his beliefs, one must wonder what purpose is here. His snaggletoothed soldiers are no worse than bored troops uncomfortably overseas anywhere and the masses no more fickle and bloody-minded than Shakespeare's sixteenth-century Plebeian "blocks, stones, worse than senseless things . . . [of] basest metal," not the anti-Semitic stereotypes whipped up by hungry media. Whatever demons fueled Gibson's supposedly longtime passion to mount this work, no redemption is to be found in the one-dimensional result.
(Released by Newmarket Films and rated "R" for sequences of graphic violence.)