It’s easy to approach this film with skepticism enough to color perception. Director Mel Gibson, he of Braveheart
and The Man Without a Face
, has repeatedly proven himself void of nuance and tact and subtlety. Which is to say, Mel the director is not all that different from Mel the actor. Other than his stoic drifter in The Road Warrior
and his intimation of psychosis in the first (and only
the first) Lethal Weapon
, Gibson has stamped mediocrity across nearly every role, from Hamlet
down to the abyss of Air America
. His jabbering idiot in Conspiracy Theory
is among the most embarrassing, appalling performances in recent memory.
I was initially intrigued, however, when it was announced that The Passion
would be filmed in Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew. (How many Biblical pictures, in their Israeli and Roman settings, have faltered due to faux Shakespearean dialogue spit out by corpulent Old Vic hams?) While the ancient languages are authentic, any additional attempts at ‘realism’ generate more problems than Gibson can handle . . . or appears to be aware of. Concerned specifically with the beating, whipping and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, The Passion
is relentlessly unforgiving.
Somewhere in the oodles of media coverage, someone must have referred to this as ‘The Gospel According to Mad Max’ (or ‘A Crucifixion on Elm Street,’ or ‘Good Friday the 13th’), a fairly accurate assessment that helps to underline the dubiousness of Gibson’s Christianity. He has created over two graceless hours where a story of depth and wisdom has been wrung for its most superficial and horrific elements. It is a meditation on punishment and death, unconcerned with the ramifications of ‘everlasting life,’ and working from a characterization of Christ decidedly void of holiness.
It does not recall the celebrations of the glory of God and man as rendered by Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, but opts to interpret existence as a bleak, inescapable rat’s maze out of Hieronymus Bosch. At times broadly overacted (Gibson could have hired those Old Vic hams after all), The Passion
is unmoved by the universal integrity of its own subject. Love, compassion, understanding and forgiveness — the fundamentals of Christianity — are reluctantly and hastily broached. The Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper are awarded scant lip service, glossed over out of dutiful obligation. (Gibson allows more screen time to a ludicrous aside of Jesus the carpenter as an ‘average Joe’ constructing a dinner table.) When a Roman guard realizes Jesus is praying for his persecutors, it’s not a revelation of God’s grace, but a method to make people look foolish. And the Resurrection pales in comparison to its build-up, bizarrely anti-climactic and seemingly tacked on as an afterthought.
Gibson has the chutzpah to drag Lucifer into the fray, and you can tell it’s Lucifer because the actor looks weird and has a maggot crawling out of his nostril. But any correlation between this figure and the horrors imposed upon Jesus are obscured in the bombast. Carrying hideous dwarfs around for shock value, when Satan loses the soul of Jesus to God, we’re handed a scene that looks like an outtake from The Ninth Gate
. This is kitsch.
Right-wing Christian fundamentalists assure us that The Passion
is not anti-Semitic, but even my goyim eyes were taken aback by the selection of actors for Jewish roles. Central casting was raided for anyone ugly and large of nose (notice how many are photographed in profile), and Gibson portrays them as an annoying lot — for the Romans, for Jesus, and for us. In conjunction with the stifling conservatism currently draped across America, the film draws an eerie parallel with the aggressive Passion plays that fueled the fires of 1930’s Germany.
It takes a gifted filmmaker to create inspirational art from this inspirational subject, as Pasolini did with The Gospel According to St. Matthew
, or Nick Ray with King of Kings
. But Mel Gibson harbors an agenda. He doesn’t display any appreciation for philosophical beauty. His vision offers no empathy, and his presentation of Christ is woefully mundane. An unmitigated failure, The Passion
sets about to crucify rather than worship. It is a cold, troubled, ungodly film.
Copyright © 2004 by Ray Young