The Passion of the Christ
Dir.: Mel Gibson
R, 127 min.
Now showing at area theaters
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ presents the movie reviewer with both the easiest tasks and the toughest. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about spoiling the endingand this particular story emphatically does not have a Hollywood ending. There is a hero, there are villains (more on them in a bit), and even in Gibson’s truncated versionfocusing nearly exclusively on Jesus’ final 12 hours with a documentary zealthere is a beginning, middle and end. Far more difficult to address are the heated public debates engulfing the film’s reception, certain to color any viewer’s impression. When a picture engenders such hoopla, merited or not, and its director cagily fans the flames higher, can a critic honestly divest from the controversy and burrow down, ostrich-like, into the art hole?
And yet, such literal-mindedness seems fitting for a film that’s so, well, bloody literal-minded. The most difficult, depressing thing to be admitted about The Passion is that it’s simply not very good, even on its own terms. For all its wincing brutality, it’s almost completely bereft of spiritual inquiry, a serious failure that may be best pinned on actor Jim Caviezel, who has the nose, the beard, but little in the way of emotional gravitas. Given the movie’s limited scope of events, that should have been a priority; when Caviezel confronts his tormentors, there’s no serenity, no overwhelming love, no confusion, no nothing. (If anything, Gibson’s title is unwittingly appropriate: The Christ, not a person or the godhead, but an object to be torn and deified.) John Debney’s droning, ominous score, heavily indebted to Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking work for The Last Temptation of Christ, only amplifies this absence of feeling, as does Gibson’s overuse of slo-mo and his decision to have the dialogue in ancient Aramaic, thus to be read and not heard. He needed an actor worthy of the great silent stars, and suffice it to say, that’s not Caviezel.
With the “why” left maddeningly opaque and the “how” detailed to a clinical degree with each excruciating hammer fall, all that’s left is the “who”as in whodunit. Gibson is an intelligent man; he must have realized that this was the trajectory his project was conceived to sail toward, and his evasions on this score feel especially coy. Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is depicted as a contemplative, sensitive ruler talking philosophy with his wifean absurd premise given the historical record showing Pilate to be an orderer of hundreds of executions without trial. (This was the condition of fear, extended by Caligula, under which the Gospels were first written.) Meanwhile, the Jewish priesthood, led by a harsh-voiced Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), is not afforded any motivations for demanding Jesus’ crucifixion, motivations that could have been easily accommodated: internal power struggles, a threatening radical voice offered up to the Roman overlords to distract them from the vulnerable community at large, etc.
Does it add up to anti-Semitism? To go down that road is to declare the Gospels themselves hateful; Gibson, conservative as ever, is dutiful to the text, and therein lies a more productive indictment. For all his Oscar success with Braveheart, Gibson remains unable to make his character’s reasons transparent, a weakness of directorial craft that he now wears as a badge of religious honor. His faith, assumedly deeply felt, comes off like a stunted, impoverished thingthe faith of actors accustomed to grueling, cold-weather shoots and sadly lacking the dimension of personal interpretation that lends all religions the potential for disciplined enlightenment. Can this really be the case? Personally, I’m willing to forgive Mel his sins; as a filmmaker, he knows not what he does.
The only website you can call directly is 1-800-FLOWERS.com.
Not the first time Mario Lopez has been snubbed (see Kapowski, Kelly).
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…
I think it's weird when speculation is wedged into an otherwise straightforward biography. I love…
I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.