In Mel Gibson's brutal, explicit 125-minute succession of graven images, The Passion of the Christ, what you will witness, if you choose to attend, is a movie more violent than most of those condemned as part of what certain groups refer to today as "the culture."
There have already been a variety of compelling essays and reviews about Gibson's self-financed project and self-financed distribution, but I want to fix on the same thing that he does: the violence inflicted upon his Christ.
The Passion of the Christ is a tract, more sophisticated certainly than, for example, Jack Chick's perverse evangelistic comics, yet it serves as a vessel to hold one's established beliefs, whether one is a devout Protestant or Catholic or Matt Drudge or Peggy Noonan or Rush Limbaugh or the President (who has reportedly expressed a desire to see the film). As a movie, however, it's something else altogether.
The Passion of the Christ is a loud, thudding lockstep depiction of torture and murder. There is little about philosophy, goodness or celebration. It's like many of Gibson's earlier roles writ large: I'm suffering here! For those who found Willem Dafoe's iconography in Platoon or various suffering-Christ roles by Kevin Costner and Gibson to be not enough, here is a protracted representation of the iconic man himself having his flesh rent into tatters, shredding into gobs of viscera. Jets of blood and bodily fluids are dwelt upon with as much reverence as other viscous fluids are memorialized in commonplace pornography.
Anti-Semitic? Maybe to some viewers. Pornographic? Certainly. As keenly as the work of several other artists -- Clive Barker and the late Italian maverick Pier Paolo Pasolini (particularly with his brutal Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom) -- The Passion of the Christ is, on the face of it, a sadomasochistic fantasia of being stripped of One's photogenic flesh.
We are shown the last 12 hours of the Nazarene, with elements drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke and Mel. (Today's forecast: Old and New Testament with a chance of intermittent Apocrypha). It should further debates about the aesthetics and ethics of depicting brutality, which, by my estimate, include visual depictions of the act and aftermath of 13 punches, slaps or blows to the head; 34 blows with canes; 31 lashes; a crown of thorns pressed to his temples; at least 31 whip lashings; two draggings through the rabble, including varieties of spitting and stoning; 52 blows with a cat o' nine tails with metal studs and hooks, including one shot of flesh ripping away and splattering camera and wielder; 12 blows to get a spike through an ankle; four blows to spike the first palm, with arterial blood jetting thickly upward; 12 blows for the second; and of and the puncturing by sword of Christ's side and belly, blood and fluids geysering on the faces below. Gibson's Christ starts to resemble Barker's "Pinhead" character from the Hellraiser movies. There are late close-ups of Jim Caviezel's blood-matted eye that resemble a medieval icon, or more to point, the Icon Productions logo that opens the movies Gibson produces, including this one, which opens without titles, only the name of Newmarket Films and Icon, with a flourish of grumbly thunder.
"Jesus wept" is the shortest verse in the King James Bible; in the Book of Mel, it's "Jesus bled." Or maybe we're watching Jeepers Creepers 3, considering that Satan is pictured as a stone-eyed drag queen without eyebrows, like a character in one of Victor Salva's twisted fancies. The strenuous level of violence in this film should bear the NC-17 scarlet rating for its sustained intensity.
The Gospels are not alien to my experience. Without taking it too deep, my upbringing in the South was among fundamentalists, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, and as a kid, I was baptized in a dark, running stream. (Yep, I've heard speaking in tongues.) But the movie remains only a movie, and a literal-minded one. He died for your sins, so suffer through my movie!
Some, perhaps, will find the movie as a vehicle to visualize the teachings of the Bible, which allow them to empathize more deeply with the suffering of Christ. Yet that is not what the movie accomplishes: My skin prickles still from the memory of certain preachers' way with language, with metaphor and the music of storytelling. But there are only one or two flickering instants I felt anything in this movie. A self-professed sinner, Gibson's testimony also slots his film as a study in the piety of the reformed reprobate -- not always a pretty picture. Gibson may be a fundamentalist in his own religion, but as a filmmaker here, he is a literalist, claiming he's evoking his own version of the story of Paul's epiphany on the road to Damascus.
Where is the glory of hope, of transcendence? This is a message of death. But also a message of marketing, exhibiting a knowledge of how the world works: I won't be surprised if this thing makes $100 million in a week.
Publication date: 02/26/04