The Passion of The Christ
The Passion of The Christ may be the most artistically and commercially ambitious feature film about Jesus to come out of Hollywood since the 1960s. It is certainly the most devout, though at first it seems odd that Mel Gibson should be the one to produce, write, and direct a film about the Prince of Peace.
From the buddy-cop Lethal Weapon franchise to revisionist epics like The Patriot, Gibson has specialized in playing violent action heroes who take bloody revenge for the deaths of their wives, children, and girlfriends. In Braveheart, the 1995 film for which he won the Best Director Oscar, Gibson kept the fatal wounds inflicted on William Wallace and his wife just out of frame, to spare his audience the full brutality suffered by these heroes, but he reveled in the gory details with which Wallace executed his personal enemies.
In some ways, The Passion seems like a repudiation of much of his career to date: last year, Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whose faith has surfaced in recent films like Signs and We Were Soldiers, told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly he wanted to promote faith, hope, love, and especially forgiveness through this film. But The Passion also dwells, at considerable length, on the physical pain inflicted on Jesus. Has Gibson found a way to baptize, as it were, the sadistic or masochistic impulses of his other films? Is it possible he is indulging himself under the cover of religious piety?
At times it does seem so. Much has been made of The Passion's adherence to Scripture, but in the rough cut shown to pastors and ministry leaders a month before the film's release, it was clear that Gibson often goes beyond the text. Jesus, played with inspiring sincerity by James Caviezel (Frequency, The Thin Red Line), is not even out of Gethsemane yet when the Temple guards knock him about and hang him over a bridge by his chains, swelling shut his right eye. During scenes like this, you cannot help wondering whether Gibson, as the one who conceived and directed all this simulated torture, is more complicit in the horrors on display than he would like to admit.
Yet Gibson does exercise restraint at crucial moments. The flogging of Jesus may go on and on—and Jesus himself seems to encourage it when he pulls himself up and stands defiantly erect after the first round of beatings—but as several characters begin to find the violence so unbearable that they have to look away, so does Gibson: His camera follows Jesus' mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern) as she retreats to another room, where she tries to cope with the cries of pain that she can still hear.
The film's violence has been defended as a sign of its historical realism and biblical accuracy, but one of the more striking and impressive things about The Passion is just how much artistic license it takes with its source material. Gibson erroneously identifies Mary Magdalene (The Matrix Reloaded's Monica Bellucci) with the woman caught in adultery, and his depiction of the Crucifixion owes more to medieval art than modern scholarship. Taking their cue from historians and archaeologists, nearly every film and miniseries produced since the 1970s—including Campus Crusade's Jesus film and The Visual Bible's recent Gospel of John—has depicted Jesus carrying only a crossbeam, being nailed through his wrists, being crucified naked, or some combination thereof. Gibson rejects all of these details, though he does, oddly, have the thieves carry crossbeams, while Jesus carries his full cross.