The Romans look and act like movie Nazis. The Jews are the establishment villains, bearded and unforgiving.
This is a horror film about history's most famous martyr, an unflinching depiction of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Artful, so intimate that its violence is wrenching, it is plainly the work of an inspired filmmaker. But Gibson's cinematic penance tale is drenched in blood, capturing in grisly detail what one man endured.
And it is carried on the back of -- dare I say it? -- an actor known for his wooden quality onscreen. It's a daunting role, which is why so many films portray Jesus as an off-camera heavenly light. Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo) may have the right initials for the part. But his portrayal is as unbelievable as the special-effect golden eyes the film gives him.
The tale begins at Gethsemane and ends with a stone door rolling open. It is told in the dead languages Aramaic and Latin, sometimes helped along by subtitles. None of the cast is comfortable with the Aramaic, which hamstrings the performances. Still, the story is so familiar to most that subtitles seem redundant.
We see a foreboding last night in the garden, a betrayal and disciples who let Jesus down. We see a formidable cadre of Pharisees -- Jewish elders who view Jesus as a threat and a blasphemer -- seize and interrogate him. And since they cannot sentence him to death, they browbeat Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov)into doing the deed.
And when the mob says "Give us Barabbas," Pilate washes his hands, and the cross is made and the agonizing trek up Golgotha begins.
But first, the literal and bloody-minded Gibson shows Jesus beaten to a raw pulp, stroke by sadistic stroke.
Flashbacks take us to Jesus as a carpenter, the Sermon on the Mount, his triumphant ride into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. Neither the Aramaic nor the subtitles capture the poetry of these biblical moments. And Gibson cuts them all so short as to deprive them of their full meaning. He's much too eager to get back to the sadism and the victim, pummeled and bleeding as he drags the cross of his doom through the streets of the city.
Filmed in Italy, the wonderful Italian production design team takes us back to that primitive and barbaric age, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff) finds a harsh beauty in the place.
And the actresses fare better than actors in the film, as the two Marys -- the Virgin Mother and Magdalene -- are movingly played by Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci. They are witnesses to the horror, and the film works best when we experience this through them. The film's best scene is when Jesus' mother (Morgenstern) sees her son fall while carrying the cross, and breaks down as she remembers running to comfort her child when he scraped his knee. That's a human moment, and too rare in this violent film.
The Passion's hot-button issue: Is it anti-Semitic? You might think so, from the heavy-handed first hour, when the Jews are hissing caricatures and the Romans merely pawns to their troublesome Jewish subjects. But Gibson achieves more of a balance in the film's second half, showing nastier Romans, sympathetic Jews and the biblical conversions on the cross.
The movie has been trumpeted as an opportunity for Christian "outreach," but that seems like wishful thinking. Passion is not an introduction to the story, it is a truncated version of it. It merely shows the sacrifice and hints at a miracle with its supernatural finale -- certainly enough for believers but not exactly attractive to nonbelievers or anyone turned off by gore.
One can be forgiven for suffering from Passion fatigue, as Gibson has publicized the film to death on handpicked talk shows and drummed up support by showing it only to audiences -- ministers and others -- predisposed to endorse it.
But those who have bought into the "send Hollywood a message" plea to buy tickets should note the number of Mel Gibson movies coincidentally "reissued" on DVD to their video store this very week. In the end, The Passion is only a movie, and "inspired" or not, somebody's making a buck off it.
Roger Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5369.