The film left me in the grip of a profound despair, and not for reasons I would have thought. It wasn't simply because of "The Passion's" overwhelming level of on-screen violence, a litany of tortures ending in a beyond-graphic crucifixion.
And it wasn't because of the treatment of the high priest Caiphas and the Hebrew power elite of Jesus' time -- a disturbing portrait likely to give, I feel sure unintentionally, comfort to anti-Semites with its Gospels-based portrayal of the Jews as the sine qua non of Jesus' arrest and execution.
Instead, what is profoundly disheartening is that people of goodwill will see this film in completely different ways. Where I see almost sadistic violence, they will see transcendence; where I see blame, they will see truth.
In effect, aspects of Gibson's creative makeup -- his career-long interest in martyrdom and the yearning for dramatic conflict that make him an excellent actor, coupled with his belief in the Gospels' literal truth -- have sideswiped "The Passion." What is left is a film so narrowly focused as to be inaccessible for all but the devout.
Those factors have made this a film that will separate people rather than bring them together. Normally these kinds of disagreements don't matter, but the "You just don't get it" confrontations here have sad echoes of savage conflicts that have lasted for centuries. It has the potential to foster divisiveness because of the way it exposes and accentuates the fissures in belief that otherwise might go unnoticed. We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads, and it is not to the gates of heaven.
The film, in Aramaic and Latin, has some 4,000 prints headed for theaters for an Ash Wednesday official opening that starts at midnight tonight. That's an unheard-of situation for an unapologetically religious film in a defiantly secular, not to say sinful, time.
It is a truism of moviegoing that who you are going into the theater determines how you perceive what's playing on the screen. But rarely, if ever, do those differences focus on something so central to people's lives as religious belief, on questions of life, death and eternity for which individuals have given their lives -- both willingly and unwillingly -- for what seems like all of recorded time. Which makes every place you want to go toe-to-toe with "The Passion of the Christ" a minefield likely to go off.
Only a star of Mel Gibson's magnitude could have gotten a film like this done, could both afford to foot the estimated $25-million-plus bill and have the prestige and charisma to attract talented collaborators like cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and actor Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ. Gibson's celebrity put this film on the map, giving it the kind of visibility that last year's unheralded but related "The Gospel of John" couldn't dream of, drawing both supporters and detractors to him like flies to honey.
Given that, it shouldn't be surprising that what's immediately most evident about "The Passion" is its complete sincerity. This is Gibson's personal vision of the greatest story ever told, a look inside his heart and soul. Gibson even personally provided, according to composer John Debney, the despairing wail that accompanies Judas' suicide. When the director writes that he wanted his work "to be a testament to the infinite love of Jesus the Christ," there is no reason to doubt him. Which makes it even sadder that "The Passion" does not play that way.
None of the film's problems, however, is immediately visible when its story of the last 12 hours of Christ's earthly life begins with a mobile camera gliding through the fog-shrouded Garden of Gethsemane and finding Jesus in agonized prayer while an insidious Satan (actress Rosalinda Celentano with shaved eyebrows and a dubbed male voice) looks on.
The filmmaking here is conventionally imagined but, like Debney's score, energetic and propulsive. Gibson has directed twice before, including the Oscar-winning "Braveheart," and he knows how to get the effects he wants. He's made a good choice in using Caviezel as his star: The actor, himself a devout Catholic, brings an involving gaze and a convincing presence to the role. And the filming in Aramaic and Latin was an inspired notion that gives the proceedings a reality and believability (though some experts feel Greek would have been spoken) they might not otherwise have.
The first hint of trouble is in a brief flashback to Caiphas, the Jewish High Priest (Mattia Sbragia) arrogantly tossing a purse containing the legendary 30 pieces of silver to Judas (Luca Lionello) in such a way that they fall and humiliate the traitor.
In the iconography of the passion, Judas is one of the great villains, and he's usually portrayed in Western art as well as previous films as the most wretched of creatures. Yet in this scene he is treated with more dignity and sympathy than Caiphas, who gives a first impression of smug and unctuous arrogance that the rest of "The Passion" only reinforces.
And we do see a great deal of the richly dressed, obviously well-fed Caiphas the rest of the way. In addition to paying Judas, this powerful Jew is the one who sends armed men to arrest Jesus, manipulates his trial before the Sanhedrin and stage-manages his appearance before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov).
The Roman governor, nominally in charge, is portrayed as a study in impotent agony, reluctant to hand over Jesus but powerless before the strength of the Jewish mastermind's manipulations. He gives up Jesus to be first tortured and then crucified after a huge crowd of Jews, which earlier had taunted and spit on the man, screams over and over for his head.
What are we to make of this front-and-centering of the Jews in Jesus' plight? In dramatic terms, Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald probably decided a great hero needed an equally powerful and well-defined antagonist to enhance the story, so why not Caiphas? As Paul Lauer, marketing director for Icon, Gibson's production company, told the New York Times, "You can't get away from the fact that there are some Jews who wanted this guy dead."
Making this choice easier for Gibson is that traditionalism, the schismatic Catholic offshoot to which he belongs, believes in the literal truth of the Gospels.
Its followers believe that apostles were on the scene and simply wrote down everything they saw. This includes Matthew 27:25, the passage where the Jews say, "His blood be on us, and on our children." As Gibson, who filmed that scene but ultimately cut it, told the New Yorker's Peter J. Boyer, "It happened; it was said." Many biblical scholars, however, suggest otherwise -- that the Gospels, written at a time when it was politic to make nice to the Romans by minimizing their involvement in Christ's death, were not eyewitness accounts but products of a particular time and place.