A Narrow Vision and Staggering Violence

Combining the built-in audience of the Bible, the incendiary potential of “The Birth of a Nation” and the marketing genius of “The Blair Witch Project,” the arrival of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” feels like a milestone in modern culture. It’s a nexus of religion, celebrity, cinema and mass communication that tells us more about the way our world works than we may want to know.

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.

The filmmakers feel too much is being made of all this. They quite sincerely believe, as Caviezel told Newsweek, that “we’re all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins put him up there. Yours did. That’s what this story is about.” Plus they point to the small moments in the film where Jews are shown in a favorable light, including a disconcerting use of recognizable lines from the Passover Seder in a scene between Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Belluci).

But, unfortunately, what is on the screen contradicts what is in the filmmakers’ hearts. Those brief moments aside, it would be impossible for any disinterested viewer (if one could be found) to escape the fact that “The Passion” does not just mention in passing but is centered dramatically on the culpability of the Jews. This notion, sometimes called blood libel or blood guilt, has led to untold suffering and death over hundreds and hundreds of years, and should have given someone, even a believer, pause.

As for the film’s violence, it too starts early and stays late. Jesus is badly beaten and humiliated, dangled over a bridge by the chains he’s bound in, before he’s even brought before Caiphas. He’s accused of blasphemy and black magic and then shunted back and forth between Pilate and King Herod, neither of whom, absent the persistence of the Jewish elite, would have the stomach to pass any kind of judgment.

Finally, in desperation, Pilate orders Jesus flogged by Roman soldiers.

This is no ordinary movie flogging. This is an unspeakably savage, unrelenting real-time beating, first with a cane, then with an especially barbarous instrument the press material identifies as “a flagrum, or ‘the cat o’ nine tails,’ a whip designed with multiple straps and embedded with barbed metal tips to catch and shred the skin and cause considerable blood loss.” All of which is shown in a kind of horrific detail that would be unthinkable in a film that could not claim the kind of religious connection this one does.

When this torture, gruesome enough to disgust even the hardened Romans, is done, the Jews, to Pilate’s evident disbelief, are still not satisfied, even insisting that the subhuman murderer Barabbas be released and Jesus, soon to be fitted with a graphically embedded crown of thorns, crucified. Which is what happens, but not all at once.

For “The Passion of the Christ” spends a considerable amount of time on meticulously detailing the agonies of the road to Calvary as well as the tortures of the actual Roman crucifixion, including unblinkingly graphic close-ups of the actual nailing and a shot of a bird pecking out the eye of one of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus. These sequences, shot during an Italian winter, were so intense they nearly did Caviezel in, causing a lung infection and severe hypothermia, all on top of the blistering, shoulder dislocation and actual wounding he experienced during the whipping sequence.

The filmmakers insist that this violence is essential because it is an accurate depiction of what a crucifixion was like (they refer to a Journal of the American Medical Assn. article called “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”) and because it makes real the extent of the sacrifice Jesus made for humanity. But there’s more to the story.

For one thing, close readers of the film have said that some of the tortures are added on: There is no scriptural source for the cross falling over so that Jesus falls on his face. If ever there was a film that wasn’t crying out for more violence, this is it.

It’s also important to point out what film critics have noticed for years: As an actor, Gibson has always had a taste for playing heroes who are physically martyred and put through the tortures of hell. His William Wallace is disemboweled in “Braveheart,” the characters he plays in both “Payback” and “Ransom” are savagely beaten and his “Lethal Weapon” hero is nearly electrocuted. The violence in “Passion” is stomach-turning in part because that’s the way Gibson likes it. In fact, he likes it worse. When asked by a friendly questioner during an outreach screening whether he could have toned the film down, the director replied, “Dude, I did tone it down.”

The problem with “The Passion’s” violence is not merely how difficult it is to take, it’s that its sadistic intensity obliterates everything else about the film. Worse than that, it fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins.

Despite flashbacks that nod to Jesus’ other words and thoughts, no viewer coming to this film absent any knowledge of Christianity would believe that this is the story that gave birth to one of the great transformative religions as well as countless works of timeless beauty.

And without belief, this film does not add up. Without training in or exposure to Christianity, you are likely to feel as flummoxed by what you’re seeing as Western missionaries did when they observed pagan rituals to which they lacked any emotional connection.

Ash Wednesday, “The Passion’s” official opening, is a day of penance, a day when, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia, “ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them of death, of the sorrow they should feel for their sins, and of the necessity of changing their lives.” At a moment when different systems of religious belief are causing tremendous violence and conflict, perhaps it’s also a day to reflect on something else: that a film intended to inspire and invigorate those who believe they are the exclusive possessors of the truth about God is perhaps not the best way to make the world a more humane, a more livable, a more peaceful place.


`The Passion of the Christ’

MPAA rating: R, for scenes of graphic violence.

Times guidelines: An unrelenting, unprecedented display of realistic violence.

James Caviezel...Jesus

Maia Morgenstern...Mary

Monica Bellucci...Mary Magdalene

Mattia Sbragia...Caiphas

Hristo Naumov Shopov...Pilate

An Icon Productions presentation in association with Newmarket Films. Director Mel Gibson. Producers Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety. Executive producer Enzo Sisti. Screenplay Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Production designer Francesco Frigeri. Set decorator Carlo Gervasi. Editor John Wright. Music John Debney. Special makeup and visual effects Keith Vanderlaan. Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes. In general release.

Los Angeles Times