Passion of the Christ, The

dir: Mel Gibson
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Oh. My. Gods. I’m, I’m stunned. I cannot believe what I just saw. A movie about a nice enough chap who says a few nice things to people, ends up getting beaten up severely, is then flayed and tenderised like a cheap cut of meat, has thorns wedged though his eyelids, and is then nailed to pieces of wood. They even stab him with a spear in the end just to make sure that he’s dead.

And that’s the film. The vast majority of it centres on and is entirely concerned with his torments. It’s pretty rough, and it kind of makes me feel sorry for anyone who’s undergoing torture right now. Anywhere in the world. You know, at anyone's hands. It's nasty stuff.

Gibson is famous for a lot of things. You would wish it would be for playing Mad Max / Road Warrior films, or for those steely blue eyes, or for making a few good films in a completely idiosyncratic way.

Alas, most recently, his infamy has been based on the now clear evidence that he really does hate the Jews, and that at least in part, his version of the Easter classic was intended to malign the Jews who killed Christ. In vino veritas, and all that.

Look, I can’t say for certain that Mel Gibson, deep in his crazy heart of hearts, hates Jewish people or is anti-Semitic to the core. His father is on the record as denying that the Holocaust occurred and that evil Jews run the world. But the sins of the father shouldn’t be used to condemn the son.

I’d hate to think that, years down the track, my daughter is condemned because of one or several of the idiotic things I’ve said and will inevitably say in time.

When this version of the Passion play was slated for production and release, certain Jewish interest groups made the point that the story itself, as is it usually depicted, is itself anti-Semitic, whatever the director’s intentions could be. And they feared that Gibson, a staunch Traditionalist Catholic, was using this as an opportunity to stoke the fires of hatred.

He and plenty of other PR flacks assured everyone they could that the flick’s purpose was not to sow seeds of hate but to grow seeds of love, of loving lovingness all arising from showing just what Joshua Ben Joseph went through nearly two thousand years ago.

The film was released, and it made almost more money that any other that year, giving cultural conservatives, right-wing ideologues and the kinds of people who think Hollywood and the rest of the world is run by evil Jews the chance to crow.

It’s interesting for me that the films that beat it in terms of box office that year were also fantasy films, being stuff like the last instalment in the Lord of the Rings franchise and a Spider-Man flick.

Still, it’s unfair to point to events that occurred more recently, such as a drunken Gibson being arrested by the cops and launching into the kind of anti-Jewish, anti-Sugar Tits tirade that would get lesser men then he run out of Hollywood on a rail.

It’s unfair, but a lot of fun too.

Of course The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic. How? Why? Well, don’t you know the story, as you’ll often hear from older generations? Anti-Semitism is justified because the Jews killed Our Saviour, didn’t you know? It wasn’t the Romans, it was the Jews of Jerusalem who sealed his fate. Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority figure? His hands were tied, tied so severely that he had to wash them afterwards, by the Sanhedrin, being the council of malevolent high priests led by Caiaphas. They so desperately want him dead that they manipulate events to lead to his bloody torture and then execution. And even when they have the chance to spare his life after a scourging that would have killed an elephant, the Jews elect to spare the life of a murderer, being Barabbas, instead of sparing their Lord.

Damn them, damn them all to etc etc.

It is often quietly noted by those with a little bit of history behind them that a certain German leader last century used to love, LOVE watching the Passion play staged. It was his favourite form of entertainment, along with chewing on bratwurst sausages and invading Poland.

I’m joking of course. He was a vegetarian, so snacking on snags whilst leading the Reich wasn’t really possible.

It’s very hard to speak of this film in anything apart from the issues around it. It is a story that closely hews to the gospels, especially John, but also includes a few more insane elements allegedly incorporated from the mad musings of a pair of crazy nuns, who had visions of Christ’s path to the cross.

On the one hand I feel compelled to approach the flick as someone who grew up in the Christian faith and is more than familiar with the subject. On the other hand, I feel compelled to approach the flick as a flick, and talk about it solely in terms of its crafting as a film and its impact as a story.

If I had a third hand, I would feel compelled to point out that the flick and Mel Gibson are fucking nuts.

Gibson increases the ‘definitiveness’ of this version by having the characters all talk in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, with subtitles to explain the wonderful script to those of you who don’t know Aramaic, Latin or Hebrew. Everything is shot with the prestige look (with acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel at the helm) that used to guarantee you Oscars. At least, before you start screaming about Jews, blacks and Eskimos, of course.

Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is having something of a rough night emotionally when the film begins. He is praying in a garden, beseeching his father to take away from him the poisoned chalice that is his destiny. He knows what’s coming, completely and utterly.

He knows who will betray him, who will condemn him, who will deny him and who will destroy him. He is The Jesus, after all.

But he becomes resolved to His Father’s will, and chooses to go along with it anyway, in order to bring redemption to human kind and to give the world the supreme example of martyrdom and sacrifice, and a cool accessory for everyone to wear.

He and several of his followers are confronted by soldiers sent by the evil Jews to capture Jesus. This sequence turns into an action movie staple as Michael Bay would direct it. There’s all sorts of slow-motion, rapid speed-ups and slow-downs, over the top sound effects and muscular action to the point where you start to suspect that it’s a parody.

But it’s no parody. It’s deadly serious, just like the rest of the film.

If you know the story as the rest of it follows up to his crucifixion, then little else will surprise you in the script. Except the soldiers start off by beating The Jesus until he’s nearly unrecognisable.

He is called to account in front of the Sanhedrin, and makes the mistake of giving them the kinds of answers they want that implicitly threatens their power.

By this stage, Jesus’s mother, I forget what her name is (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), are alerted, and try to see The Jesus and help him, but all they can to is become witnesses to his increasing torment.

Everything follows the tried, true and time-tested story except for the almost random seeming appearances of midget demons, and Satan himself/herself (Rosalinda Celentano). Judas is plagued by demons who look like children but are really middle aged little people. In the most disturbing scene that doesn’t involve brutality, Satan walks around cradling a hideous, aged baby.

Eventually, after being dismissed by a paedophilic Herod, Pilate (Hristo Shopov) reluctantly has The Jesus ‘punished’ severely to placate the Jews.

Thus begins the terrible scourging. At first they beat him with sticks, to which Jesus is left still standing, despite the best efforts of four or five maliciously sadistic Roman soldiers are capable of. When they look through their tool rack, they eventually choose these whips with metal barbs.

The beating that preceded was bad enough. The torment that follows is one of the sickest things ever committed to celluloid.

Blood sprays out from Jesus in two long arcs. We watch the barbs being literally whipped into his flesh, and then ripped out, taking blood, flesh and skin with it. The soldiers become coated in His blood. When they’ve taken all the skin off of His back, the backs of His arms and legs, they flip Him over and keep gouging away.

You, unless you’re a big fan of horror films, have never seen anything like this. This scourging transcends anything from the Bible, anything you’ve imagined or likely even heard about in true crime or the annals of history.

For the devout I would imagine it is a traumatic and traumatising event, but one with significance and deep meaning for them. One of the central tenets of the religion is that Jesus suffered and died, quite painfully, for our sins. The magnitude of our sins necessitated the magnitude of His suffering, and He suffered so much more than anyone else ever had or ever would.

For an American evangelical audience, this must be the ultimate stroke material. The entire point, from the point of view of the very devout, is that their triumphant, muscular version of Christianity is exemplified right here. No one ever took a beating like The Jesus, their Jesus, and kept a-walking, even helping to carry his own cross to his own crucifixion, boy howdy. He could have stepped down from the Cross and killed every single one of them bastards if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He showed those punks what a real Son of Man is capable of. Yee-haa, bitches!

This is how they reconcile the mutually exclusive “prince of peace, love thy neighbour and thine enemy more” Jesus of the New Testament with their “Jesus hates fags and darkies” mentality. It’s all up there on the screen. Go on, I dare you to disbelieve me.

For those of different faiths, or those who are openly hostile to Christianity specifically and religion in general, even knowing the details doesn’t make any of this anything less than absurd. Sure, there was probably a guy in history who said some nice things and then was killed for threatening the powers that be, not directly, but by the power of his message. Sure he suffered, but other people die worse deaths and have suffered worse torments with even less justification, prior to, during and after his lifetime. To focus and almost pathologically celebrate his torture seems unhealthy at best and downright insane at worst.

Plus it doesn’t take a doctor to know that a man who’s had the skin and flesh removed from most of his body, to the point where he looks like a side of beef on a butcher’s hook, isn’t walking anywhere, let alone carrying a huge wooden cross. It would have taken substantially less that that to kill this or any other guy at the start of the day, let alone by 3 in the afternoon.

Talking about the performances seems almost superfluous, but they are important. When a story like this is told it can quite easily fall into cheesiness or self-parody if the tone isn’t right and if the acting camps it up. Neither happens here, with the doom-laden, ultra-serious tone being maintained throughout. Jesus has a few opportunities on his road to Golgotha to flash back to a time where he wasn’t as bloody, where he has some simple moments telling his disciples about what is to come, or washing their feet, or joking with his mother over the construction of a table. Caviezel is decent in these scenes, but they are all too brief before we return to the blood-spraying brutality. These moments are signposts more than anything else; signs of acknowledgement to the faithful, and probably bewilderment to those not in the know.

The other actors do a decent job as well in something that is little more than a highly serious pantomime, especially the chap playing Pilate, his wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) and a Roman commander called Abenarder (Fabio Sartor), who does his duty but takes no pleasure in the barbarity around him. Monica as the Magdalene looks suitably sad and hot, to the point where she prompts feelings of very Christian guilt for having impure thoughts. Jesus’s mum looks suitably sad, but how could she not?

When he finally gets to the Cross, the brutality does not end, as well as Mel’s unholy fixation on blood. They pound the massive nails through his palms, sending blood up into the air. The nails, pounded through, have His blood dripping through the wood as well, impossibly. The priests, who leave the Crucifixion early, have His blood sprayed across them, which they acknowledge they will always carry on them through the generations (still wondering whether it’s anti-Semitic or not?)

When a soldier goes to speed His death, and jabs him in the side with his spear, blood and then water shoots out of him, spraying all over the soldier, in a scene that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so disturbing. The skies darken, the earth shakes, the Temple cracks in half. The Lord and Saviour of humanity wonders why His Father has abandoned him, before saying, “It is finished.”

Mother Mary and Jesus’s bloody corpse get to recreate, before his brief internment behind a rock, the classical Renaissance image of the pieta, emphasising as well Gibson’s love of the artworks of Caravaggio. Many scenes recall the artist, on or around the actual crucifixion itself. None of the flick look like it was done on the cheap, and apart from the depiction of the city of Jerusalem, which feels like a dirty, lived-in city, the scale of it exceeds most flicks of similar ambition.

The film ends on the most hopeful and triumphant note it can, being the Resurrection itself, but I imagine the relief, for those not weeping tears of divine ecstasy by this point, is the relief of having a painful experience end.

In terms of telling the Passion story, the last bloody night of The Jesus’s life, even with the extreme violence, you can’t say that Gibson failed. He delivers exactly what he promises in its entirety. It is a story that speaks most strongly, obviously, to Christians. I don’t doubt for a second that, cinematically speaking, it could resonate and disturb people of other or no creeds. It’s powerfully made, perhaps too powerfully made. The man brings the same visual and visceral sensibilities to this that he brought to Braveheart and Apocalypto, which are gleeful in their depictions of violence, but without the “ain’t us Christians great?” subtext. They’re more about the “ain’t violence great?” more than anything else.

And do you know why, apart from the conjecture of the various pundits and satirists who conjecture that Gibson is completely bonkers? It’s because Gibson knows that nothing is more compelling, more affecting, more primal than violence, whether it is in the service of dying for humanity or killing for freedom.

As for the charges of anti-Semitism: of course it is anti-Semitic, but not in a way that matters. The New Testament is anti-Semitic in essence, because it represents a break with the past, with Judaism and with the barbarity and sacrifice of the past. The people who hate Jews irrationally don't need permission or encouragement from Mel Gibson. Their hate and mendacity, and claims that this particular Jew's death at the hands of other Jews using the Romans as proxies is sufficient grounds for spouting idiocies about secret conspiracies and cabals, predate this film and will outlive it as well. They don't need anyone's help being that fucking stupid.

Still, as a Christian I find this film too much, and it misses the point about what makes Christianity great: it isn’t how Christ died that matters, it’s what he stood for. As a Muslim, I find this a wonderful and accurate retelling of an important prophet’s life prior to the coming of the True Prophet, and I applaud it because it depicts the Tribe unfavourably. As a Jew I find this flick not to be kosher in the slightest. As a Satanist, I have to say all that blood did wonders for my mood, but the depiction of Lord Satan as an androgynous wimp angered me greatly. As a Hindu I point and laugh at the paucity of gods available to Christians, but marvel at the suffering endured by one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu.

As a Buddhist, I feel that the film emphasises the point that all life is suffering, and that the path to Nirvana lies in abandoning one’s attachment to worldly goods, desires and passions. Especially this Passion.

As a true worshipper in the Church of Cinema, I have to say the film is interesting, watchable and disturbing all at the same time, which is what cinema should be.

7 times people should have been asking themselves "Would Jesus Watch This Film?" out of 10. Honestly, it’s nastier than Hostel and Saw put together.

“Eloi, eloi, lamas sabachtahni?” – The Passion of the Christ.