The Goriest Story Ever Told

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A scene from Mel Gibson's The Passion

You might not expect much controversy from a strenuously reverent film adaptation of some famous chapters from the all-time best-selling book, one found in most homes, churches and hotel rooms. But with mouthy Mel Gibson as the auteur and the Gospels as his text, The Passion of the Christ has stoked a holy word war of an intensity not seen since Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

Let's start by saying that this is a movie, and that it has the same right to take the Bible literally as other films have to be comically blasphemous. Faith and piety are so often mocked in modern pop culture that Gibson could seem a radical just for approaching the Gospels with a straight face. The director, who won a Best Picture Oscar for Braveheart, has put his money ($30 million) where his faith is. In dramatizing the torment of Jesus' last 12 hours, he has made a serious, handsome, excruciating film that radiates total commitment. Few mainstream directors have poured so much of themselves into so uncompromising a production. Whatever the ultimate verdict on Gibson's Passion, it's hard not to admire Gibson's passion.


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Or his artistry. The film, photographed by Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, Gibson's The Patriot), is an attractive clash of eerie blues in the outdoor night scenes, burnished umbers in the trial scenes and blistering whites and yellows on the road to Calvary. The cast, led by James Caviezel as a gaunt, haunted Jesus, is well chosen and smartly directed. The screenplay, by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, begins starkly in the Garden of Olives — no loaves and fishes, no wedding feast at Cana — but adds nonbiblical flashbacks to Jesus' idyllic childhood with his beloved mother Mary (powerfully embodied by Maia Morgenstern). It also visualizes Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as an androgynous creature, a Gollum with weird sex appeal, who slithers through the crowd, working infernal mischief.

Is the film anti-Jewish? Well, which Jews? Start with the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical senate that found Jesus guilty of violating temple law and handed him to the Roman authority for summary punishment. The rabbis had their reasons; they saw the upstart as dangerous, blasphemous, possibly insane for proclaiming himself the Messiah and telling his followers they would live forever if they ate his flesh and drank his blood. The film sees the rabbis as doctrinally pure but politically corrupt. Indeed, it suggests they are a rogue cell calling a midnight caucus for a frame-up. But Gibson also shows many Jews (and no Romans) treating Jesus with a kindness and charity one might call Christian. We acknowledge, then, that The Passion is rabidly anti-Sanhedrin — opposed, as Jesus and other Jews were, to the Establishment of the time. But to charge the film with being anti-Semitic is like saying those who oppose the Bush Administration's Iraq policy are anti-American.

Like most movies, this one favors the underdog, the insurgent, the solitary hero against the powerful. Gibson's Jesus is a traditional movie rebel. He shows steely contempt for authority, chastens his mates for being slackers and argues with his Father — the God who sent him on this sacred suicide mission. This Jesus is so human he almost forgets he's divine. The grotesque pain he endures in his last 12 hours nearly blinds him to his task of redeeming mankind by dying for it. His memories are not those of a distant godhead but of his youth in Nazareth. Gibson's Jesus is a deity who has fallen in love with his human side; only death can restore his divinity.

Gibson has often played heroes like this. In his starmaking Mad Max films he was the postapocalyptic angry young man. In Conspiracy Theory he spouted eccentric political and religious scenarios ("Somebody's got to lift the festering scab that is the Vatican," he barks at two startled nuns in his taxi), one of which, when it turns out to be true, earned him a death sentence from today's Sanhedrin, the CIA. In Signs, the Gibson character saw alien creatures attacking his family; The Passion's Jesus sees Satan everywhere, clouding men's minds, taking the form of snakes and little boys, following Jesus up Calvary to gloat and grimace.

Braveheart was gaudily violent, in spurts. This one is crimson carnage from the moment Jesus is condemned, half an hour into the 127-min. film. One of his eyes is caked closed from a beating by Jewish goons, but the Romans are the pros. They take their time applying 80 or so wince-worthy lashes to his body, and the camera pays avid attention to the whole draining spectacle. He falls three times, which is fine for Catholic fidelity but wasteful and redundant as movie drama.

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