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.
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.