So, here it is, the most controversial movie of the last...10 years? 20? 50? 100? Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which finally arrived in movie theaters on Ash Wednesday, has been riding a wave of publicity the likes of which hasn't been seen since, well, since at least Godzilla. The difference is that the publicity for Gibson's Passion has largely been that of the free variety -- a months-long media debate over a movie that most of the debaters hadn't yet been allowed to see. Even the pope, God bless him, may have gotten into the act. "It is as it was," the infallible one either did or didn't say after either watching or not watching a video that Gibson's production company sent the Vatican's way. And although God himself appears to be holding his review until Judgment Day, Gibson has suggested on more than one occasion that the Holy Ghost was working through him while the film was being made, a potential contract dispute better left for the Directors Guild to resolve.
Yes, it's been a bit of a three-ring circus. In this ring, we have accusations of anti-Semitism or potential anti-Semitism or the possibility of potential anti-Semitism. In this ring, we have arguments over the historical accuracy of the New Testament, which Gibson accepts on faith but many people, believers and nonbelievers, question. And finally, in what turns out to be the center ring, we have the most graphically violent depiction of Jesus' torture and execution ever recorded on film. "Think about the Crucifixion -- there's no way to sugarcoat that," Gibson has told Time magazine. But there are ways to sugarcoat it. In fact, that's exactly what creative artists -- including the ones who created the Gospels, upon which The Passion is based -- have been doing for nearly 2,000 years. Not here, though. If anything, Gibson has exaggerated what Jesus went through. And I say that only because it's almost impossible to imagine anybody surviving what this Jesus goes through before he's nailed to the cross.
"I wanted it to be shocking," Gibson told Diane Sawyer on a special edition of "Primetime" last week. "I wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge." And if the crowd I saw the movie with is any indication, Gibson has gotten his wish. There were tears, cries of despair, abandoned tubs of popcorn. Even I, with my battle-hardened nerves of steel, found parts of the movie excruciating to watch -- excruciating, from the Latin "excruciatus," meaning "out of the cross." In emphasizing the flesh over the spirit, crucifixion over resurrection, Gibson has opened himself up to the charge that, when it comes to the meaning of Jesus' life, death and afterlife, he just doesn't get it. At times, The Passion of the Christ feels like a snuff film -- a revenge fantasy without the revenge. But there's no denying the movie's raw power, its ability to soak us in the blood of the lamb. And there's no doubting that, for better or worse, this is exactly the film Gibson set out to make.
Well, almost exactly. He originally planned to run the film, which is in Aramaic and Latin, without the benefit of subtitles; luckily, cooler heads prevailed. And he's removed the line of dialogue -- removed it from the subtitles, anyway -- that would have been Exhibit A in the Anti-Defamation League's case against the film, the so-called blood libel, when Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, says of Jesus' death, "His blood be on us and our children." Here, Gibson succumbed to pressure from what he's called "my detractors." Even so, The Passion of the Christ is very much Gibson's movie. He produced it. He directed it. He co-wrote the script. And in an act of wisdom that once seemed like an act of folly, he paid for the film out of his own pocket, a $30 million investment that brought him a $125 million return within five days. "They think I'm crazy, and maybe I am," Gibson said two years ago when asked how his friends and associates were responding to his Jesus movie. "But maybe I'm a genius."
A genius? No. But if Gibson's crazy, he's crazy like a fox, manipulating the fault lines along various belief systems toward the benefit of a film that, were his name not attached to it, wouldn't have us talking about it today. He's gotten word of mouth out of the word of God -- Hollywood's equivalent of the Holy Grail. And because the movie stands to be around a long, long time, shedding heat and light on one of the foundation texts of Western civilization, it bears taking a close look at. Here, then, is my interpretation of The Gospel According to Mel.
The movie opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus has gone to pray and wait for his arrest. It's nighttime, and the air is thick with fog, a blue-gray shroud that's draped over the trees. The mood is gothic, and Jesus is clearly spooked, begging God to remove the cobwebs from his heart. Jim Caviezel's Jesus is more macho than we're used to, his body smoothly muscled from years of carpentry, his eyes burning with intensity. Only Willem Dafoe, in The Last Temptation of Christ, seemed so capable of defending himself, a toughness that makes Jesus' sacrifice all the more impressive. (He could have kicked some Roman ass!) Caviezel emotes up a storm in The Passion of the Christ. But, except for coming up with myriad ways of saying "ouch," he doesn't get much of a chance to, you know, act; he's too busy getting clobbered. The important thing is, he looks the part -- tall, dark and handsome except for the tall part. Of course, the Gospels never get around to mentioning what Jesus actually looked like.
"The Gospels tell you what basically happened," Gibson has said. "I want to know what really went down." Well, don't we all? But for most mainstream Catholics and Protestants, "basically" is the key word in that sentence. According to Bible scholars, the first four books of the New Testament, which Gibson seems to think are eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life and death, were in fact written 70 to 100 years later, and not by men named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Nor was historical accuracy the prime motivation for writing them. Proselytizing was. That Gibson, who's a Catholic traditionalist -- i.e., a member of a splinter group that refuses to recognize the reforms of Vatican II -- believes in the literal truth of the New Testament is his own affair. But it does beg the question of what he's put up on the screen. The Gospels are sketchy, even contradictory documents. How did Gibson choose among them? And what did he use to fill in such blanks as the length of Jesus' hair?
That's a question for the Bible and film scholars of tomorrow. For now, there are reports that, in addition to the Gospels, Gibson and his co-scriptwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, relied on the mystical writings of two nuns: Mary of Agreda, a 17th-century Spaniard, and Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century German. Neither nun knew Jesus personally, except in what we'll just have to call the biblical sense, and both of them dipped their pens in the black ink of anti-Semitism, but at least they weren't Hollywood hacks doctoring a script. My all-time favorite screen credit is from a Bible epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and it goes like this: "Based on the Books of the Old and New Testaments, Other Ancient Writings, the Book The Greatest Story Ever Told by Fulton Ousler, and Other Writings by Henry Denker." With all due respect to Henry Denker's "Other Writings," this makes the movie sound like a mutt, whereas Gibson would have us believe his movie is more of a purebred -- the gospel truth.
It isn't the gospel truth. It's Gibson's personal vision, drawing on accounts in the Gospels and God knows where else (crucifixion manuals?), of Jesus Christ's last 12 hours on earth. Which is why it seems both familiar and strange to us -- a road we've been down many times before, but with slightly altered scenery. In what passes for a plot, the Anointed One is arrested, beaten, brought to trial, tortured, passed from one jurisdiction to another, beaten some more, tortured some more, condemned to die, beaten and tortured some more, then led off to his rendezvous with destiny. Meanwhile, in brief flashbacks, we're shown pivotal moments in Jesus' life -- the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, etc. We're even shown the time back in Nazareth when, as a young carpenter, Jesus more or less invented the bar stool. (Try finding that in the Gospels.) But the scenes everybody's been wondering about are the ones where the Jewish priesthood calls for the death of the itinerant rabbi in its midst.
Yes, it's there in the New Testament, but the New Testament was written much later, when Christians were being hounded by both Roman authorities and Jewish authorities. Maybe the authors wanted to settle a score or two. On "Primetime," Gibson told Diane Sawyer that critics who think they have a problem with him don't really have a problem with him, they have a problem with the Gospels. And he's right, in a way. It's just that his critics aren't the only ones who have that particular problem with the Gospels. So do most mainstream Catholics and Protestants. Nobody knows "what really went down" when Jesus of Nazareth was tried for blasphemy, but Gibson thinks he knows, which allows him to swan-dive into one of the largest cans of worms this side of the Kennedy assassination. Jewish religious leaders may indeed have wanted Jesus dead; in their eyes, he was a dangerously popular fraud. But how far were they willing to go? And how much pleasure did they take in their success?
In Gibson's view of things, they were willing to go pretty far, maneuvering Jesus' death sentence past a reluctant Pontius Pilate by holding out the threat of rebellion, which wouldn't have gone over very well back in Rome. Fair enough, but we're still faced with a bloodthirsty Jewish mob screaming "Crucify him!" As for Caiaphas, he appears to be made of stone, hardly flinching an inch while witnessing Jesus' torture and execution. Is there not an ounce of pity in the man? In comparison, Pilate seems like a softie, followed around by his wife, who serves as his conscience. And then there's Herod, whose dithering seems more queenly than kingly. (Shades of Braveheart, where Gibson got audiences cheering by having a king throw his gay son out a castle window.) Still, it's the Roman soldiers whom Gibson makes into monsters, endowing them with enough sadistic glee to keep the fires in hell burning for all eternity. While whipping Jesus with a cat-o'-nine-tails, they literally foam at the mouth.
It doesn't take very much of that before you're satiated, if not downright numb, but Gibson just keeps pouring it on, turning the movie theater into an abattoir. The Passion of the Christ may not be the bloodiest film I've ever seen, but it's up there. And you have to wonder whether Gibson has achieved what he set out to achieve -- searing into our minds the enormity of Jesus' sacrifice. Is the way to our heart through our solar plexus? Religious art has rarely, if ever, been so graphic. GrÃnewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece" and Mantegna's "dead Christ," both shocking in their own times, seem wimpy in comparison. And all those movie Jesuses, with their willowy bodies, seem like a bunch of sissies. By bringing the blood and guts of Braveheart to the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, Gibson has not only struck a blow for realism, he's given Jesus a femme-to-butch makeover. Which is to say, he's done what Jesus-movie writers and directors often do, made Jesus in his own image.
Caviezel even looks like the young Gibson, who drove through the Road Warrior movies, saving a world that was beyond saving. Throughout his career, Gibson has had a savior complex, although his characters haven't been all that good at turning the other cheek. (They didn't call it Payback for nothing.) Nor has Gibson been very good at turning the other cheek in his public life. "I want his intestines on a stick," he said about New York Times columnist Frank Rich in a New Yorker profile that ran last fall. "I want to kill his dog." Rich had accused Gibson of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism to garner attention for his movie, and however fair or unfair the accusation, it certainly got Gibson to show his colors. Why a man like this would want to spend $30 million of his own money to make a film about a guy who always turned the other cheek is between Mel and his maker. But not for nothing does the newly resurrected Jesus stride out of his tomb to the sound of war drums. Sequel, anyone?