Passion of the Christ, The

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 04/19/05 11:37:16

1 stars (Total Crap)

As "Home Alone" and "Titanic" have proven, a super-top-grossing film isn't reflective of greatness.

The day after having sat through Mel Gibson's ludicrous The Passion of the Christ, I allowed myself the pleasure of re-watching Martin Scorsese's miraculous, near-perfect The Last Temptation of Christ, and I'm glad that I did for it helped purge most of Gibson's laughably self-indulgent, pandering-down-to wank-fest from my system. In Scorsese's picture, Jesus was depicted as a genuinely sincere but uncertain individual who lived in a perpetual state of fear: he knew God was speaking to him to speak to others through Him, but he wasn't eager for the honor -- someone who viewed himself as a sinner, he didn't see himself as even remotely worthy of this higher calling. In an effort to make God hate him, he went so far as making crosses for the Romans to crucify his fellow Jews, but try as he might he failed at getting God out of his head ("God loves me, I know he loves me. I want him to stop -- I can't take the pain"). He soon embarked on a long, treacherous journey to spread His word of unconditional, all-encompassing love, picked up disciples along the way, confronted temptations laid out by Satan (some of which he managed to resist, some of which he didn't), and, finally, after first succumbing to then eventually rejecting the ultimate temptation (a happy, fruitful life with a wife and children) allowed himself to be crucified as atonement for the sins of others. Anchored by Willem Dafoe's remarkable, multi-faceted lead performance, an uncommonly literate screenplay, and Scorsese's never-better direction, Temptation employed Jesus as a metaphor for the suffering of the human condition: to get the viewer closer to Jesus, he was made identifiably human, and thus more emotionally receptive to us -- as opposed to a faultless martyr, he was, in essence, us. And what prevailed was not only a greater understanding of Jesus, but a message of towering resonance: that mankind, when accepting of Jesus and when tempted by sin, in recognizing that Jesus died for their sins out of love, is capable, like Jesus, of resisting it. Gibson's film, by contrast, concentrates the majority of its running time to the grueling punishment Jesus endures leading up to and during his crucifixion, and it's a mess -- a cinematic catastrophe of biblical proportions.

When we first see Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel), he and his disciples are praying in the woods at Gethsemane, where they're soon interrupted by the Temple guards, who've come to arrest Jesus (whose whereabouts has been disclosed to them through Jesus' closest confidant, Judas, for the cost of thirty gold coins) by the order of the Jewish high priest, Caiphas, for the charge of violating the Sabbath by claiming to be the Messiah. This is in the first ten minutes, and already we're overdosed on visual hyperbole: Caleb Deschanel's gaudy ultra-blue lighting, Gibson's insistent use of slow-motion in the action sequence between the sparring guards and disciples, and the shots of a full moon overhead reek of avant-garde pretentiousness. From there, Jesus is chained and led to the Temple, and during the trek he's subjected to repeated physical abuses: he's punched and even thrown off a low bridge for good measure, but, like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps right on going. When he reaches the Temple, his far-from-enticing appearance horrifies Pilate, the Roman governor, who's outraged at the vile treatment having been inflicted upon Jesus; Caiphas and his fellow Sanhedrin elders demand Jesus be put to death, but Pilate orders a compromise -- that Jesus be given a severe but non-lethal chastising by the Romans, which results in first-rate whippings and scourges that would make the Marquis de Sade weep in admiration. Even though Jesus boldly survives this ordeal, with his flesh frayed to extra-rare sirloin, Caiphas demands he be crucified, and Pilate, fearing a riot from the venomous crowd and a stern rebuke from Caesar for having allowed such a riot to occur, cedes to this demand, and Jesus is made to carry a cross the size and weight of a Volkswagen to Golgotha for the 'ol nail-to-the-hands-and-feet action while being slapped and kicked and punched and spat on and shoved to the ground just about every step of the way. (With this ill-treatment and his long hair, pacifist nature and love-your-enemies/give-to-the-poor beliefs, you'd think he were being traipsed through the Republican National Convention.) Finally, after having endured heaping helpings of abuse (not to mention a shoulder being wrenched out of socket so as to make for a better fit on the cross), Jesus, though indeed dead from the crucifixion, is resurrected, and his spirit emanates with a blinding resonance not rivaled since the low-carb-diet faze.

For anyone truly interested in Jesus's teachings, one is advised to look elsewhere than The Passion of the Christ, because director/co-screenwriter Gibson, a devout Catholic who's made it clear to the press that he was interested mainly in emphasizing the horrendous physical tribulations Jesus endured for accepting the full burden of mankind's sins, provides scant screen time to these apparent incidentals. Events like the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper are depicted, but only in flashbacks and only for about two minutes. According to Gibson, previous Bible epics had shortchanged Jesus's ultimate sacrifice of crucifixion by not giving it its undiluted visceral due; yet, in doing just the opposite, Gibson has painted himself into an artistic corner all his own -- he's shortchanged the audience of an actual story leading up to the crucifixion. We've little information as to how Jesus won over the people who would be his disciples, and how they're bound to him, so the story isn't grounded in anything; we're given a lackadaisical version of Jesus's life that wouldn't be enough to fill up the Cliff's Notes for a Jimmy Junior High reading assignment. I hate to be the one to break this to Gibson, but there are those of us who can surmise that a crucifixion isn't an invitation to a prom or the equivalent of a bikini waxing: even the mere thought of such subtle things as nails being hammered into one's appendages is reason enough to seek out a couple of straight shots from the nearest Jim Beam bottle; and while I still carry memories of being whipped by a birch switch as a mischievous tyke, I don't exactly need a slide ruler to surmise that the glass-embedded whippings Jesus is on the receiving end here are quite more severe by comparison. Yes, Gibson wants to make sure the audience comprehends the quintessential painful toil Christ was unselfishly willing to endure for all those sins, but we don't need eighty percent of a just-over-two-hour running time to convey this; we just keep watching and watching and watching Jesus's suffering, and after the one-hour mark you become not only desensitized to the violence but emotionally distanced from the whole film because the characters haven't been aptly defined and explored enough for us to have even a smidgen of a stake in, so when Jesus finally declares "It is accomplished" it's about as compelling as someone who's just finished an Ironman competition. (Actually, the line "We are people who love ideas and argument, then reject our prophets" from Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth was more compelling.)

Don't blame Jim Caviezel, though. It's not his fault his Jesus comes off as a cipher, because the screenplay doesn't give him much in the way of viable dramatic underpinnings -- it's the most grandiose sketch-composite of a characterization I've ever seen, one that's supposed to be moving the living tear drops out of you yet is so detrimentally vacuous that it leaves a crater-size hole in the core of the story. Caviezel looks the part, all right, and some of his soulful expressions are quite lovely, but he's never been a particularly outgoing actor with much force, and he can't make more of the part here than what's been written. (He actually gave a much more interesting performance as the avenging widower in Robert Harmon's entertaining road thriller Highwaymen later in the year; the film was criticized for being silly, yet its hell-on-wheels midget villain wasn't any sillier than the midget on display here who's carried in the arms of a shaved-head, androgynous female Satan who looks like Sinead O'Connor riding a codeine high). Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci as Mary and Magdalen are asked little of except to provide weepy reaction shots. As Caiphas, the one-note Mattia Sbragia seems to be revving up for a career as stock B-movie villains. The only performers who manage to come through are Hristo Naumov Shpov, as Pilate, and Fabio Sartor, as Abernader, the captain of the Roman guards. Sartor doesn't have a lot lines, but he makes the most of them and manages to suggest some semblances of innate decency in his inconsistently-written character -- which is no small feat, mind you, considering the rest of the guards have been directed to act as buffoonish and cartoonish as the ones in Mel Brooks's History of the World Part 1. And Shpov, though lacking the mesmerizing iciness of David Bowie's Pilate in Temptation, is quietly magnetic and provides the film with its only moments of gravity. Pilate is top man at the Temple, but not of the Roman Empire, and Shpov, communicating as much through his pauses as his words (he's that rare actor who can vividly convey that his character is actually thinking something over), slyly projects onto Pilate the frustrations of middle management. A stupendous actor, he.

The Passion of the Christ is a monumentally lousy film, with Gibson's direction about as negligible as his writing. Missing is the incisive feel for shaping individual character sequences that benefited his fine-but-flawed directorial debut The Man Without a Face -- the cutting from a medium shot to a close-up or a medium one to a long shot of the same object or person here is really trite -- along with the classically-scaled bravado of his Oscar-winning epic Braveheart -- the stunted narrative has all the momentum of an ice floe. When Gibson wants to make a visual point, eight times out of ten he uses slow-motion to accentuate it, and this quickly grows as tiresome as the beatings; so when he attempts something of an ethereal moment -- whether it's a falling tear drop or sunlight pouring through a hole in a hand -- the overreliance on attention-getting technique robs the image of any graphic power. In a film that's maddeningly overstated yet underwritten, it's not too surprising that there's only one truly memorable moment to be found: When Jesus tells Pilate that the people who hear his voice hear the truth, and Pilate asks what truth is, there's a cutaway to Jesus, who confidently stares at Pilate with a face that reads, "You're lookin' at it, buddy." (What also makes this work is Gibson's canny decision to cut to Jesus before Pilate finishes his question -- it simply wouldn't have been as effective otherwise, and it's the one time Gibson shows any sound instinct.) This subtext-less film is just about impossible to take seriously because there's only so much thought an audience can project into a hermetically-developed film that one critic rightly called a "glorified death trip"; it's a film not of enriching ideas but of cold-hard, steadfast conviction in only one thing -- the degree of punishment Jesus endured equaling the degree of his love for mankind -- and that's boring, because this in itself, coupled with a non-existent dramatic-depth base, isn't enough to sustain a feature-length film. In both The Last Temptation of Christ and Agnieszka Holland's The Third Miracle (which dealt with Ed Harris's priest determining if Anne Heche's deceased mother was a valid candidate for sainthood), you could sense the filmmaker's assuredness but also their curiosity in their complex subjects, as if they hadn't pinned everything down and ironed everything out; that they, like the characters, were discovering various things as they went along that intrigued and challenged them. The Passion of the Christ, on the other hand, has its One Big Thing all rigidly mapped out from the get-go and myopically sticks with this and only this from start to finish, and because of that it does something no film should: it shuts down your mind.

If you haven't put "Last Temptation of Christ" on your Netflix list yet, what are you waiting for?

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