Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Merciless Gibson tells it like it was

The actor and director has exploited the popular appetite for terror and gore for what he and his allies see as a higher end

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The crucifixion was a bloody mess, as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ seems to show

PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX FILMS

There is a prophetic episode of The Simpsons in which the celebrity guest star Mel Gibson, directing and starring in a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, enlists the help of Homer Simpson, who represents the public taste (or lack of it). Homer persuades Gibson to change the picture's ending, replacing James Stewart's populist tirade with an action sequence, a barrage of righteous gunfire that leaves the halls of Congress strewn with corpses. The audience flees the theater in disgust. I thought of Homer more than once, with an involuntary irreverence conditioned by many years of devotion to The Simpsons, as Gibson presented his new movie, The Passion of the Christ, to carefully selected preview audiences across the land, making a few last-minute cuts, and then taking to the airwaves to promote and defend the film. It opens today nationwide.

Given the Crucifixion story, Gibson did not need to change the ending.

The Passion of the Christ is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus' final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace.

Gibson has departed radically from the tone and spirit of earlier American movies about Jesus, which have tended to be palatable (if often extremely long) Sunday school homilies designed to soothe the audience rather than to terrify or inflame it.

His version of the Gospels is harrowingly violent; the final hour of The Passion of the Christ essentially consists of a man being beaten, tortured and killed in graphic and lingering detail. Once he is taken into custody, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is cuffed and kicked and then, much more systematically, flogged, first with stiff canes and then with leather whips tipped with sharp stones and glass shards. By the time the crown of thorns is pounded onto his head and the cross loaded onto his shoulders, he is all but unrecognizable, a mass of flayed and bloody flesh, barely able to stand, moaning and howling in pain.

Film Notes

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Starring: Jim Caviezel (Jesus), Monica Bellucci (Magdalen), Hristo Naumov Shopov (Pontius Pilate), Maia Morgenstern (Mary), Francesco De Vito (Peter), Luca Lionello (Judas), Mattia Sbragia (Caiphas), Rosalinda Celentano (Satan), Claudia Gerini (Claudia Procles)

Running time: 120 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

Language: in Aramaic and Latin,

with English subtitles


The audience's desired response to this spectacle is not revulsion, but something like the cowering, quivering awe manifested by Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) and a few sensitive Romans and Jerusalemites as they force themselves to watch. Disgust and awe are not, when you think about it, so far apart, and in Gibson's vision one is a route to the other.

By rubbing our faces in the grisly reality of Jesus' death and fixing our eyes on every welt and gash on his body, this film means to make literal an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection and that tends to be thought about somewhat abstractly. Look, the movie seems to insist, when we say he died for our sins, this is what we mean.

A viewer, particularly one who accepts the theological import of the story, is thus caught in a sadomasochistic paradox, as are the disciples for whom Jesus, in a flashback that occurs toward the end, promises to lay down his life. The ordinary human response is to wish for the carnage to stop, an impulse that seems lacking in the dissolute Roman soldiers and the self-righteous Pharisees. (More about them shortly.) But without their fathomless cruelty, the story would not reach its necessary end. To halt the execution would thwart divine providence and refuse the gift of redemption.

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