It is, when all is said and done, only a movie.
A profoundly medieval movie, yes. Brutal almost beyond powers of description, yes. More obsessed with capturing every holy drop of martyr's blood and sacred gobbet of flesh than with any message of Christian love, yes. More than anything, "The Passion of the Christ," which opens tomorrow, seems to be exactly the movie Mel Gibson wanted to make as an abiding profession of his traditionalist Catholic faith. On that score it is a success.
If "Passion" is powerful, though, it is only through the bludgeoning, forensic intensity with which the film dwells on Christ's suffering. If you come seeking theological subtlety, let alone such modern inventions as psychological depth, you'll walk away battered and empty-handed. Focusing his story on the last days of Jesus (Jim Caviezel), Gibson has created the most visually realistic re-creation yet of the Stations of the Cross -- with subtitled dialogue in Latin and Aramaic and a few heavy-handed "artistic" touches daubed on -- but one that is finally as reductive as any small-town Passion play or Classics Illustrated Jesus. Believers will disagree (if they're even still reading this review) but "The Passion" is a must-see only as a cultural talking-point, not as a spiritual milestone.
Two quick observations: First, hateful idiots may take Gibson's depiction of the Jewish priests of the Sanhedrin maneuvering for Christ's execution as incitement, but "The Passion" is not in itself anti-Semitic (although I personally might have cast someone other than the sneering nasty who plays Caiaphas's second banana). There's enough sin to go around, and Gibson spreads it liberally: While Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is depicted as a harried branch manager for the Roman Empire trying to stave off an uprising, his centurions come off as bloodthirsty apes. Who's responsible for Christ's death? We all are, says Gibson, and proceeds to rub our noses in it.
Second, any parent -- no matter how devout and well-intentioned -- who takes a child to this movie is guilty of abuse. Period.
"The Passion of the Christ" opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is in despair over the torments he knows are coming. Hovering around the edges is the first of Gibson's missteps: Satan, who with his black cloak and mime-white face resembles a Eurotrash descendant of Ingmar Bergman's Death in "The Seventh Seal." Judas (Luca Lionello) leads the priest's guards in for the betrayal; he has already received his 30 pieces of silver, tossed to him in a portentous slow-motion arc, and it quickly becomes clear that Gibson is harnessing the language of blockbuster Hollywood cinema to reach the back rows of the theater. This is middlebrow filmmaking, and not without impact.
"The Passion" is at its strongest when the priests of the Sanhedrin bring Jesus up on trial, then drag him before Pilate. Filming in the Basilicata region in the arch of Italy's boot, Gibson and the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel create a harsh, epic arena for the power struggles between imperial occupier and riven populace. Each of the three men who pronounce judgment offers a different face of worldly transgression: the sins of High Priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) are fear and stubbornness; Pilate's is cynicism; Herod's is decadence.
Lurking in the crowd are Jesus' followers, primarily John (Hristo Jivkov), Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci), and the Virgin Mary (Maia Morgenstern). They aren't given much to do except mourn and lead us on the occasional flashback to the Last Supper or to witness Jesus' carpentry skills. (His mother recalls him building a table too high to sit at, which may be very similar to what Gibson imagines he's doing here.)
In the film's present-tense scenes, Christ has already had his face smashed in, but that's just an entr'acte. Now he is tied to a post in a Roman courtyard, and the camera lovingly pans the tray of instruments: the scourge, the spikes. There follows a 10-minute sequence in which, first, the savior is whipped with a stick until his back is raw. Then he is whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails that has metal barbs at the end of each tether; in one shot we see the hooks dig deep and tear out his flesh. Then Christ is rolled over and he is flayed from the front. Later, after the long march to Golgotha, he is nailed to the cross in slo-mo close-ups in which each hammer stroke brings forth a fresh gout of blood.
This is scriptural fidelity as fetishism. But how can it be otherwise? To Gibson, each drop is holy, so the more of it the better. Each chunk of flesh dug out by the lash is Christ's sacrifice in all its beauty, so bring it on. The cumulative effect, however, brings only numbness.
Much has been written and said in the past six months about what Gibson should do and what his film should say. But it bears reminding that art, or storytelling, or the profession of one's faith (or lack thereof) isn't about should. As with other controversial religious works -- and in that sense "The Passion of the Christ" ironically stands shoulder to shoulder with Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- it is Gibson's obligation only to make the thing as true to his conscience as he can. For better and for worse, he has done so: This is the record of what he believes.
It's not your Unitarian grandma's tea-cosy religion; for one thing, Christian forgiveness seems in short supply. Toward the end of "Passion," the surreal touches that the director has salted throughout the film -- evil dwarf children and Bosch-ian extras, mostly -- come together in an earth-shattering big bang of cracking temples, bursts of flame, and torrents of blood out of a samurai movie. It's what tent-show revivalists used to call a Grand Finale, and while the faithful stand to be awed, as filmmaking it's somewhat silly.
We've heard some of Christ's Sermon on the Mount by then, and his exhortation to the disciples to love one another "as I have loved you." But the naked, risen Jesus who strides forth from the tomb in the last shot of the film, to the solemn thrum of martial music, does not seem very interested in love. Why should he be? He's off to war.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.