Few things breed controversy more readily these days than a movie on a religious topic. "The Passion of the Christ," directed by Mel Gibson, reminds us of this with a vengeance. Tabloid columnists and cable-TV pundits have been raising a ruckus over it for months, starting long before the picture was even finished.
Now the movie is here, and whatever else one might say about it, Mr. Gibson has clearly tapped into the uneasy, often troubled mood of the early 21st century. As the advance buzz indicated, it's an exceedingly violent movie, reenacting the torture and crucifixion of Jesus with a ferocity unknown in traditional film treatments.
It also offers a dubious depiction of the Jewish community's role in Jesus' execution - not actively supporting anti-Semitic interpretations, which Gibson has publicly disavowed, but leaving that door open for viewers already tainted by an anti-Semitic bias. Pontius Pilate is shown as a rueful believer in realpolitik, for instance - an ancient Henry Kissinger, you might say - while the Jewish mob is portrayed as yowling for death with no hint of reason or rationality.
Measured on the more mundane scale of motion-picture craftsmanship, "The Passion" is expertly made, thanks largely to Jim Caviezel's fervent portrayal of Jesus and Caleb Deschanel's skillful camera work.
But the film contains little to learn from, unless one is unfamiliar with basic Christian history. And it presents even less to be inspired by, unless one regards Jesus' earthly suffering as momentous for its own sake, rather than a precondition for his triumph over death, which occupies only the last few seconds of the film. The highly selective screenplay includes only a few of Jesus' words, spoken in occasional flashback scenes.
Gibson has said making "The Passion" was a religious mission for him, and I'm sure that's true. The logo of his company, Icon Productions, includes a small section of a religious painting, and several close-ups of Caviezel's face unmistakably mirror this image, suggesting that the picture of the suffering of Jesus has long carried deep meanings for Gibson himself. The single-mindedness of "The Passion" bears this out.
Still, it's important to note that while Gibson is a versatile actor and director, he has shown a recurring penchant for violence in his projects, from the "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon" series through more ambitious pictures such as "Braveheart," the Best Picture winner that climaxes with Gibson's character being tortured at harrowing length.
Looking at this motif in a positive light, one could say Gibson has always been fascinated by suffering heroes - characters who serve as Christlike figures in secular surroundings. Considering it more skeptically, one could conclude that Gibson has a morbid fascination with agony and affliction, and that "The Passion" gives him an ideal opportunity to indulge this in extreme terms.
This may explain why "The Passion" sometimes seems as much like a horror movie as it does a serious biblical film. The opening is strikingly similar to the eerie, mystically tinged scene-setters of countless supernatural thrillers. At times, Gibson approaches the greatest artistic challenge of the story - how to keep jolting moviegoers already subjected to awesome quantities of blood and gore - by throwing in uncanny visions that could have been borrowed from "The Exorcist" or "Hellraiser." While this doesn't refute Gibson's serious intentions, it does imply that he's willing to take low roads as well as high ones to make a bruising impression on his audience.
That's what makes "The Passion" different from most previous treatments of biblical topics. In bygone decades, Hollywood steered clear of controversy by imbuing major religious figures with movie-star charisma (think of Charlton Heston's majestic Moses in "The Ten Commandments") or keeping them largely off the screen (the barely glimpsed Jesus of "The Robe").
Those days ended with "The Last Temptation of Christ," which infuriated many people in 1988, and "Dogma," which did the same in 1999. The angriest protesters of those movies were Christians trying to dissuade viewers from seeing them. By contrast, the most prominent Christian voices in media coverage of Gibson's movie have encouraged audiences to view it, notwithstanding its extraordinary violence and Jewish anxiety regarding its possible anti-Semitic undertones.
Times have indeed changed when church representatives vocally support a film that focuses so literal-mindedly on the physical suffering of Jesus' body rather than the metaphysical meanings this suffering helped convey to humanity.
Gibson says he based "The Passion" primarily on the Gospels, and some theologians contend that the diversity and incompleteness of those books purvey a crucial insight in themselves: that the full spiritual wisdom of Jesus' revolutionary thought cannot be contained in recorded words and deeds. Gibson evidently disagrees, seeing so much meaning in the blunt spectacle of Jesus' tormented body that he finds it unnecessary to depict almost anything else.
"The Passion of the Christ" is at once a well-crafted film, a merciless excursion into motion-picture ultraviolence, and a regrettably cramped historical account that stays doggedly on the surface of its overwhelmingly important subject.
• Rated R; contains extreme violence.