And it’s not pretty:
“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. Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
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 Mr. 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.
Anyway, this is a film review, not Sunday school. The paradox of wishing something horrible to stop even as you want it to continue has as much to do with moviegoing as with theology. And Mr. Gibson, either guilelessly or ingeniously, has exploited the popular appetite for terror and gore for what he and his allies see as a higher end. The means, however, are no different from those used by virtuosos of shock cinema like Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noé, who subjected Ms. Bellucci to such grievous indignity in “Irréversible.” Mr. Gibson is temperamentally a more stolid, less formally adventurous filmmaker, but he is no less a connoisseur of violence, and it will be amusing to see some of the same scolds who condemned Mr. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” sing the praises of “The Passion of the Christ.”
I’ll give my own review once I see it. But it sure sounds like the film verges on the lurid (and the inflammatory), which is what I was afraid of.
Update: Lots of other reviews over at metacritic (via commenter Wayne below). The best written of them all is here. I can”t resist offering a sample:
Less reverential than razzle-dazzlin’, more an episode in the history of show business than a religious epiphany, Gibson’s blood-soaked 126-minute account of Jesus Christ’s last hours on earth has been flogged for months with everything from souvenir nine-inch nails and contested papal endorsements to death threats against Frank Rich and bizarre anti-Semitic radio rants by the filmmaker’s 85-year-old father. (Where’s the White House screening?) They do know what they do—the question is, will it do them any good?
The Passion of the Christ opens on a dark and stormy night in what might be a foggy Scottish glen with the Jewish police arriving to arrest Jesus (James Caviezel). His two-fisted, brave-hearted disciples fight back; in an action montage replete with slo-mo and thud-thud, Peter slices off one cop’s ear. Jesus picks it up and reattaches it—a prosthetic miracle that sets the stage for the muscular action and cosmetic wonders to come. Before anything else, The Passion establishes itself in the realm of recent fantasy epics: The Aramaic sounds like bad Elvish, a brief interlude in epicene Herod’s degenerate court suggests a minor detour to the Matrix world, the music is straight out of Gladiator, and much of the movie is haunted by the androgynous, cowled Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) seemingly risen from George Lucas’s cutting room floor.
If yours is a spirituality, as Mel Gibson’s must certainly be, based in the presumption that salvation is only possible after suffering, you might well find something like grace lurking in Mr. Gibson’s dark and bloody spectacle. If not, you’re in for one of the most unremittingly cruel movie experiences this side of the (considerably less pious and certainly more fun) remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
UPDATE: One more review, from the New Yorker. Read the entire thing if you have the stomach to get through it.
Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus’ life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus’ temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus’ pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony—and to say so without indulging in “anti-Christian sentiment” (Gibson’s term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.
UPDATE: My blogger friend in Beijing, Joseph Bosco, has some interesting things to say about the film.
The Passion” IS going to stir unprecedented passion in those who see it. Judging by a lengthy series of scenes from the film just aired by CNN (Asian Edition), it can be said that the film crosses cinematic lines like none other. The graphic, ripping, primal violence inflicted upon flesh, whether believed to be divine flesh or only sublimely human flesh, surpasses anything this author–and WGA (screenwriter’s Guild of America) member–has seen in a commercially released motion picture to date. The historian and writer in me applauds the authenticity of the true barbarity of crucifixion Mr. Gibson has painstakingly rendered in his film.
However, if the scenes, dialogue and commentary aired by CNN are an accurate portrayal of the film’s story, then the same historian and writer parts of me are appalled at the film’s dangerously erroneous assertion that Pilate was blameless and that it was a Jewish mob alone that cried out for the torture and murder of Jesus. That is not only a gross historical inaccuracy, it is shameful anti-semitism. Should such a film or idea be banned or censored? Absolutely not. Should it and its allegedly hateful message be argued against? If true, yes, loudly and passionately.
To see blurbs of nearly every review out there, go here.