If you don’t like a Jesus movie, does that mean you’ll go to hell?
As a product of the penguin house – that’s Catholic school to you heathens – a new movie about the big J.C. perked my interest. Besides “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Jesus isn’t often a leading man. And Mel Gibson, Mad Max-turned-would-be pope of his own retro-Catholic sect, had said that “The Passion of the Christ” would depict the Gospels accurately. Sure, there’s the Stations of the Cross that line the walls of my hometown church and the stained-glass window that makes him look like the lost Bee Gee, but for Hollywood talent to helm a Christian movie? God, that’s a big deal.
Others agreed, and I had to navigate through crowds of zealous moviegoers at the Ash Wednesday premiere. Not since high school have I seen so many faces with schmutz on them. I only wish some of the Christian groups reserving seats had been benevolent enough to share seats with straggling ticketholders.
As far as the film itself, please excuse the pun, but Gibson nailed it – nearly. As a film detailing the hours leading up to that famous Jesus Christ pose, it succeeds. It’s all there in this uniquely simple story – man gets arrested and tortured, then dies, then arises, holier in every sense of the word.
“We’ve done the research. … I’m telling the story the as the Bible tells it,” Gibson said in one of the four “The Passion of the Christ” film packets Artsweek received.
But then there’s more – often at the expense of Biblical accuracy.
For example, a female Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) pops her pale, veiled head into many scenes, despite her notable absence from that part of the Good Book. She and her messed-up Gollum baby make for an interesting artistic touch, but they contradict Gibson’s proclaimed mission statement.
Other additions, like Judas’ demonic hallucinations or the prominence of Pontius Pilate’s wife (Claudia Gerini), also glare at those with a working command of the Bible. But what stands out most is the film’s violence. A realistically depicted crucifixion must inherently be violent, but the Bible never specifies the extensive caning and scourging Jesus (James Caviezel) suffers. Again, it’s a valid artistic choice, but the gratuitous violence flattens Jesus’ character – instead of this miraculous son of God, he becomes a moaning blood sprinkler.
In a flashback, Mary (Maia Morgenstern) recalls a typical day around the house with her son, a carpenter who just happens to be the Messiah. It’s as fabricated as the Gollum baby, but it evokes the awesome paradox of Jesus’ status as both God and human. I wonder why Gibson didn’t invent more such scenes, both to put Jesus’ suffering in a human context and to break up the bloodbath.
“The Passion of the Christ” is alternately touching – it’s a personal ode to God that perhaps should have been called “The Passion of Mel” – and disappointing – it focuses more on corporeality than spirituality. This Catholic doesn’t regret going, but I’d recommend you read the book – the book – instead.