Mel's personal Jesus

Misplaced passions mark emotional Christ'"

It would be hard not to be moved by The Passion of the Christ. Director Mel Gibson presents not only a graphic portrait of human suffering but also a dramatic cornerstone of film melodramas, of pathos-filled maternal love and the tension generated when horrific events build to a preordained conclusion.

The film records Jesus' (James Caviezel) death march to Golgotha, and some of its emotional profundity hinges upon Mary's expressions of despair. In a memorable performance by Maia Morgenstern, Mary watches her child brutally murdered before her eyes. The pain-filled pacifism of Mary and Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), as well as Christ's graphically depicted suffering in Passion, begs the question of what a film about the crucifixion would be like if made by a woman. (It may not be a coincidence that Gibson and the kinder, gentler Passion-maker Martin Scorsese, both Catholic boys, use young women in their horror-film depictions of Satan.)

Gibson's Christ is a man's man and undergoes the same rite of trial-by-blood that defines so many other action film heroes. Gibson is smart enough to emphasize a human dimension to this epic tale, which allows even secular viewers an entry point into the drama. The human weakness and doubt of Christ's disciples as well as Roman political contingencies all interfere with people doing the right thing.

On a fundamental level, the film reveals life's ordinary, worldly tests (of loyalty, love, belief) even as it affirms familiar Bible-cinema cliches. King Herod minces like one of Charles Laughton's campier roles. The thuggish dementia of the prisoner Barabbas belongs in a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie. God's own tear becomes a sci-fi money shot.

Gibson puts his own slightly hysterical, crude imprint on the Christ story, proving that even faith is subject to the laws of hardly chaste human interpretation and agenda, as in Gibson's replacement of the more typically vilified Romans with Jesus' Jewish accusers. Flirting with anti-Semitism, Gibson paints the Pharisees as a corrupt institution, a mass of anonymous beards and hateful glances skulking beneath hoods of power. Throughout his career, Gibson has both played and employed two-dimensional characters for dramatic effect. His desire to paint Christ's persecutors as conniving sadists and political manipulators plays neatly into the hands of anti-Jewish sentiment.

Gibson's evangelical fervor emphasizes the often excruciating and visually sadistic forensic accuracy of Christ's gory suffering over another age's more ethereal faith and philosophical meditations. The film suggests blood as a truer, more persuasive form than words.

With its emphasis on meticulously represented brutality, Passion will be forever marked as a film of the early 21st century — a time when even faith is discussed in the foaming-at-the-mouth, black-and-white, furious terms of talk radio. The Passion of the Christ is a Bible story for a darker, bloodier, fundamentalist age when Muslims, Christians and Jews seem to be consistently represented by the most vicious and bloodthirsty of their lot.

A review of The Passion of the Christ feels nearly extraneous after all its hype has neatly divided the audience into politicized camps. Convenient though it may be to just insert yourself into your pre-formulated demographic (thus playing your part in filling the Gibsonian coffers), the subject matter demands a more complex response.

The emotional power of the film cannot be owned strictly by Gibson or any one else who might use Christ as some politicized martyr of tax cuts for the rich and war in Iraq. Beyond Gibson's obvious marketing appeals are the voices of the players, like Caviezel's own expressions of deeply felt Catholicism that defy Gibson's efforts to sensationalize.

And the Passion itself engages with both the timeless, nondenominational human capacity for sadistic cruelty and faith in the face of inconceivable obstacles. It reaches beyond the parameters of Gibson's personal Jesus.