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Flogged to Death

Muscular action, cosmetic wonders: Mel gives the Christ story a fantasy-epic makeover

Welcome, friends, to Medieval Times: jihads, crusades, fundamentalist fanatics of all persuasions, and this week, thundering into your neighborhood mall alongside Welcome to Mooseport and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Mel Gibson's $25 million celluloid sacrifice, The Passion of the Christ.

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.

Greatly extrapolated from the four Gospels, The Passion of the Christ has Jesus dragged before the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) to be denounced for blasphemy—then punched, smacked, and spat upon, not for the last time by the scurvy mob. Although Caiaphas fails to convince the stern and skeptical Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) that blasphemous Jesus deserves to die, the noble Roman does agree to 15 minutes of chastisement by his palace orcs. Jesus is beaten, first with rods and then studded whips, until his back resembles a side of flayed beef. Satan and his mini-me are trolling the crowd as Pilate washes his hands and the unsatiated onlookers cry out for crucifixion. The old blood libel is there, albeit prudently untranslated from the Aramaic. Is this movie anti-Semitic? Let me put it this way: Iconographically, Jesus and his disciples are already Christians; Judas is the only one tasteless enough to call Jesus "rabbi."

With the chastisement serving as visceral climax and without much in the way of dramatic relief, The Passion reaches the point of diminishing returns well before Jesus has to carry his cross through the filthy rabble of Jerusalem and up Golgotha hill. A tilted camera and mega close-ups add to the tumult, but the movie's last 45 minutes are less grueling than one might expect. Filigreed with caramelized blood, Caviezel's skin-crack makeup has by then ceased to be convincing, numerous agonized reaction shots from Mary (Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) notwithstanding. Given that a chiropractor is listed in the credits, one can well believe that the actor suffered—was his ordeal worse than De Niro's in Raging Bull?

X-ploitative though it may be, the spectacle of a man beaten and tortured to death seeks to be an object of contemplation. Serious questions are raised. Is there any other religion so rooted in the representation of human suffering? At last, the pain pageant ends—the heavens open, the earth quakes, and Satan's wig flies off. In the final moments, Jesus emerges from his grave, tanned, rested, and ready—accompanied by appropriately kick-ass martial music. Payback time.

Sitting through the film's garishly staged suffering, one might well ponder the millions of people—victims of crusades, inquisitions, colonial conquests, the slave trade, political terror, and genocide—who have been tortured and killed in Christ's name.


Related Stories:

"The Backlash Passion: a Messianic Meller for Our Time" by Richard Goldstein

"Mel Gibson's Jesus Christ Pose: The Passion of the Christ Marks the Latest Chapter in the Making of a Hollywood Martyr" by Jessica Winter

 
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