Rebirth of a Nation

Mel Gibson reloads the lethal weapon of us against them

Woe unto the critic whose communion with Christ occurs past the deadline for the late edition. Only a week after The Passion put film coverage on the front pages of daily papers (and multiplex showtimes on church marquees from here to eternity), the only review left to ponder may well be that of the man upstairs. And unless you count those seismic tremors at the box office ($20 million on Ash Wednesday alone), He isn't talking.

As for us mere mortals: What is there to say about Mel's bloody passion that hasn't already been said? I ask this not in order to introduce an impossible task and then accomplish it (that's the Messiah's biz), but because I honestly have no idea. One thing that both the faithful and heretical alike have preached about at length is The Passion's degree of brutal fidelity (blood, guts, bigotry, subtitles) to a story that's 2,000 years old. And yet, with all due respect to the enduring power and appeal of the tale, this lapsed Lutheran can't help but wonder: Why tell it with such brutal fidelity now?

After all, Icon Productions, a.k.a. Mel Gibson, has had at least $30 million to burn ever since the fourth Lethal Weapon in 1998, if not before. And the director has had the additional clout of an Oscar--for the torturous Braveheart (i.e., Christ in a kilt)--since '96. Maybe an investor as conservative as Gibson would say that the deal-making elements--the proven seductiveness of extreme "realism," the mass appeal of 'net-fueled spiritualism, the free support that pop icons routinely garner for their more ambitious campaigns--are relatively new. (Certainly the spectacle of holier-than-thou Gibson stooping to defend his passion before a starstruck Diane Sawyer proved nearly as punishing as The Passion itself.)

There's also September 11, and with it a wide audience for another horrific yet oddly soothing reminder of how egregiously we chosen ones have suffered. The Passion of the Christ may derive equally from the Gospels According to Traditionalists and the World According to Gibson. But more than anything its obsessive fixation on pain and destruction--at the expense of all else, context in particular--reminds me of another disaster movie that screened continuously for weeks on end about two and a half years ago. Like the networks that ran the same three-second clips of our towering virtue being pierced ad infinitum, Gibson dwells on the gory details of laceration--one whipping after another and another and another--until it's the viewer who's tortured, hurt, defensive, and, finally, numb (if not driven to retaliate). The point of these atrocity exhibitions, intended or not, is more or less the same: Look what they did to us!

Gibson's film not only italicizes the they, but conveniently leaves out the mention of their cause--unless you count the sound of jingling shekels that emanates from the rear speakers whenever they're onscreen. The Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) is introduced flipping a purse full of coins to Judas in trade for his betrayal. (Gibson's slo-mo shot registers the bribe as the first of countless blows.) Yet Caiaphas has nothing to tell Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) for why Jesus (James Caviezel) should be put to death except, essentially, We don't like him--and we call the shots. What choice does the Roman leader have? Pilate ultimately comes across as the most well-defined character here, placing the movie, as Jessica Winter suggests in the Village Voice, alongside the infamous production that earned a rave review in 1934 from none other than Adolf Hitler. (Pilate "stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry," observed the Führer after witnessing the seven-hour Oberammergau passion play in Bavaria.)

Indeed, Pilate's philosophy--the "filthy rabble" will raise hell if they don't get what they want--is more carefully articulated than that of Jesus, who scarcely speaks except in brief flashbacks intended mainly to brace the viewer for the long haul up Golgotha. Gibson is undoubtedly preaching to the converted here: We already know what Jesus stands for, he's saying. Which makes sense not only in terms of narrative economy. Why risk the inclusion of little details that could flesh out the opposition of infidels and evildoers, and lower approval ratings to boot? I mean, the pilots of Air Force One wouldn't give their battered hero a climactic speech about how difficult it could be for a rich man to enter the kingdom, would they? In a way, Gibson's political strategy--reduce the entirety of human struggle to the ongoing battle between good and evil, then reduce good and evil to appearances--is precisely that of the typical blockbuster, if not the effective campaign. Satan is transgender and glowering. Crooked teeth and curvaceous noses are among the clearest signs of menace. Righteousness is in the blood (of which there is plenty). Fallen heroes will be reborn to the sound of beating drums. The cathartic third act--positioned just outside of Gibson's confining frame--will be brought to you in part by the makers of rosaries and bombs.

Again, I seriously doubt I could be saying anything in this sermon that you haven't already heard in one unholy place or another. Indeed, what's most depressing about this profoundly depressing movie is how effectively it draws the lines, how forcefully it compels us to act out our parts in a very old drama. How on earth to rework this formula? How to make it redeemable? With some of those closest to me claiming to see humanism in the movie where I see hate (God help us if this damn thing is truly faithful to the text), I'm trying like hell to look on the bright side--any bright side. Maybe The Passion will encourage some impious pastors to be more like critics than publicists. Maybe it'll show the multiplex faithful that some movies exist outside the realm of "entertainment," that some movies with subtitles can even be valuable commodities.

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