So Mel Gibson has been persecuted all the way to the bank. The Passion of the Christ–undertaken by him as a work of faith, and promoted to the faithful as if he, too, were about to be killed by unbelievers–is a box-office smash, to which I have contributed my own $10.25. Yes, I have now watched the movie (a day after deadline pressure and an absence of press screenings forced me to write about it unseen, for our March 15 issue), and I have found it to be worse than expected.
It’s worse, first of all, as filmmaking. From the opening scene of Jesus’s agony in the garden, with its silent-movie head-tossing and chest-heaving, its slithering snake (evil is afoot!) and $2.98 clump of trees backlit in a dry-ice fog, Gibson directs down to the audience, as if presuming us to be bumpkins used to a diet of corn.
When Gibson wants to impress us with the decadence of Herod’s court, he whips up a scene that poor, saintly Jack Smith might have titled “Sodomite Fleshpots of the Orient” (only Smith would have done it better and wouldn’t have been serious). When Gibson wants to illustrate maternal love, he shows Mary running in slo-mo through the bosky light of a flashback, hurrying to comfort a toddler Jesus who has scraped his knee. (This greeting-card image pops into her head when her adult son, flayed raw, tumbles beneath the massive beams of the cross–a conjunction of events that proves the flashback to be not just trivial but superfluous. Doesn’t Mary have enough on her mind already?) And when Gibson wants you to understand that certain characters are evil, he makes sure they’re double ugly. In fact everything has to be doubled before Gibson will trust you to get the message. By my count, Jesus falls not three times but six on the way to Calvary. At the moment of his death, it’s not enough for the veil in the Temple to be rent, as in the Bible; an earthquake has to rip a chasm right up to the altar.
Gibson practices the aesthetic of the lapel-puller, who congratulates you, in an ear-splitting bawl, for entering the sideshow he won’t let you pass by. Perhaps you’ll excuse this directorial style as an artistic sin and therefore (in American eyes) venial. Perhaps you’ll be willing to excuse Gibson’s sins against language, too. (The Aramaic that his characters speak was clearly learned by the actors by rote, so that it comes out as gibble-gabble. The actors’ Latin, by contrast, is pretty good, apart from its being utterly un-Roman. What you hear is the Church Latin of Gibson’s youth.) The aspect of the film that you might not excuse is Gibson’s interpretation of the Gospels, an interpretation he has sought to talk out of existence (as I argued in a previous column) by insisting that he’s been true to the Bible.
True to which parts of the Bible, selected according to what principle? To begin formulating the inconvenient answer, I note that Gibson has taken as his principal source the Gospel of John–by common consent the most philosophically elevated of the four, but also (there’s no delicate way to put this) the one that’s explicitly anti-Jewish. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke write about a conspiracy of the “priests” and the “council,” John writes about “the Jews,” as if Jesus and the apostles had not belonged to this people. (Gibson reproduces the effect of John’s rhetoric by a ready-to-hand visual device: He uses fine-featured actors, Mediterranean at most, as his good guys, while casting ostentatiously hook-nosed types as the heavies.) Gibson also makes the most of a statement in John that is not found in the synoptic Gospels, mitigating Pilate’s guilt while emphasizing that of the High Priest: “He that delivered me unto thee,” Jesus says to Pilate, “hath the greater sin.”