In Better Late Than Never, A.V. Club writers attempt to fill the gaps in their overall pop culture knowledge and experience.
It’s impossible to approach The Passion Of The Christ without some preconceived notion about it. Months before its 2004 debut, the film was already a subject of heated international debate for its extreme violence, for its fast-and-loose interpretations of the gospel, for reopening the millennia-old wounds between Christians and Jews. Its massive success (it remains America’s highest-grossing R-rated film of all time) only intensified those arguments; suddenly liking the movie or not became its own bitter, ideological war. Then, two years later, director Mel Gibson was caught drunkenly decrying “fucking Jews” as the root of all the world’s evils. For many, The Passion’s anti-Semitic streak was immediately upgraded from “intimated” to “obvious.” Before all this, your choice to accept Gibson’s Jesus as your ravaged savior was largely made according to faith; now it was all tied up with Gibson’s works. And in the year 2018, you can’t come to the film as an empty vessel, ready to be filled with the spraying, gushing blood of the Lord. You are already a believer or a skeptic.
When The Passion was released—when it came to Mel Gibson, at least—almost everyone was a believer. Gibson had everything going for him in 2004, with just the barest inkling that he was an asshole. Sure, there had been a few troubling interviews: a derogatory slam on gays here; a few staunchly anti-choice statements there; a weird Playboy ramble about evolution and how the Rhodes Scholarship is a breeding ground for the Marxist new world order. But he’d also starred in three $100 million-plus-grossing movies in 2000 alone, taken home the People’s Choice Award for favorite actor five times, and he was the only guy to ever claim both the Academy Award for Best Director and Sexiest Man Alive (but don’t give up yet, Ang Lee). Braveheart had given him clout as a serious filmmaker; Signs, the biggest hit of his career, meant he could do whatever he wanted. Gibson was the rare Hollywood star who drifted easily through blockbuster action franchises, romantic comedies, Disney cartoons, and weepy melodramas about men without faces alike, and who was equally at home behind and in front of the camera. In 2004, everyone wanted to be in the Mel Gibson business.
That is, until he pitched them a movie about the prolonged, grisly torture of Jesus, delivered in Aramaic and Latin, with zero big names attached—unless you count the unwieldy, spellcheck-scrambling Jim Caviezel as Jesus. Gibson was thus forced to finance and distribute Passion himself, relying largely on church groups to do his marketing. He also didn’t do the usual press junkets; the few interviews he did had unnerving quotes about how the Holy Ghost was directing the movie through him, and dismissing nonbelievers as “the dupes of Satan.” The lovably crazy guy from Lethal Weapon now seemed like a legit lunatic. “Will ‘The Passion’ Ruin Mel Gibson’s Career?” wondered one Entertainment Weekly headline, the article going on to quote one anonymous studio executive who believed Gibson had “driven his career right to the edge of a cliff. One more false move, it goes right over.”
Actually, Gibson had to be rocked a few times, like an indignant vending machine, before he really toppled over. Still, the Passion controversy definitely set all that in motion. In his “fucking Jews” rant, you could finally hear Gibson’s lingering, tersely suppressed rage at all the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and critics like The New York Times’ Frank Rich, who had blasted his film’s anti-Semitic overtones while tying it back to his father’s history of denying the Holocaust. (“I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick.... I want to kill his dog,” Gibson said of Rich, ever-poetic.) And in the increasingly defensive interviews he gave around its release, there were already hints of the self-righteous, self-immolating anger that would eventually come spilling out on so much leaked audio. But in the short term, that studio executive and all his fellow doubters were proven wrong: The Passion Of The Christ was a monster global hit, one that cemented Gibson not only as a powerful industry titan, but one of the most effective evangelists of the modern era.
Nearly 15 years later, of course, it’s a bit harder to separate the film from Gibson’s imploded career—especially if you were say, an entertainment blogger who spent several years poring over tapes of Gibson screaming about hot-tub blowjobs and God fucking him up the ass. That said, it’s not all that hard to set it aside while you’re actually watching the film, since you’re not forced to contend with Gibson’s face; in that way, Passion is somehow less controversial than Daddy’s Home 2. Still, its reputation as anti-Semitic persists, and it’s only given increasing weight by what’s happened since—not just with Gibson, but also in this godforsaken world.
Here’s something depressing: Perhaps I’ve just become so inured to a near-daily deluge of neo-Nazi bullshit, but I was expecting a lot worse. That’s not the say The Passion Of The Christ doesn’t deserve some of its reputation. It presents the Jews largely as a monolithic “filthy rabble” who spends the film braying for Jesus’ blood, an angry mob that coerces an internally conflicted, sympathetically portrayed Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) into crucifying him, out of a fear of attracting Caesar’s ire. The movie also contains references to the libelous “blood curse” Jesus’ death placed on the Jews, and it directly links his death to the shattering of a Jewish temple, as though a divine punishment meted out. This is, to put it lightly, a controversial version of the story, one that draws inspiration from Vatican-refuted interpretations of the gospel and—by Gibson’s own admission, from the sickbed hallucinations of a 19th-century, racist German nun. The portrait the film creates of Jews as hissing, silver-grubbing vipers is the kind of sinister caricature that’s fueled racist ire for decades; there’s no denying that. I’m just saying, in the enervating sliding-scale of awfulness that is the year 2018, The Passion’s anti-Semitism now feels almost quaint.
Thankfully, The Passion doesn’t make bigotry its sole focus, if only because it would take away from valuable torturin’ time. The film’s violence is similarly infamous; Roger Ebert, in his positive yet slightly shellshocked review, memorably branded it “the most violent film I have ever seen.” Having now seen it myself, I’m not sure I’d go that far (I’d still give the edge to Dead Alive). It is certainly the least entertaining violent movie I’ve ever seen. Gibson, modern cinema’s most prolific masochist, lingers on every moment of Jesus’ agony for so long that it borders on exploitation, and it is cumulatively numbing. Before Jesus is barely introduced, he receives the first of many punches to the face, followed by a wad of phlegm hocked into his eye. In the film’s most notorious sequence, Gibson devotes nine full minutes to watching Jesus being slowly flayed by cackling Roman soldiers—every strangled cry, every wet meat “smack” as the scourges tear into his back—as a pool of blood forms around him. It’s less shocking than exhausting.
When Pontius finally presents the thoroughly whipped Jesus to the still-unsatisfied crowd, Jesus resembles a burst sausage. We then spend the next 45 minutes watching this twisted knot of bruises lumber along the Via Dolorosa, repeatedly collapsing under the weight of the cross before he’s finally nailed to it, the camera lingering almost lasciviously as blood spurts up from the hammer and drips slowly down onto the rocks. The moment Jesus finally, mercifully dies, a centurion steps forward to stab him in the abdomen; blood sprays the soldier’s face as though issuing from a punctured waterbed. It all sounds crazy and almost campily over-the-top. It’s not. It is repetitive and excruciating, in both senses of the word. Most of it’s also shot in extreme slow motion; without that, The Passion Of The Christ would be about 45 minutes long. I suppose you could say it’s artfully made, in a Grand Guignol sort of way, but it’s an art that’s less experienced than grimly endured.
What robs it of any drama is that Gibson is also completely uninterested in his subject as anything but a symbol, or stoically pious blood-bag. I guess I’d always just assumed that all those merciless beatings were interspersed with flashbacks to when Jesus was preaching to the people and still had a working face. But these are surprisingly few and far between: a single sermon on the mount about loving your enemies, juxtaposed on the same hill where his enemies prepare to slaughter him; a scene of Jesus lifting the bread at the Last Supper, ham-fistedly cut with his broken body being lifted on the cross; a silent, slow-motion (obviously) flashback to Jesus saving Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) from stoning, Jesus drawing a line in the sand that explodes in a Dolby roar from his finger like a rupturing fault line. In the film’s sole human scene, we flashback to fun Carpenter Jesus building a table, goofing around with his mother (Maia Morgenstern), but then it’s right back to the pain. We’re introduced to Jesus cowering in the twilight garden of Gethsemane—tormented by a snake-wielding, androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) in a dark night of the soul that resembles an Ozzy Osbourne video—and we leave him as a bloody rag. Jesus spends the entire interim in near-constant, mostly mute anguish.
Which is the point, I suppose. You don’t come to this film to know Jesus, but to know exactly, in nauseating detail, what kind of awful stuff the world put him through. And Gibson didn’t set out to capture Jesus’ life or teachings—a story that is not only well-trodden territory by a couple millennia, but also far too complex to cram into a two-hour movie, with little to no room for wicked slow-mo. Instead, he homes in on Jesus’ suffering because The Passion Of The Christ, in true Catholic fashion, is meant to be a two-hour guilt trip, the film equivalent of self-flagellation. It’s about being bludgeoned into penitence, the way Simon of Cyrene (Jarreth Merz) is shamed into picking up Jesus’ cross after watching the crowd tear him apart.
This visceral, mortifying approach to salvation was shocking in 2004, and while it struck plenty of people as gratuitous and spiritually empty then, many more were moved to tears. And you know, far be it from me to the deny that effect it has on its acolytes. Gibson’s film has some of the immersive sensation of virtual reality, so I can certainly understand why it might resonate so deeply with the faithful who yearn to feel every moment of Jesus’ pain, right alongside him. Even just taking a casual spin around Google or Facebook, it’s easy to find fans who declare The Passion Of The Christ their favorite film of all time, who say they make it an Easter tradition to pull out the DVD, somewhere between morning mass and a nice ham dinner, to watch Jim Caviezel get beaten to a pulp for their sins.
But from my purely aesthetic, admittedly agnostic viewpoint, The Passion also has VR’s emotional flatness, reducing one of the most enduring stories ever told to a grueling snuff reel. Again, perhaps it’s my own desensitization working against me, but Gibson somehow made Jesus Christ getting his skin ripped off as dull as all those pleasantly banal Methodist Church sermons I sat through as a kid. Without the benefit of faith or the titillation of scandal, it’s simply an unpleasant cinematic experience. It’s hard to imagine audiences another 14—let alone 50—years from now regarding it as anything but a grim curio.
Maybe it’s fitting that a movie about Jesus should appear, briefly rile the masses, then largely fade away, attracting doubters in its wake who question whether it was ever really that great. Maybe that’s why big Jesus movies require their own Second Comings every now and again—as with Gibson’s recently announced Passion sequel, which Caviezel has already confidently proclaimed will be “the biggest film in the world.” Hey, maybe he’s right: After all, the original remained the the highest-grossing non-English language film ever until just last year, when it was finally taken down by the story of another man performing God’s holy works, Wolf Warrior II. And just imagine how much more effective Jesus’ message will be in 3-D!
Still, if the sequel does become another phenomenon, its actual quality will be beside the point. Similar to how the film treats Jesus, it was never really about what The Passion Of The Christ is, but what it represents: movie attendance as an act of ritual tithing, as well as a rejoinder to secular, godless Hollywood from a man who’s since become an even bigger martyr to Christian conservatives. There, again, you’re either a believer or a skeptic. And for agnostics who, like me, might finally have their own come-to-bloody-Jesus moment, they’re also likely to leave unconverted. You can come join me in hell. We’ll be watching What Women Want.