The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald
Starring Jim Caviezel


The Passion of the Christ

The genius of art is that it transmutes the literal into, if not the sublime, at least the resonant. Part of the appeal of the death of Jesus lies in the aura with which his followers have surrounded what is a bleak and familiar story. Glorious music, great theatre, wondrous poetry, brilliant paintings and sculpture, highly textured church rituals, in fact the political, economic and social systems of entire continents have been created out of that moment. Christianity exists because a billion or more people are convinced that a) there is a God, with a capital G; and b) that Jesus was his son.

I don't know that a Jewish unbeliever like me is competent to review Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" as anything other than a movie, bringing whatever critical standards I possess to my response to the art it intends. At the screening I attended, people all around me brought handkerchiefs, Kleenex, and even a hand towel to wipe up their tears. As the lights came up I saw that they would have done better to have left them at home; very few were in tears, and I think the reason is that the movie fails in its intended artistic purpose. That purpose, I believe, is to raise the literal to the level of the sublime, by showing in the most excruciating detail every element of the Passion. It is Gibson's version of the traditionally staged Passion Play, and he uses the medium of film to enhance the impact of every confrontation, every blow, every moment of agony, every humiliation, every whipping, every sadistic insult that can be gathered from the material in the Gospels, and show them to us in extreme closeup.

What he does not show us, though, is the transcendental nature of the moment. He does not give the moment the resonance that two thousand years have added to it. He stays tied so literally to the lines of the Gospels that a colleague whispered at one point, "This script needs a rewrite." Well, it does. That is to say, it needs - or the film needs - a way to express the impact of the moment on history, and on the individuals who have given themselves to it every day of every year since then. The film does not need theology but art. Gibson and his cowriter Benedict Fitzgerald seem to have recognized that by bringing Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) in to the Garden of Gethsemene to talk to Jesus, and then showing her/him (she is hooded and has an asexual face) hiding in the crowd as Jesus is tortured. They also interpolate short flashbacks, little parables also from the Gospels, to show Jesus at moments like the Last Supper.

Another problem is Jim Caviezel as Jesus. He has exactly the look we know from paintings, the soulfully long face, the great cheekbones, the lean body. But as with almost every other film Caviezel has made, he is a cipher on screen. Where we can be sure Jesus had great charisma, Caviezel has none. He's just another pathetic victim of the bad guys.

Much has been made of the possible anti-Semitism that might result from having too many Christians see this film. I don't find that realistic. We know that the bad Jews are bad, that Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) washes his hands of the problem, that the Roman soldiers apply the whips, scourges and nails. But the impact on an audience - epitomized by the crazed hatreds that in real life have led to pogroms and to the Holocaust - are not in my view going to incite anyone today to a new anti-Semitic vision. And again the reason is that Gibson's film is too shallow, too flat, too, well, literal, to achieve the impact of art. And maybe, given the fundamentalism sweeping the world today, that's a blessing.