Ever since his star began to rise after the 1979 Australian thriller Mad Max, Mel Gibson hasn’t seemed fully alive on screen unless he’s being tortured and mutilated. In the Road Warrior and Lethal Weapon films, as well as such one-shots as Conspiracy Theory (1997) and The Patriot (2000), Gibson courted martyrdom, and he achieved it. He won an Oscar for his labors in Braveheart (1995), which ends with its hero managing to scream “FREEEEE-DOM!!” as he’s drawn and quartered. Gibson snatched the pulp movie Payback (1999) away from its writer-director, Brian Helgeland, to make the torture of his character even more gruelingly explicit: He added shots of his toes being smashed by an iron hammer. Payback: That’s what almost all of Gibson’s movies are about (including his 1990 Hamlet.) Even if he begins as a man of peace, Mad Mel ends as a savage revenger.
A devout Catholic—albeit one who believes that Vatican II, which formally absolved the Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus, is illegitimate—Gibson has said that what moves him most about the Christ story is that Jesus was whipped, scourged, mocked, spat on, had spikes driven through his hands and feet, and was left to die on the cross—and that he didn’t think of payback; he thought of forgiveness. But by wallowing in his torture and death for two hours, the director of The Passion of the Christ (Newmarket) suggests that he’s thinking of anything but.
Gibson had an ingenious idea for promoting his Passion: as the film that the Jews don’t want you to see. Now watch those lines form! Bad reviews won’t matter, either, since Gibson has called his critics “the forces of Satan” or, more charitably, the “dupes of Satan.” After Gibson’s pre-emptive blasts, an attack on his Passion will be interpreted by some as an attack on their religious beliefs instead of on filmmaking that is theologically, morally, and—by the way—artistically suspect.
As you probably know, The Passion of the Christ recounts the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (played by the lean, high-cheekboned Jim Caviezel), with flashbacks to the Last Supper and a few shots of the little-boy Jesus being hugged by his mother, Mary. (The latter are cross-cut with spikes being hammered through his hands.) The lashes of the soldiers (dispatched by the Jewish priesthood) begin about 15 minutes into the film; by the time Jesus is dragged into the presence of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (the Bulgarian actor Hristo Naumov Shopov), his face has already been smashed to a pulp.
Pilate, whom historians identify as a surpassingly cruel ruler responsible for crucifying many thousands to maintain his authority, is portrayed as a sorrowful, even-tempered man whose wife (Claudia Gerini) shows acts of loving kindness toward Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci). Pilate is shocked by the Jews’ brutality and by the determination of the priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) to see this so-called blasphemer executed. While Pilate wrinkles his forehead, searching his tender conscience, sundry Jews lean into the camera and hiss or keen through rotted teeth.
I know, it sounds like a Monty Python movie. You’re thinking there must be something to The Passion of the Christ besides watching a man tortured to death, right? Actually, no: This is a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie—The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre—that thinks it’s an act of faith. For Gibson, Jesus is defined not by his teachings in life—by his message of mercy, social justice, and self-abnegation, some of it rooted in the Jewish Torah, much of it defiantly personal—but by the manner of his execution.
That doesn’t exactly put him outside the mainstream: The idea that Jesus died for the sins of mankind is one of the central tenets of Christian faith. But Gibson has chosen those sections of the Gospels (especially the Gospel of Matthew) that reflect the tension between Jews and Christians 50 years after the crucifixion, when the new religion’s proselytizers were trying to convert, rather than incite, the Roman authorities. This is the sort of passion play that makes people mad.
Gibson uses every weapon in his cinematic arsenal to drive home the agony of those last dozen hours. While his mother and Mary Magdalene watch, Jesus is lashed until his entire body is covered in bloody crisscrossing canals. When he rises, amazing the Roman soldiers with his stamina, they go for the scourges, which rip and puncture his flesh in slow motion—all while the Romans and the Jews cackle wildly. Carrying his cross, he falls again and again in slow motion on his swollen, battered body while the soundtrack reverberates with heavy, Dolby-ized thuds. It is almost a relief when the spikes are driven into his hands and feet—at least it means that his pain is almost over.
What does this protracted exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christian faith? I’m asking; I don’t know. Gibson’s revenge movies end with payback—or, in Braveheart, the promise of payback to come. When Jesus is resurrected, his expression is hard, and, as he moves toward the entrance to his tomb, the camera lingers on a round hole in his hand that goes all the way through. Gibson’s Jesus reminded me of the Terminator—he could be the Christianator—heading out into the world to spread the bloody news. Next stop: the Crusades.