Director Mel Gibson has chosen to focus on the final 12 hours of Jesus' life on earth, a fusion of extreme human suffering and ultimate divine sacrifice. He depicts in daunting detail the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, as told in the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and commemorated in the Catholic tradition's Sorrowful Mysteries and Stations of the Cross. Such a restricted time frame necessitates showing what we'd rather not see. Jesus on a verdant hilltop saying "Blessed are the meek" and surrounded by adoring, curious crowds would certainly be more pleasant to watch, but Gibson as filmmaker seeks something more visceral.
He opens the film with Isaiah 53, the "suffering servant" passage that Christians believe presages Jesus' redemptive death. The quoted section ends with the words "by His wounds we are healed," and Gibson proceeds to show us each and every one of those wounds. He employs a level of violence normally reserved for a Quentin Tarantino movie and sustains it for nearly the entire film. Rivulets of blood, shredded skin, iron spikes, a crown of thorns -- such is the iconography of The Passion.
It would be unfair, though, not to recognize that the way, the truth and the life -- both of the Christian faith and of the art of cinema -- are in here, too. As Jesus and Mary, actors Jim Caviezel and Maia Morgenstern deliver searing, silent performances. Lines of dialogue are rare; the pair replaces speech with a balletic physicality, turning their faces and bodies into portraits of sorrow, agony and sacrifice. Their abilities -- and Gibson's deft interspersion of flashback scenes -- evoke an astonishing mother-son bond and establish a sense of Jesus the teacher. Using little more than just his demeanor, Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) makes sure that Jesus' full understanding and acceptance of his suffering shadows his every heartbreaking step. It's impossible not to feel the religious reverberations of the unfolding events; Gibson's violence is a door, not a wall.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Natural) masterfully paints the film's reverential, vivid sense of atmosphere; a blue-hued night in Gethsemane forebodes the golden glare of the now-infamous scourging scene and gives way to the changing light of the scenes at the foot of the cross. The modern-day Italian countryside is dismantled and seamlessly put back together as Roman Empire-era Jerusalem.
Gibson is at the height of his directorial powers. Although his work has previously explored the themes of violence and sacrifice with more than a streak of messianism, The Passion is not a biblical Braveheart. For the most part, Gibson refrains from any kind of melodramatic sweep, creating a film that is surprisingly intimate and thankfully cheese-free. His shot selections are excellent, whether he is shifting the audience to see things from Jesus' perspective on the Via Dolorosa or lingering lovingly over the film's poignant Pieta. There are a few missteps; on two otherwise unimportant occasions, he overplays obviously digital special effects that needn't have been used at all, and there is a fine line between devotion to realism and overselling a bloody point that he crosses, if only occasionally.
But, underneath its considerable gore, the script co-written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood) demonstrates that the director sees a bigger picture. In Gethsemane, as Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) whispers into the ear of a praying Jesus, a pale snake slithers into the frame. When Jesus suddenly stands and smashes the reptile's head with his sandal, the drama of the moment is resonant with echoes of God's prophetic words to the serpent in Genesis 3:15. And strikingly, as the cross is raised into position, Gibson inter-cuts his shot with Jesus' speech at the Last Supper -- "This is my body broken for you" -- an unmistakable and effective visual explanation of the Eucharist.
Is the film anti-Jewish? Gibson is dogged in his fidelity to the biblical text. It is entirely possible that he meant to make a provocative, personal movie, not a hurtful one. In one shot, Gibson's own hand holds the crucifying nail; his film creates no monolithic Jewish people and seeks no scapegoats. It is distressing, then, that his words in the press have not adequately acknowledged the historical realities for Jews of pogroms following passion plays; he seems to either not know or not care about the hate-filled legacy of the Christ-killer epithet.
Ultimately, however, The Passion of the Christ is not about blame, but belief. It is the greatest story ever told, told anew through an unrelenting vision of Jesus' violent final hours.