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The Passion Of The Christ is neither a satisfying filmic experience, nor much of a parable about a fascinating spiritual man whose persuasive aura and teachings are hardly touched upon in the movie. The reaction of the true believers who have seen it is to accept the torture and the brutality and the scouring through which the character of Jesus suffers in the film as the gospel truth. Could any mortal have survived the whipping of which Gibson’s Jesus is victim? Medically speaking, of course not.

The blood-soaked The Passion… plays fast and loose with too many of the facts regarding the final hours of the carpenter Jesus of Nazareth. It fails as cinema because it violates basic constructs of what a drama should be. It doesn’t set up anything; it doesn’t develop its characters. It just unreels, assuming the moviegoer already knows the story. If you don’t know where Jesus is kneeling at the film’s start (the garden of Gethsemane), or why he’s there, well, you’re out of luck. Co-screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald aren’t interested in telling a story, but are more determined in rushing through the chatter to get to the battering Jesus will take that is a marvel of special effects and nothing more. By the way, “gethsemane” is Aramaic for olive press because of the tool that was located in the middle of the olive grove where Jesus spent his final night.

Some of you will go to the movie to discover for yourselves what all the fuss is about. And some of you will, as a form of delusional behavior, see it because you want the film to be the box office champion; thus showing the Jews, who some think totally control Hollywood, that Christians are people too and matter when all the money is counted. The idea that Christians don’t matter in Hollywood is one of the great lies of the era. The Jewish men who founded the studios that participated in the Golden Age Of Hollywood were especially found of making Biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Samson And Delilah, etc. The movies may have been cheesy, but a desire to tell these stories belies the fallacy that the Bible and religion don’t count in Hollywood. Additionally, there are enough lovable nun and caring priest movies to fill a cathedral. The Bells Of St. Mary’s, anyone? Spencer Tracy in Boys Town? The musical frivolity of Sister Act? And so on.

The Passion Of The Christ is not about spirituality, but is instead about sadism. In the most literal interpretation of what Gibson and Fitzgerald project, the ruling Jewish religious leaders are concerned that Jesus is disrupting the status quo and want a benevolent Roman overlord (Pontius Pilate) to take him out. That’s it in a nutshell. Gibson has a directed a movie in which Pilate is depicted as a nice guy, when in actuality he slaughtered tens of thousands of the locals. As Gibson tells it, Pilate’s wavering over whether or not to crucify Jesus goes way beyond a mere washing of the hands. He has also cast a woman as the Devil. Ladies, start your psycho-sexual engines on that one. The film is drawn (uncredited) from the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but it especially takes it cue (also uncredited) from the writings (some would say ravings) of an obscure 19th-century mystic, a stigmatic nun, named Anne Catherine Emmerich. Sister Anne’s belief was that the only way people can become close to Christ is to participate in his suffering. The cast speaks Aramaic and Latin, which is subtitled. Roman soldiers headquartered in the Middle East would actually have spoken a dialect of Greek, but Gibson must have missed that class. By the way, the character of Mary Magdalene doesn’t speak at all. The best-selling new novel The Da Vinci Code tosses around the possibility that she may have been Jesus’ wife, but Gibson has no desire to explore very much about the times or the people or Jesus, and certainly nothing about the woman some religious leaders consider a whore. The only attempt to humanize Jesus is a flashback scene in which he and his mother Mary discuss his building a table for tall people. It’s unintentionally comic and seems more like something out of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. As director, Gibson lifts a bit from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the 1959 movie version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer (the overhead shot of Judas being chased by young boys is a direct steal from that film), and Jesus Christ Superstar. In both that musical film and The Passion…, Herod is a mincing, prancing twit surrounded by prissy, scantily clad boys. Gibson has always exhibited a touch of homophobia in his directorial work and I guess he figured why stop now.

Gibson paid the $30-million dollars for the movie himself and needed a publicity bath to draw attention to his effort. Utilizing a high-powered Los Angeles public relations firm, he was suddenly warning that “someone” didn’t want his movie to be seen. That someone, was, naturally, those age-old bogeymen: the Jews. There was no actual truth to this – it was all brilliant marketing manipulation, and Mel got the publicity bonanza he wanted. That he has made an uninteresting film not worthy of this attention seems to have escaped Gibson. I can’t help but think that Jesus would have been mightily irritated that greed got in the way of good. Advance screenings were held mostly for church groups, primarily Protestant evangelicals, and soon the Sheep were buying tickets in droves. Preaching to the choir was never this easy. The vast majority of the nation’s press (myself included) got to see the movie the Monday morning before it opened on Ash Wednesday. The entire build-up to the release date was a craven act of monumental proportions. In public utterances while promoting the movie, Gibson has acted put-upon by the negativity, but who’s he kidding. He wanted it and he got it. What concerns me is that deep inside his psyche, he might be comparing his suffering to Christ’s, at least just a little.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus’ final twelve hours leading up to his crucifixion are depicted in what are known as The Stations Of The Cross, and Gibson delivers his version of The Stations. It’s Sunday School simplicity and hardly worth the effort. There are no messages or lessons to be learned. Just blood and gore bordering on the pornographic because, like all pornography, it eventually exhausts you. Gibson is a member of a small group of Catholics who are traditionalists. They reject the changes made by Vatican II, which included absolving Jews for the death of Jesus and an understanding that Heaven is not just the purview of Catholics. These traditionalists also conduct Mass in Latin, don’t eat meat on Friday, and want you understand that Christ’s suffering is more important than his message of love and forgiveness. Gibson has also proudly commented that his wife will not enter Heaven because she is an Episcopalian. Here are his words on that subject: “There is no salvation for those outside the Church. I believe it. Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She's a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it. She’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”

As for any anti-Semitism, Gibson denies it. The proof is in the pudding. Gibson claims to have deleted offensive lines of dialogue heard in early prints that refer to Jews as bound for eternal damnation for killing Christ. In the final cut of The Passion…, the subtitle for that exchange has been removed, but it is still spoken by a character. No, I don’t speak Aramaic, although I did take three years of Latin in high school. There are scholars who have revealed that the “Jews must suffer” line remains spoken in the film. Regarding the acting in the movie, well it’s pageant play acceptable as are the uninteresting and constricted sets. The cinematography is the highlight.

Gibson’s elderly father, Hutton, has issued statements in which he stated that the Holocaust is a figment of the imagination because, as he put it, when the Nazis started their crimes, most of the Jews left Europe for “Brooklyn and the Bronx; therefore, six million couldn’t have been killed.” Of course, this would have come as a surprise to the government leaders of those burgs at the time since they didn’t see the attendant population explosion. Regarding the movie his son has made, well, the fruitcake doesn’t fall far from the tree.

By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Intense white heat has been shone on The Passion Of The Christ, producer-director-co-screenwriter Mel Gibson’s two hour and seven minute exercise in sadistic overkill.