Ecce homo. According to gospel, that’s what Pontius Pilate told the rebellious crowd demanding crucifixion, as he displayed a scourged Jesus in his humiliating crown of thorns: Behold the man. And now it’s Mel Gibson’s turn.

Ecce Mel, the man who made ”The Passion of the Christ” all but proclaims in his gaudily tormented, pornographically blood-drenched, anything but literal interpretation of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life: Behold the movie star, laying everything on the line — bankability, reputation, most personal of religious beliefs — like a Crusader among infidels. Yet the Traditionalist Catholic filmmaker only appears to be preaching a stern sermon to a crowd of modern moviegoing sinners in need of a dose of shock and awe. In reality, he is talking to himself alone, a mutter of confession without absolution.

Gibson’s personal and idiosyncratic passion play arrives preceded by trumpets of promotional buildup and cymbal clashes of controversy over concerns that some might use the movie — as the Gospels themselves have historically been used — as a defense of anti-Semitism. Yet what’s most striking about the work itself is the weirdly trancelike, stubborn inwardness with which Gibson pursues his spiritual and temporal obsessions.

With the curious eyes of the world eager, of course, to see what the practical joker who not so long ago waxed a leg in ”What Women Want” has to say about his Lord, Gibson has made a movie for nobody, really, but Gibson.

And knowing this might just be key to understanding the movie’s embellished scripture. Jim Caviezel enacts Jesus’ agonies with pleading eyes and blood-reddened teeth, and many attractive, dark-haired players pray, mock, weep, or condemn in the familiar roles of Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, Herod, Pilate, etc.

But verily, ”The Passion of the Christ” is Gibson’s obsessive meditation on his own cross of fame. It’s a weave of Gospel versions, narrative add-ons (including a slinking, androgynous devil and a gentle, primed-to-convert wife for Pilate who disagrees with her husband’s weak, hand-washing ways), and the age-old Gibsonian homoerotic fascination with the sight of a handsome male body undergoing torture.

It’s a drama in which the physical suffering of Jesus is made more riveting and ”lifelike” than the exemplary, loving character and holy aura of Jesus himself. It’s a baroque lesson in Christ-like patience that demands we watch lingering scenes of skin splitting and blood coursing as Jesus is lashed with canes, then flayed with barbaric weapons of torture, then turned over and flogged some more. (The Gospels give the activity a few sentences; ”The Passion” makes the punishment its own fetish plotline.)

By such reasoning, Gibson wasn’t more sensitive to concerns that his movie might reignite the ugly old ”theological” basis for anti-Semitism (the canard that goes: Jews killed Jesus and are thus cursed for the rest of eternity as a collective people) because he simply didn’t turn to face the congregation and hear those fears, so enthralled was he by the sight of Jesus’ blood. (The Romans who mutilate and finally crucify Jesus come off bad but show signs of remorse in the end; there’s no doubt that the implacable Jewish Pharisees who demand death come off worse.)

And it’s clear, too, why Gibson doesn’t treat the depiction of Jesus’ suffering with more seemliness (not to mention empathy for those ticket-buying Christians who might bring children to the meeting tent, only to have those kids traumatized by something they shouldn’t need to see to be good Christians): because his eyes are riveted by the ecstasy of pain.

”The Passion of the Christ” is far from heaven. As a call to faith it’s grim and numbing, an incitement to revenge rather than an inspiration to lead a godly life by loving one’s neighbor, whatever that neighbor’s god. And as a filmed work of art it’s distancing rather than welcoming. This ”Passion” is a work of penance that has no heart for its audience, not even for a Christian flock looking for a prophet like Mel Gibson to deliver them from Hollywood’s evils. C

The Passion of the Christ
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