The Passion of the Christ
Credit: The Passion of the Christ: Phillipe Antonello

In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Jesus gets hauled into an open courtyard and whipped by Roman soldiers who carry on their task with a laughing gusto that goes, to put it mildly, beyond the call of duty.

The flagellating weapons, some made of cane, some of leather tipped with metal, don’t just leave the usual red streaks. They tear through Christ’s skin — tear it wide open — so that his entire body, front and back, limb and torso, becomes latticed with bloody crevices, reduced to a raw and ghastly crisscross of quivering pulped flesh.

Whippings, with their ritualized sado-theatrical solemnity, have always held a special place in the cinema of cruelty. Marlon Brando, working as both director and star, sanctioned himself a doozy of a flogging in ”One-Eyed Jacks,” and Denzel Washington may well have become a star during the moment in ”Glory” where he stood, with stoic resolve (and a single tear), to receive the lash.

Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus in ”The Passion of the Christ,” doesn’t possess the dynamism of those actors, but he has an eloquent, spindly body and a gauntly ascetic profile — he resembles a hollowed-out Frank Zappa — which he uses to transform himself into a dripping scarecrow of agony.

As Jesus hauls the cross toward Golgotha, his flayed body collapsing, over and over, like a pile of bloody rags, the look on Caviezel’s face, his right eye swollen shut from beatings, his teeth bared, expresses a hypnotized knowledge of agony: This is the surreal lower depth of what men can do, and — even more — of what a man can feel.

Before I say anything else, let me state that I was held by the hushed, voyeuristic brutality of ”The Passion of the Christ.” Tempting as it may be to dismiss Mel Gibson as a glorified pain freak, dressing up a martyrdom fantasy in Aramaic and Latin, it would be more accurate, I think, to say that the filmmaker, a Catholic fundamentalist, presents his torture-racked vision of Jesus’ last 12 hours on earth as a sacred form of shock therapy.

He wants to get at the scary, heightened, present-tense fever of Jesus’ suffering, at the link between pain and what lies on the other side of pain — between horror and awe. At the moment of Christ’s greatest (apparent) torment, when he is on the cross and the spike is driven into his feet, he speaks words that powerfully affirm his faith, and there’s a gruesome design to the way that Gibson, using a haunting low-angle shot, consecrates Christ’s agony, making it bold, extreme — newfound.

Pondering the victim of an accident, or anyone else who has endured a terrible physical ordeal, we may think, ”There but for the grace of God go I.” Watching Jesus suffer graphically in ”The Passion of the Christ,” we’re asked to feel, ”There is the grace of God.”

Then again, isn’t there more, so much more, to Jesus’ spirit than the bloody endurance of his wounds? His love was radical too — not just for God but for each and every man. ”The Passion of the Christ” comes close to being a splatter film in which the victim embraces his own dismemberment.

When Jesus is hauled before Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the Jewish priests, it would be overstating the case to call their resentful glower inflammatory; rather, it has the cardboard menace of gladiator-movie villainy. That Gibson then attempts to ”humanize” Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), portraying him as an addled pragmatist who agrees to crucify Jesus as a form of mob control, is surely an act of perversity, a way of making the Jews look far worse.

The ironic result, however, is that Gibson actually nails himself in the foot: He gives the priests no organic reason to want to see Jesus dead — no reason, that is, apart from petty intolerance. He thus denies us the chance to experience what Martin Scorsese captured so memorably in ”The Last Temptation of Christ”: that Jesus’ gospel of endless love, of sacrifice before all, really was incendiary.

In its holy vision of hell on earth, ”The Passion of the Christ” pays token reverence to the notion that Jesus saw heaven on earth as well. The movie is blood-soaked pop theology for a doom-laden time, its effect that of a gripping yet reductive paradox: It lifts us downward. B

Get a second opinion: Read Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review

The Passion of the Christ
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