I’m writing these words two days after the opening of The Passion of the Christ. By the time you read them, you’ll probably already have seen it. You’ll also know whether the huge first-day crowds were more than just a publicity-powered fluke. Will ordinary Americans be driven away by the avalanche of hostile reviews that greeted the film? Or will they choose to see for themselves?
I don’t know yet, nor did I watch The Passion of the Christ in a crowded theater. Instead, I saw it in a New York screening room two days before Ash Wednesday, hours before the critical bombs started to fall. Such places are dismal little affairs, comfortable enough but far from atmospheric, and in no way suited to religious contemplation. This one was full of people making calls on cell phones and conversing in notice-me voices. One fellow was earnestly explaining how Mel Gibson couldn’t possibly be a good Christian, seeing as how he’d admitted his longing to thread Frank Rich’s intestines on a stick. “On a basic level,” he intoned, “it occurs to me that Jesus was a gentle guy.”
The lights went down, and the film rolled, accompanied at first by whispered conversation, though that faded out soon enough. I suspect that not a few viewers were shocked into silence by Gibson’s palpable seriousness, not to mention the quality of his craftsmanship. The script, by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, author of the screenplay for Wise Blood (and the son of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, two of Flannery O’Connor’s closest friends), is a deftly carpentered expansion of the biblical story. The actors are uniformly fine, though I was especially impressed by Hristo Naumov Shopov, who as Pontius Pilate has the only really complex role in the film. The cinematography and production design are handsome without lapsing into picturesque self-indulgence. Gibson’s direction is more like what you’d see in a Hollywood-style big-budget movie than in an art film—I suspect he picked up a few ideas from Signs—yet it is at all times self-effacing and dramatically potent.
The weakest link is John Debney’s crunch-and-thump music, which can’t begin to compare with Miklos Rozsa’s extraordinary scores for Ben-Hur and King of Kings. Rozsa made those movies seem more serious than they were (though Ben-Hur is more serious than most critics think). On the other hand, The Passion of the Christ bears no resemblance to any of the biblical epics of the Fifties and Sixties. Instead, it’s what Gibson said it would be, a largely naturalistic portrayal of the Crucifixion as described in the Bible. In an odd sort of way, it reminded me of Master and Commander, another film that went to unusual lengths to reproduce the sights and sounds of a lost world. The use of Aramaic and Latin dialogue helps, a lot.
Everything I’d heard about the violence was true. It’s jarring, at times almost sickening. Yet I didn’t find it gratuitous, given the film’s initiating premise, though the scourging of Jesus went on far past the point of diminishing artistic returns, however “realistic” it may have been. In any case, nothing in The Passion of the Christ will startle viewers familiar with Western religious art. The difference—and it’s a big one—is that this is a film, not a mural. Photographs pack a punch more powerful than even the most gruesome paintings. To say that The Passion of the Christ suggests a Caravaggist Crucifixion come to life, while true enough, understates its impact. Of course it’s only a movie, but Gibson creates an illusion of reality so enveloping that it’s possible at times to forget yourself.
Not that many of the people at the screening I attended would have been likely to forget themselves. They were New York media types, not the kind of audience I had in mind when I reminded a reporter for the New York Times that “most of the people who see The Passion of the Christ will regard it as a film about something that actually happened. That’s something that a lot of the people writing about it are apt to misunderstand.” Indeed it is. We now live in an age when ostensibly serious art critics can get away with turning up their noses at a show like the Metropolitan Museum’s El Greco retrospective because of its subject matter. Hence it didn’t surprise me that so few of their cinematic counterparts showed no more interest in the artistic merits of The Passion of the Christ. For them it was an act of war, to be defended against by any means necessary—and from their point of view, they were right.
My own point of view isn’t easily summed up. The great film critic Robert Warshow wrote that “at the center of all truly successful criticism there is always a man reading a book, a man looking at a picture, a man watching a movie…. A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” Even as the critic in me was asking hard questions about The Passion of the Christ, I knew I was being overwhelmed by the raw immediacy of Gibson’s stark visualization of the Passion. Was the score really so bad and even if it was, did it detract appreciably from the film’s effectiveness? (Yes and no.) Was Gibson’s decision to put a weirdly androgynous Satan on screen aesthetically sound—and even if it wasn’t, did it come off anyway? (No and yes.)
How good a work of art is it? That, too, proves unexpectedly hard to say. I don’t question Gibson’s seriousness for a moment, but he is, after all, playing in the biggest of leagues, and it is his very seriousness that compels us to compare him not to William Wyler and Cecil B. de Mille but to Caravaggio and Bach. One could scarcely have expected him to come up to such exalted standards, and he doesn’t. Yet there may be more immediately relevant yardsticks by which to measure his considerable achievement. I saw The Passion of the Christ, for instance, not long after seeing Tim Burton’s Big Fish, in which Albert Finney plays an amiable blowhard whose last illness and death bring his son face-to-face with the meaning of life. Big Fish is one of those nominally serious Hollywood movies in which watered-down Christian symbolism is enlisted in the service of New Age spiritualism, a feel- good pseudo-religion that demands nothing of its practitioners save the inchoate desire to be happier.
I couldn’t help but think of the toothless, content-free “spirituality” of Big Fish as I watched The Passion of the Christ, in which the Word is made as scourged flesh—and dark red blood. Small wonder that the secularized scribes of Blue America greeted so frank a film with howls of rage. They may not believe in much of anything, but they’re too smart not to know that in the long run, something always beats nothing.