Most movies based on the New Testament convey something of Jesus’ teachings. The parables and sermons loom large in “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and “Godspell,” as well as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Jesus of Nazareth.” Roman cruelty may drive the plot of “Ben-Hur,” but the movie is ultimately about the emptiness of revenge and the Christian promise of redemption.
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which is appropriately R-rated for its chamber-of-horrors gore, is unique in the history of Bible movies. It tells us next to nothing about Jesus, aside from the fact that he said a few things about loving one’s neighbors and then died horribly: flogged, jeered at, tormented with a crown of thorns, brutally crucified, with a Roman lance puncturing his side.
The movies listed above didn’t miss this detail, but they didn’t present Jesus only as a victim. Nor did any of them provide a Resurrection as perfunctory and pointless as the one Gibson conjures up. Compared to the genuinely inspiring Resurrection sequence in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” in which Jesus quietly appears among his disciples, Gibson’s finale seems especially empty.
Covering the last 12 hours of Jesus’ earthly existence, Gibson’s movie begins in the garden of Gethsemane, with the disciples sleeping as Jesus prays for guidance and stomps on a snake that tempts him to avoid his destiny. There are other horrors: a screeching creature that resembles a berserk monkey, demonic children who might have wandered in from “The Exorcist,” a bird that plucks out the eyes of crucified men, the gargoyle-like members of King Herod’s court, and a Jewish high priest who seems to have a personal vendetta against Jesus.
Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus’ Jewish persecutors has drawn much advance criticism, although he follows the scenario of most New Testament movies: the Jewish religious authorities bring Jesus before Herod and Pontius Pilate, who reluctantly signs off on his execution. (Historians, who describe Pilate as a mass murderer, insist that he needed no help in making this decision.)
Gibson’s problem is a matter of degree. Whereas Zeffirelli and others have emphasized that Jesus had allies among the Jewish priests, Gibson repeatedly suggests that, without their insistence, Pilate would never have agreed to the Crucifixion. As Caiaphas, the head priest, Mattia Sbragia gives a rabid performance that makes more of an impression than Jim Caviezel’s Jesus or Monica Bellucci’s Mary Magdalene. (The English subtitles, translated from the Aramaic and Latin spoken by the actors, are sometimes jarringly contemporary.)
On the basis of his spiritual performance in “The Thin Red Line” six years ago, Caviezel would seem to be perfectly cast as Jesus. But with one eye swollen shut through most of the movie, and his body covered with scars and bleeding wounds, he’s so caked in horrific makeup that he’s barely visible. During what must be the longest flogging scene in movie history, he is transformed into something that resembles a butcher-shop slab of beef.
“The Passion of the Christ” has been carefully photographed by the gifted Caleb Deschanel, who makes Gibson’s relatively low-budget production look much bigger than it is. Still, if you flogged yourself for two hours and six minutes, the result might be about as enlightening as this film.