The word "authentic" shows up a lot when people talk -- as they have, a lot -- about a movie few as yet have seen, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The film's Web site touts its "realism," and to hear the hype you'd think Gibson had hauled a camera crew back to first-century Jerusalem to get the skinny on The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Well, sorry: While it's as bruising as you could imagine, scripted in the ancient tongues of Aramaic and Latin, and clearly a work of devotion, like most artworks The Passion tells us more about its makers than it does about its oft-filmed, oft-staged subject matter.
Culled primarily from the four gospels, The Passion follows Jesus (Jim Caviezel) through his final 12 hours, from his crisis of faith in Gethsemane through his arrest, scourging and crucifixion. His mother, Mary (Maia Morgenstern), and Mary Magdalene (Monica Belluci), the woman he saved from stoning, bear helpless witness; his antagonists include the Jewish religious elite, who condemn him as a rabble-rouser and blasphemer, and the Roman imperial government that sanctions his execution. But the central drama is Jesus's troubled colloquy with his father, an unseen God who in fulfillment of Christian prophecy wills his death as mankind's spiritual salvation.
What's novel about the film -- and what they probably mean by "realism" -- is its literally painstaking depiction of cruelty: At least half of this two-hour movie is Jesus getting the tar kicked out of him. Suffering is of course central to Christian theology, but the extent of its depiction here is numbing, and after a few minutes of it you have to wonder what's the point. Though the least of his brethren is pulped into hamburger in every fourth movie we see these days, according to Gibson, Jesus' agonies must still be rendered down to the minutest flesh-shredding detail.
It's all the curiouser since many film versions of this story have been told in relatively restrained terms. Yet Gibson depicts a lengthy caning, a subsequent horrific scourging and several briefer beatings in real time, as though these recreations were their own act of faith.
The violence and gore, however, are just one aspect of a film whose aesthetic touchstone seems to be the rugby scrum. In the usual contemporary Hollywood way, The Passion substitutes giant music, bludgeoning sound effects and massive closeups for ideas and emotions. Gibson's palette of expression seems primarily limited to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's attractive lighting schemes and to slow motion, which Gibson employs endlessly to accent everything from Judas' receipt of his bag of silver to each of Jesus' several collapses on the road to Calvalry.
A few quieter moments work well, including seconds spent with an awestruck soldier whose severed ear Jesus restores and poignant flashbacks to passages from Jesus' days as a humble carpenter and itinerant teacher. And Caviezel, in a famously thankless role, acquits himself honorably, despite spending most of his screen time covered with lacerations, greased with blood and restricted to croaking out occasional words of wisdom.
All this constitutes a bludgeoning sort of realism, I guess. But Gibson's goal of fidelity to even his biblical sources is belied by several touches of poetic -- and typically supernatural -- license. Not only are some of his shock edits the cinematic equivalent of hollering "boo," but he actually invents a few monsters to briefly spice things up, including a cowled (and unnamed) Satan, who serves as a kind of silent demonic chorus to the action in several scenes.
The end result is a crudely effective film that lacks both the fidelity of more literal gospel adaptions -- including 2003's little-publicized The Gospel According to John -- and the thoughtfulness of more imaginative (if revisionist) films such as Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ ('88) and Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal ('89), not to mention the rigorous art of Pasolini's classic The Gospel According to Matthew (1966). And while I've no reason to doubt Gibson's spirituality, his film is absent any new insights: The Pharisees are treacherous. The Roman soldiers are brutes. Jesus has doubts. Mary's sorrowful.
Still, if Gibson (who wrote the film's screenplay with Benedict Fitzgerald) was so concerned with authenticity, you also wonder why he ignored so much scholarship about the era. Nowhere is the lapse plainer than in what's been the film's most controversial element, its depiction of the role of the Jews in Jesus' death.
I don't know whether Gibson's anti-Semitic, but it's easy enough to lay that accusation on his film (and, to be fair, on lots of other films about Jesus). In The Passion, the Jewish temple elite led by Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) arrest and prosecute Jesus and head a mob demanding that the Romans do the same. Viewed closely, the film acknowledges that it was Roman prefect Pilate (Hristo Shopov) who alone held Jesus' fate. But it's the tall-hatted Caiphas who's seen buying Judas, and who later taunts Jesus on the cross and plays a key role everywhere in between. Meanwhile, Gibson depicts a troubled, philosophical Pilate, who's further humanized by his lovely, tenderhearted wife. And the scourged and bleeding Jesus tells Pilate, "He who delivered me to you has the greater sin."
That version of things might be more or less gospel, but even Newsweek'll tell you it ain't history: Pilate was a hammer-handed dictator, and even the gospels acknowledge that Jewish authorities were worried that if they didn't rein in Jesus the Romans would crack down on everybody. The gospels of course were written well after the fact, by people with views to advance -- usually to the detriment of the Jewish authorities, and usually not to the detriment of the Romans who still ruled the land. And Pilate's claim in The Passion that Caiphas will start a rebellion if the Romans don't kill Jesus seems especially flagrant: Pilate and Caiphus were essentially allies, both concerned with keeping the populace at bay.
Gibson, as has been widely reported, is an ultraconservative Roman Catholic, one who rejects many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Those reforms -- codified some 40 years ago -- include allowing mass to be said in languages other than Latin, and repudiating the idea that the Jews killed Jesus. In The Passion, Jesus himself says he's dying of his free will. The trouble is that viewers disinclined to sort such matters through might mistake an ahistorical movie for reality. In Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, with subtitles.