Gibson's Passion is, ultimately, the most critic-proof movie ever made. It has two built-in audiences: the anointed and the appalled, with the disinterested left to roam the multiplex in search of something more secular. Those who believe making it and seeing it (or, rather, witnessing it) is an act of devotion will walk away fulfilled, enriched, enlightened. They will receive what they have come for, a horrific rendering of the death of Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel, who always looks like he's suffering) that "proves" how great was his sacrifice; if it isn't just as it was, as the pope did or didn't say, it certainly is as those who believe expect it to be.
Jesus is first seen being arrested (in a slow-motion fight scene that looks like Braveheart staged in the Matrix), then beaten by a mob of Jews, and then stripped of his skin by bloodthirsty Roman guards. The torture scenes are fetishistic, almost pornographic; Gibson, who says God was his co-director, revels in the violence, the sight of skin being ripped from bone and the sounds of whips and hooks turning a man's body into a slick and squishy mess. There is no way to see The Passion of the Christ without experiencing a visceral reaction. By the time Jesus carries the cross up the hill, he is little more than pulp, and blood pours from him till it seems to flood the theater. It's as though Gibson has turned the scene from Lethal Weapon in which he's bound and beaten and electrocuted into a two-hour endurance test; you may miss subtitles while trying to avert your gaze from the gore. A colleague walked out of an advance screening dismissing, and admonishing, The Passion of the Christ as the work of a "Jesus freak"; to many, that will be the ultimate compliment.
But those of us who grew up being taunted as "Christ-killers" will see The Passion of the Christ and wonder whether it will inspire a new wave of anti-Semitism, not that those folks need the star of What Women Want to inspire them. Gibson sticks to the texts that drown the Jewish priests in Jesus' blood. The Hebrew priests are stock Hollywood villains, with dark skin and crooked noses; they sneer at Jesus, spit at him, beat the hell out of him, and threaten rebellion unless Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) crucifies him. Gibson has managed the unthinkable: He makes Pilate look like the good guy -- weak, yes, for caving to the Jews, but ultimately someone saddened and guilt-ridden by his decision. It's as if Pilate, regarded by history as a sadistic man who killed thousands of Jews on the cross, is the conscience the Jews do not have; he looks like their pawn, a weakling who shouldn't bear the blame for his actions.
But if Gibson's to be taken to task for anything, it's for making only half a movie. He isn't interested -- as Pier Paolo Pasolini or Martin Scorsese or Nicholas Ray or the Monty Python boys were -- in Jesus the prophet, the teacher, or even the man, but only the sacrificial symbol. Previous versions of the greatest story ever retold have always included the Crucifixion at the end of a stirring devotional; Gibson has made it the whole story, with only frustratingly fleeting flashbacks to Jesus' saving of Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and the Last Supper. His Jesus speaks in soundbites and offers up a quick medley of his greatest hits, then it's back to the suffering -- his and, ultimately, the audience's.
If this movie were made by anyone other than Mel Gibson and marketed by anyone other than Bob Berney, who made a hit out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Passion of the Christ would have been given little notice. Like last month's low-budgeted The Gospel of John, it would linger on a single screen and slip into Sunday schools. It's too turgid to awe the nonbelievers, too zealous to inspire, and often too silly to take seriously, with its demonic hallucinations that look like escapees from a David Lynch film (I swear I couldn't find the devil carrying around a hairy-backed midget anywhere in the text I read). But maybe Gibson needed to make this picture after all; I doubt Bird on a Wire or Lethal Weapon 4 was going to get him that express ticket to heaven he craves.