SO WHAT'S THE GOOD NEWS?

I have no doubt that Mel Gibson loves Jesus. From the evidence of "The Passion of the Christ," however, what he seems to love as much is the cinematic depiction of flayed, severed, swollen, scarred flesh and rivulets of spilled blood, the crack of bashed bones and the groans of someone enduring the ultimate physical agony. This peculiar, deeply personal expression of the filmmaker's faith is a far cry from the sentimental, pious depictions of Christ that popular culture has often served up. Relentlessly savage, "The Passion" plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion.

It's the sadism, not the alleged anti-Semitism, that is most striking. (For the record, I don't think Gibson is anti-Semitic; but those inclined toward bigotry could easily find fuel for their fire here.) There's always been a pronounced streak of sadomasochism and martyrdom running through Gibson's movies, both as an actor and as a filmmaker. The Oscar-winning "Braveheart" reveled in decapitations and disembowelments, not to mention the spectacle of Gibson himself, as the Scottish warrior hero, impaled on a cross. In "Mad Max," the "Lethal Weapon" movies, "Ransom" and "Signs" (where he's a cleric who's lost his faith), the Gibson hero is pummeled and persecuted, driven to suicidal extremes. From these pop passion plays to the Passion itself is a logical progression; it gives rise to the suspicion that on some unconscious level "The Passion of the Christ" is, for Gibson, autobiography.

With the exception of a few brief flashbacks, "The Passion" focuses on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We first glimpse Jesus (James Caviezel) racked with fear, praying in a mist-shrouded Gethsemane, where he is tempted by Satan, depicted here as a pale, hooded, androgynous woman who might have stepped out of an Ingmar Bergman movie. (In the subtitled film, the actors speak Aramaic and Latin.) Gibson's iconography is wildly eclectic: at various moments his images call to mind the paintings of Caravaggio (the grotesque cherubs who hound Judas to suicide), grisly 15th- and 16th-century paintings of the Crucifixion and Pieta, and such horror movies as "The Exorcist" and "Jacob's Ladder." When Jesus is arrested by the Jewish high priest Caiaphas's men, a fight breaks out: Peter slices off the ear of a soldier and, for the first of many times, Gibson switches to slow motion, inviting us to linger on the physical abuse and humiliation.

There is real power in Gibson's filmmaking: he knows how to work an audience over. The dark, queasy strength of the images--artfully shot by Caleb Deschanel--and their duration (the scene in which the Roman soldiers tie Jesus down and torture him goes on endlessly) tends to overwhelm the ostensible message. "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword," Jesus says, putting a halt to the fighting in Gethsemene; much later we're given a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus exhorts his followers to love their enemies as themselves. But these moments have little weight in the body of the film; they're the cinematic equivalent of footnotes and they're not what seizes Gibson's imagination. What you remember is the image of a crow plucking out the eyes of the thief on the cross next to Jesus, punished by God for mocking his son. Caviezel gives an eloquent physical performance, but he has little opportunity to show the Messiah's spiritual charisma; this Jesus' most noteworthy trait is his ability to absorb pain. It's fascinating that the most understated sequence is the Resurrection itself. Rendered in obliquely crisp cinematic shorthand, it brings the movie to an anomalously muted conclusion.

From a purely dramatic point of view, the relentless gore is self-defeating. I found myself recoiling from the movie, wanting to keep it at arm's length--much the same feeling I had watching Gaspar Noe's notorious "Irreversible," with its nearly pornographic real-time depiction of a rape. Instead of being moved by Christ's suffering, or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins. Others may well find a strong spirituality in "The Passion"--I can't pretend to know what this movie looks like to a believer--but it was Gibson's fury, not his faith, that left a deep, abiding aftertaste.

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