Excruciating: The Gospel according to Mel

Christ, you know it ain't easy.– John Lennon

When seeing The Passion of the Christ it's crucial to understand that "crucifixion" and "excruciating" (and "crucial") come from the same root.

It's too late to review The Passion of the Christ as an ordinary film. Maybe it was always as impossible as writing a book review of the Bible ("Poetic interludes slow the progress of the narrative...").

Brilliant marketing has positioned The Passion... as a touchstone; many clergy are making it a Station of the Cross for their congregations. To them, anyone who finds fault with the film or its maker (should that be capitalized?), Mel Gibson, is a godless heathen who will burn in hell for not keeping the faith.

What's more, The Passion of the Christ has become a lightning rod, bringing out of the woodwork all sorts of "experts" with opinions about who killed Jesus and what impact that should have on their descendants. For those people I have three words: statute of limitations.

The U.S. and Japan have forgiven each other for Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. We no longer blame the German people, except a few who were directly responsible, for what the Nazis did. Closer to home, neither slaves nor slave owners are still alive, and if their sons and daughters haven't all realized Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of sitting together at the table of brotherhood, we're working on it.

So how can we hold anyone today responsible for what happened nearly 2000 years ago? And since I'm already damned in the eyes of a certain segment of our readership, let me go further and suggest that if Christ's coming and going were preordained as part of God's plan, God is to blame: 1) for planning it, and 2) for not stopping it; and Jesus is to blame for suicidally yielding to God's will when he might have escaped. Jews and Romans alike were pawns in their game.

Having been pre-sold to those Christians who will see whatever their pastors tell them to see, The Passion of the Christ is virtually critic-proof. That enviable box-office insurance becomes, however, a cross for the film to bear when facing reviewers who don't like to have their authority questioned.

What's ironic is that the film would have done well with critics (and still may) had it arrived without all the baggage; it's essentially an art film. But it wouldn't have reached the same mass audience. Most of the people who see it will be seeing a subtitled movie for the first time.

Conservative Christians seem to have a higher tolerance for violence than sex, and watching Christ suffer horrible brutality at the hands of Roman soldiers for two hours (well, most of it is in the second hour) is a spiritual experience for them. No pain, no gain. I don't want to put that down if it works for them, but I'm a Christian because I agree with Jesus' philosophy of love and forgiveness, not because I revel in being a beneficiary of his suffering.

OK, the movie. Jim Caviezel is virtually unrecognizable as Jesus, even before he's covered in blood and dirt. The story begins with his arrest and goes through his trials as Caiphas, the Jewish high priest, demands his death, but Pontius Pilate and King Herod (the latter portrayed almost as effeminately as in Jesus Christ Superstar), the Roman leaders with the power to hand down a death sentence, try to avoid condemning him.

Pilate, urged by his wife to free the innocent man, has Jesus whipped and beaten to a bloody pulp by sadistic guards in the hope that will appease the crowd; but egged on by Caiphas they continue to call for crucifixion.

And so on through dragging the cross, being nailed to it (by director Gibson's left hand in one shot) and eventually expiring. A brief epilogue suggests the resurrection, but there's plenty left for a sequel. There are also several brief flashbacks along the way to what you might call Jesus's greatest hits: at home with Mary (Maia Morgenstern), his mother; the Sermon on the Mount; washing the disciples' feet; Palm Sunday, and the Last Supper.

While Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald draw most of their material from St. Matthew's Gospel they're not above embellishing it. When Peter cuts off an ear of one of the men arresting Jesus, Jesus not only tells him to put up his sword but restores the man's ear. A scene of children attacking Judas just before his suicide could be from Suddenly Last Summer, and the crow that pecks out the eyes of the unrepentant thief on the next cross may have escaped from The Birds.

And the devil is in the details. An androgynous Satan (played by a woman, but you might not guess it) is frequently shown in the crowd or on the periphery when not actually arguing with Jesus.

If you're familiar enough with the source material, you can pretty well follow The Passion of the Christ from its visuals and ignore the Aramaic and Latin dialogue and English subtitles. (Apparently everyone was bilingual in those days because they all seem to understand each other.) Some of the characters, such as John, the beloved disciple, are never identified, but are fairly easy to spot.

I believe Gibson was sincere in his original vision, and the people who worked with him, inspired or not, were at the peak of their craft. Millions of people will be genuinely moved by the result. But since this is the 21st century, there's a lot of money to be made, so the leeches have gotten involved.

There's no stopping the marketing juggernaut surrounding this film. Jesus would have turned over the website, selling all manner of "witnessing tools" and "licensed products" "which will inspire people to express and share their faith," as he did the moneychangers' tables in the temple. And the film is preceded by a trailer for Madison, a Caviezel movie that's been on the shelf for two years, that Newmarket has picked up to take advantage of the actor's new, higher profile.