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'The Passion of the Christ.'

The Flog Prince

Mel Gibson hopes that a good scourging will bring moviegoers back to Jesus in 'The Passion of the Christ'

By Richard von Busack

Wrath of God rainstorm aside, the opening-day screening in the Bay Area of The Passion of the Christ turned out to be less thunderous than could be hoped. No Baptists were flipping out in the parking lot. There were no stigmata on the hands of the ticket takers.

Earlier, ABC's Good Morning America had highlighted the pious trooping in to see the movie in Plano, Texas; I hope they got time off from church in exchange. The arch reporter noted that The New York Times--o, elitists!--had denounced the movie, but "real people" were turning out in droves.

But in the good old sin-loving Bay Area, full of surreal people, the audience was eating popcorn. This has to be a venial sin. Some impious persons were courting time in Purgatory by eating hot dogs even though it was Ash Wednesday, and Lent was underway.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show ambience I'd hoped for proved a washout--no Pilates jesting with the ones who showed up in robes and mantles ("Here's two for flinching, Nazarene!"). So I was glad that I didn't turn up in my Centurion costume, which I never get a chance to wear anymore since they canceled leather night at the Chartreuse Club.

Actually, the normalcy of the crowd was kind of a relief. Even the chirruping of a dickhead's cell phone--you're in a theater, you're not in your living room, you dickhead--was a reminder of a sane world somewhere outside Mel Gibson's bloody theology.

Of course, The Passion of the Christ is a good-looking film. Duh, Caleb Deschanel shot it; Da Vinci's own color suffuses the too-short flashbacks where Jesus (James Caviezel) teases his mother, Mary, or shares his bread with his friends.

During such brief moments, one feels a stirring in one's heart toward that Jesus, that Jesus who cannot be destroyed by legions of vicious, life-hating ministers and priests. He who said "The Kingdom of God is within you" has always been overruled by the thousands who've said "The Kingdom of God is within me, and woe to you if you don't do what I say."

And if tears well up when you're watching the movie, they're tears of rage. How could a man of Gibson's money and experience have turned out a movie so unredeemably disgusting and horrible?

Unquestionably, The Passion of the Christ is an anti-Semitic movie. Someone who speaks Aramaic ought to check to see whether that line about "his blood be upon us" is still in the picture. I think Gibson just fuzzed out the subtitle.

The Jews make it all happen. They strut and hiss at each other like bikers, and one wears an eye patch as a symbol of his villainy. They howl for Jesus' blood. Since Jesus' great achievement in this movie is his ability to take punishment, it's also a mark against the Jews that Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, can't watch the scourging he himself ordered up. He doesn't have the balls.

Compare these pompous, overdressed troublemakers to the tranquil Roman authority. The rightness of what the Romans are doing is even recognized by St. Dismas (Sergio Rubini), the good thief, who gladly accepts his cross. What did he steal to merit crucifixion as a punishment? A camel? Two of them?

The Passion of the Christ turns out to be zeitgiesty in a way no one could have anticipated; Gibson's film reflects America's own imperial troubles in Iraq in a flattering light. The sad, cultivated Roman Pontius Pilate--he does the "sensitive Nazi" bit we remember from 1950s war movies--has to keep the peace between all these bloodthirsty desert fanatics. And yet when Pilate says, "Quid est veritas?"--"What is truth?"--there's a flash of the rational tradition that's saved Western civilization from the mania of raw faith.

Whether you want to or not, you end up sympathizing with Hristo Shopov's Pilate; he's soft-spoken, mild and repelled by blood (in a way Gibson obviously isn't). And unlike Jesus, he's not possessed with the idea that God demands a human sacrifice. The conniving Jews force his hand; Jesus seals the deal by giving Pilate implicit permission to crucify him.

The Devil Is a Woman

In this torture-ridden film, Satan has no good lines. The androgynous Rosalinda Celentano stalks around looking a little like Brian Eno on the cover of Before and After Science. S/he poops a copperhead snake and is attended by a wizened midget who looks like Red Riding Hood from Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now.

But the devil never gives Jesus a good argument. Neither does Mary, that traditional figure, representing the force of mercy and intercession between man and an angry God. Maia Morgenstern follows the ordeal of her son, throwing herself on the ground and pulling a variety of sad faces. A natural opportunity for drama is thrown away. She never questions her son's faith that he must be beaten, skinned and nailed.

Since The Passion of the Christ's ordeal is derived from the violence in boxing movies like Raging Bull, it's all about how many times our hero gets up after being knocked down. The scene of him after a lovingly detailed beating, scouring and crowning with thorns is followed by a long ramble through Jerusalem, with one of the crowd rushing out to make the Shroud of Turin. Stumbling, Jesus gets up, to stumble again; by the time the crucifixion itself arrives, it's almost merciful.

But Gibson wants to make sure we see every nail go in, and (a detail I've never seen before) the cross is turned over so the nails can be bent on the backside. Did anyone get the sense that these Romans were making a lot of work for themselves?

Some may think this is a beautiful spectacle of torture for our sake, that the revolting ordeal is good for the soul, a reminder of God's mercy by his willingness to take a surrogate victim for our misdeeds. ("Jesus died for our sins. Dare we make his death meaningless by not committing them?"-Gore Vidal.)

But The Passion of the Christ is a uniquely barbaric film. Since movies are only a century old, it wouldn't have seemed possible to set the art back 500 years, but Gibson's done just that.

The Passion of the Christ (R; 126 min.), directed by Mel Gibson, written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Gibson, photographed by Caleb Deschanel and starring James Caviezel, Hristo Shopov and Rosalinda Celentano, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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Web extra to the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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