Lenny Bruce used to say he was glad Jesus wasn't born in the 20th century, because he couldn't stand the thought of 40th-century schoolgirls wearing little gold electric chairs around their necks. The gag worked—it "killed," as comics say—because we tend to intellectualize the cross. So it's startling when the joke forces us to regard it not as a pious abstraction, but an actual murder instrument sticky with blood. Reactionary Catholic Mel Gibson is at the opposite pole of piety from Lenny, but his The Passion of the Christ (which opens Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Neptune and other theaters) basically accomplishes in the tragic mode what the electric-chair joke did in the comic: It rubs our noses in the grisly reality of crucifixion.
The movie is not really about Jesus' life. You get more of the Sermon on the Mount from Monty Python's Life of Brian (in which Jesus is played perfectly straight) than you do from Gibson. Except for a few flashbacks to moments with the disciples, and one very odd scene in which young carpenter Jesus wows his mom by building Nazareth's first sit-down dinner table, the action is confined to the last 12 hours of his life, between Gethsemane and the tomb. If you don't already know the Gospels, you won't be able to piece them together from this elliptical film.
Yet you will get a vivid sense of what it's like to be flogged by burly centurions with whips barbed with flesh-gouging metal talons; how it feels when blood trickles stingingly into your eyes after cackling sadists cram a thorny crown on your scalp; and the sickening clanging sound a big nail makes when it's hammered into your hand. (Then they flip the victim over, face down onto rocky ground, and hammer the protruding nail tip flat against the wood so his writhing can't yank it out.) When the spear slashes Christ's side, it is no exaggeration to call this a splatter flick.
Surprisingly, there is much brooding beauty in all this excruciating ugliness. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion) achieves both murky realism and enchanted spiritual hues. Drop-dead gorgeous Skagit County native Jim Caviezel gives us a Christ who is muscular yet sensitive; his fierceness is confined to his soul-piercing yellow eyes. Maia Morgenstern, not given much in the way of lines as the Virgin Mother, manages to radiate the deepest grief and maternal passion. Monica Bellucci, whose rape in 2003's Irréversible is the only recent film scene as protractedly violent as Christ's scourging here, is still more moving as a virtually wordless Mary Magdalene. The Italian town of Matera looks convincingly 2,000 years old on camera, because it is; and the sprawling sets that Gibson built for $30 million of his own money at Rome's Cinecittà studio render a feet-on-the-dusty-ground mise-en-scène, not a ghostly CG feel. The look is old-fashioned, faithful to that old-time cinema religion.
But The God's honest truth is that the film is only half successful. Its besetting sins involve too much realism, and too little. The music of violence requires dynamics; Gibson's compositional philosophy is like Spinal Tap's: Turn it up to 11 and leave it there. If you've seen one cat-o'-nine-tails stroke, you've seen them all, but Gibson makes you watch 50 in a row. Maybe Christ really did stumble three times toting his cross to Golgotha, but in a movie, that's two stumbles too many. Gibson forgets that the most terrifyingly effective violence isn't ultra but minimal: a swipe or two at an ear in Reservoir Dogs; the merest millisecond's glimpse of the blade touching nude skin in Psycho. He could've taken us further inside Christ's philosophy if he weren't constantly hacking away at him physically, which distances us rather than inspires us.
It's not like the Oscar-winning director of Braveheart doesn't know better. Every so often, Gibson jolts the movie awake with a quick, subtle scene. Most star the movie's only breakout great performance: Rosalinda Celentano as Satan. She croons in an unsettling dubbed male voice, slithers in slo-mo through the non-slo-mo crowd, murmuring doubt in Jesus' ear while worms coyly peek out her nostril. She sends demons into little boys, who taunt Judas to a swift, therefore effectively dramatic, suicide. In one cool scene, we see the crucifixion from far above through a fast-falling raindrop. The Passion's truest moments are quick as lightning strikes. (During filming, the assistant director and the star were actually struck by lightning. Maybe God was telling them to pick up the pace, already.)
In another way, the film is too unrealistic. Caiphas and the other Jewish officials who persecute Jesus are cartoon figures of villainy, cardboard cutouts who disappear when they turn sideways. They're too implausible to rouse anti-Semitic emotions, as Jewish groups understandably fear; moreover, the film simply isn't that rousing. Then Gibson balances caricatures of evil with caricatures of virtue—good-guy Jews who don't join the bad Sanhedrin guys in their anti-Jesus jeering; one even helps carry the cross. Otherwise, there's scant drama to Christ's preceding trial.
The problem with The Passion isn't Christ's, but Gibson's: He's a virile director without a philosophical bone in his head, a muscular Christian. Yet to a very limited extent, his film succeeds in getting us into Jesus' skin, even as it's being shredded from his body. As I was taught while growing up and going to Bethel Lutheran of Shoreline three times a week, all of us—Jews and non-Jews—would've been complicit in Christ's death; all of us would've been part of the power structure that Jesus, the revolutionary, threatened. Those kind of ideas are missing from The Passion, washed away by its buckets of blood. Considered purely as a meditation on the meaning of Christ's life, and sacrifice, the movie is a failure. But be patient with Gibson—God isn't finished with him yet.