John Hiscock watches The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s £15 million movie at the centre of a firestorm of controversy.
Jewish groups have condemned it, evangelical organisations have embraced it and writer-director-producer-financier Mel Gibson is reaping the benefits of a deluge of advance publicity.
The Passion of the Christ has been at the centre of controversy for months, but only this week, after a series of screenings to carefully selected Christian audiences – and having spent the past few weeks editing and tinkering with it – has Gibson finally shown the finished version to journalists and critics.
The film has already come in for vociferous criticism for allegedly kindling anti-Semitism, but having just sat through its two hours six minutes of virtually unremitting bloody beatings and torture, I would not be surprised if anti-violence groups have their say as well.
For, worthy and serious as Gibson’s treatment may be, his blood-drenched depiction of the final hours of Jesus’s life is harsh and brutal, dwelling almost entirely on pain, suffering and torment.
Beatings, whippings, floggings and the Crucifixion, are shown in close-up with frequent slow motion shots to ensure that no detail escapes us. We see a cat-o-nine tails rip repeatedly into Jesus’s flesh as His body is torn and battered to a bleeding pulp; He stumbles, falls and is beaten many times during His long, slow crawl towards His crucifixion; and the agony of the Crucifixion is graphically and excruciatingly portrayed.
The film, due to be released in America on Ash Wednesday and in Britain on March 26, is being marketed to evangelical Christians, although Gibson has emphasised it is not for young children.
However, many adults are likely to have problems with the vivid depictions of pain and violence. It is being released with an R rating but people are already asking whether it should warrant an NC-17, a rating so far applied only to films with explicit sexual content. Gibson claims to have cut some of the most brutal scenes but there is plenty of scope for more editing.
Jim Caviezel stars as Jesus and the Italian actress Monica Bellucci is Mary Magdalene in the £15 million film, which is in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles, and which was entirely financed by Gibson, who is a member of a conservative Catholic religious group.
It begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying as His disciples sleep. He resists the temptations of a Gollum-like Satan but less than 10 minutes into the film He is dragged away to endure the first of many beatings at the hands of Jewish and Roman guards.
The Roman leader Pontius Pilate, reluctant to harm Jesus but equally anxious to avert a rebellion by the Jewish mob, agrees to Him being severely lashed. The ensuing flogging becomes a gruesome bloodbath but the crowd and the high priest demand more.
The second half of the film is devoted to Jesus’s blood-soaked journey to His crucifixion. He stumbles and falls many times under the weight of His cross and is flogged almost senseless until the Romans order an onlooker to help share the burden.
The Crucifixion itself is 25 minutes of torment as drunken Roman soldiers struggle to hammer in the nails and Jesus’s flayed body jerks and writhes in pain on the cross.
His death is accompanied by an earthquake which rocks Jerusalem, shaking and toppling walls in Pilate’s home and in the building housing the high priest.
The resurrection is dealt with as the final scene in the film. The rock in front of the cave entrance where His body lies rolls back and a cleansed and healthy-looking Jesus walks away in slow motion, leaving His shroud on the rock where His body had lain.
Throughout the film, the violence and bloodletting is interspersed with flashbacks to Jesus as a working carpenter, with His mother, preaching to the disciples and at the Last Supper. But the respites are all too brief and after each interlude Gibson harshly pulls the viewers back to the horrors of the persecution.
Beneath the blood Caviezel makes an impressive, dignified Jesus while Monica Bellucci and the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern as Mary, His mother, have little to do but look horrified at events unfolding before them.
While sticking mainly to the New Testament, Gibson has embellished his story cinematically by including scenes such as Roman soldiers joking and bickering among themselves and Pilate’s wife Claudia making plain her sympathy for the women in Jesus’s life. A wild-eyed Judas is chased and hounded by local children until, full of self-recrimination, he takes a rope from a dead camel and hangs himself from a tree above the camel’s corpse.
It is difficult to know who would want to see a film this violent, but Gibson has been encouraging thousands of churchgoers to see it. Given that mainstream American audiences are generally more comfortable with violence than with sex, and that the anti-Semitic controversy has helped rather than hindered marketing efforts, The Passion is likely to boost Gibson’s bank account by many millions of dollars.