“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed.” So wrote the prophet Isaiah (53:5) 700 years before the son of a carpenter got the shit kicked out of him on the road to Golgotha and was nailed to a cross for as Douglas Adams put it – daring to suggest that everyone should try being nice to each other for a change. In The Gospel According To Mel Gibson (aka The Passion Of The Christ), that line kick-starts a Catholic vision of physical suffering that’s not for the squeamish.
Three years after its Ash Wednesday release, the brouhaha surrounding Gibson’s bible of blood may have died down – upstaged by its creator’s very public fall from grace – yet the Jesus bandwagon keeps on rolling. The poor original DVD release, the complete absence of extras solemnly drawing your attention to ‘the importance’ of the movie (what, no gag reel?), still sold like hot cross buns to the millions that had already flocked to see it at the cinema. This inevitable DVD second coming has enough slick extras to be the definitive edition, though chances are there may yet be a third and fourth coming to pull in more bucks for Mad Mel’s rehab fund.
Whatever the God-botherers might say (probably “blasphemy!”), The Passion Of The Christ is a horror movie first, religious epic second. From the opening shot – an ominous full moon giving way to a prowling stalker-cam in the Garden of Gethsemane – The Passion Of The Christ knows its fright-flick conventions. A cowled, androgynous Satan tempts Jesus, Judas is hounded by ankle-biting demons and rumbling storm clouds hint at divine vengeance. But it’s the torture scenes (scourging, flagellation and crucifixion) that most resemble a horror film.
Critics called it “Jesus Christ Splatterstar”, “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre” and “Jesusploitation”. They were right: it’s a film to be talked about in the same breath as The Last House On The Left or Irréversible, a movie you don’t so much watch as endure. In this desensitised, disconnected era it’s not enough to say that Jesus died for us; Gibson surgically carves him up like one of Leatherface’s victims to make sure we get the point. That extreme spectacle is The Passion’s greatest triumph and biggest flaw, the Gospels stripped of their political and historical meat so all that remains are the bare bones of Caviezel’s impersonation of a side of beef in an abattoir. Is it just splatter cinema for the fervently religious? Or can you really find spirituality in torture?
Don’t expect the group yak tracks to shed much light on Gibson’s Passion. The director’s a subdued presence on this double disc, happier making questionable jokes about suicidal Judas “hanging around” than tackling the accusations of anti-Semitism or splatter for splatter’s sake that refuse to go away. Despite his claims for the film’s richness – “It’s endless... You could watch this again and give a totally different commentary and not repeat yourself. It’s so full, there’s too much to talk about” – he doesn’t really grapple with why so many became passionate about The Passion.
Perhaps it’s too obvious to talk about. Torture, martyrdom, religious fundamentalism: Gibson’s God flick is arguably more timely than timeless, ripped from the headlines rather than the heavens (two months after The Passion, pictures from Abu Ghraib showed a hooded Iraqi insurgent standing on a box in a mock crucifixion pose). When the Pharisees drag a bloodied, beaten Jesus before the Roman law, Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) asks: “Do you always punish your prisoners before they’re judged?”
Jim Caviezel’s agonised moans would resonate even louder with the Christian Right, too often left feeling neglected, defensive, paranoid even, about ‘liberal’ Hollywood. In wrestling martyrdom back from the suicide bombers, the movie – and the event of the movie – gave the church its own bloodstained standard to rally behind, uniting them in the face of ‘Islamic terror’. Just listen to the theologian commentary, where a Biblical scholar thanks Mel for going against “political correctness” and showing Christianity as the one true faith. That tolerance malarky lacks impact these days; we want redemption through torture...
‘Course, any horror fan would be able to tell you that torture is the new black. From Saw to Hostel, the current crop of “endurance horror” has spawned a dozen bargain-basement torture chamber movies and The Passion may just be their arthouse equivalent. When even mainstream TV shows like 24 are spinning on the ethics of violent coersion, you don’t need a degree in Cultural Studies to guess that something’s blowing in the wind.
“We all killed Christ,” claims Gibson, who hammered his point home on-set by reaching into shot and nailing Caviezel to the cross. The director may be exorcising his own demons but The Passion remains a religious epic that owes more to Saw than The King Of Kings; The Greatest Story Ever Told rebranded as The Greatest Snuff Movie Ever Made. When movies about the Son of God resemble films about serial killers, you have to ask yourself: are we on the path of righteousness or the highway to Hell?