by Harlan Kennedy



Serial resurrection is a frightening thing. But it has been happening in cinema for 100 years with the tale of Jesus Christ. Whenever you think “the greatest story ever told” has been told for the last time, the rock rolls back, the Messiah reawakes, the cash tills ring and in Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST the world is suddenly a gossip shop all over again, asking the eternal passionate questions.

Did Christ live? Did Christ suffer and die? Did he rise again? And how many more times can mankind and the media re-convulse over an event that allegedly happened 2000 years ago?

The film, it turns out, is a stunner. In every possible sense. You marvel at the dark poetry, serpentine surrealism and imaginative grace-notes wrought by a man we’ve known so long simply as Mad Mel, the mayhem-happy matinee idol. We are stunned more literally by the impact of THE PASSION’S violence. Jim Caviezel’s Christ is first softened up by Roman thugs in Gethsemane, then stripped and birched in a pre-trial show-punishment, then in stomach-turning sequence whipped, flailed (with a skin-shredding cat-o-nine-tails) and nailed to a cross that the poor messiah has twice been crushed beneath, as if Gibson wants us to feel the sheer weight of a once-real Christian totem that most of us know better as a neck medallion or a wall accessory in church or home.

For those fainthearts hoping the film’s sounds might be more merciful than its visceral (though never gratuitous) images, Gibson and co-scenarist Benedict Fitzgerald have written the script in Aramaic and Latin. Subtitles as remorseless as rolling stock rumble through the stations of the Cross, and your inspector is Mel himself , who makes sure you are awake at important stops by punching your ticket or any other susceptible part of you.

It helps to have the right travel documents. It helps to know what’s what and who’s who in a crowded, seething fresco of you-are-there realism, circa 33 A.D.; to know that bearded guy number one, peering with spooked-out eyes round pillars, is betrayer Judas while bearded guy number two, peering round pillars with spooked-out compassion, is Peter. That the two black-robed women jostling tear-stricken through crowds are the two Marys, with Monica Bellucci’s Magdalene artfully conflated in flashback with the ‘woman taken in adultery.’ And it helps to have Christ’s full backstory in your memory bank, because all you get here is tiny insert glimpses of Christ the young carpenter, Christ sermonising on the Mount, Christ in a flashbulb moment of foredoomed realisation at the Last Supper, Christ confronting high priest Caiaphas and his hate police.



Is THE PASSION anti-Semitic?  Can the movie possibly sustain that charge if Mel’s main rage seems to be reserved for the Roman soldiers, sparing their captive no excruciation, while the film’s surprise maverick hero is Simon of Cyrene? The reluctant Cross-carrier becomes a spitfire dissident, railing at tormentors and nobly deflecting both the physical blows aimed at Jesus and the verbal blows aimed at himself (“Jew!”).

There are fresh inflections even more surprising in THE PASSION. After the horrors of impalement and the howl of heretical despair (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”), peace breaks out over Calvary with an imagistic piece de resistance. A giant raindrop in the sky, glimpsed from above by a camera as high as the one that framed Hitchcock’s birds preparing their swoop, plummets slowly to the parched circle of earth, its impact shaking the landscape like a tremor.

Divine mercy has never seemed so lyrically apocalyptic. Yet the resurrection, when it follows, has never seemed less like an orthodox Biblical happy ending. Rock rolls back, winding sheet is seen crumpling into emptiness as if an invisible body is vacating it while we watch; then the camera retreats to frame the sitting Caviezel’s living profile. After a moment the naked Christ rises, stands, and slowly lopes – no other word fits – out of screen shot. A Messiah resuscitated? Or a Yeatsian beast slouching towards the future to be reborn, infinitely and endlessly, not least in cinema.

What an eerie film this is. What a violent film. What a haunting film, restoring the gospel story to livid, vivid life even as it dwells on that story’s entanglement in pain, sacrifice, horror and death. Maybe THE PASSION is the right movie at the right time, showing that Christians and exploding Muslims are brothers under the skin, that martyrdom is not a pretty thing – whether humans inflict it on others or appoint themselves its sacrificial crusader-victims – though both creeds have chosen their moments in history to pay it a grim, reverberant due.

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST puts Jesus’s death and suffering in its true and chastening context, an R-rated preview advertising a U-rated religion, even if mass conversion is unlikely to be the result of this uncompromising picture of anguish, agony and struggle.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.