The good news, or bad, is that watching Jesus get the snot beat out of him for two hours did not, in fact, convert me from a Saul to a Paul. But then, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ , like Fahrenheit 9/11 , is less useful as a conversion tool than as a shibboleth: Nobody comes out saying “Hosanna!” who didn’t say it going in.
We already know the plot, right? Jesus (James Caviezel) and his disciples, who look a whole lot like members of Soundgarden, are arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane; 12 hours later, he winds up dead on a cross; three days later, he rises from the grave and skedaddles. In between, Mary weeps; Pontius Pilate prevaricates in the most un-historically-accurate sort of way; a creepy dude-looks-like-a-lady Satan cradles a demonic midget in its arms; and God sheds a single, massive, celestial C.G.I. tear.
But mostly Mr. Gibson subjects the body of his loving Lord to the sort of abuse that movie directors usually reserve for the island of Manhattan. His Jesus gets kicked, punched, stabbed, spit on, dehydrated, beaten with rods, flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails, manhandled by an offensively caricatured Jewish mob, crowned with thorns, forced to drag his cross through the streets and up a hill, and-last but most definitely not least-crucified and killed. Every so often, the Roman soldiers’ expressions of contorted, cackling sadism give way to semi-comical looks that seem to say, “Are you kidding me with this guy?”
We don’t demand context of El Greco in The Crucifixion , and it seems unfair that we should expect any in the Synaptic Gospel of Gibson. Sure, we do get about six seconds of the Sermon on the Mount (not so subtly, it’s the bit about “Love your enemies”); plus, in a flashback to his pre–Bread of Life career as a carpenter, it’s actually suggested that Christ invented the modern dinner table. But for the most part, Mr. Gibson’s is a Jackass Jesus: vital, interesting and accessible only in his absurdly protracted suffering. In the end, Jesus gets back up but does not transcend.
Forget the biblical scholars all atwitter about nail placement. Forget the patronizing film critics and the weepy Christian teens. Easily the funniest and most honest assessment of Mr. Gibson’s deus opus can be found in The Passion of the Jew , an episode of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park .
Fat, mean Eric Cartman, who once led an army of Confederate Civil War re-enactors to lay siege to the Clinton White House, sees The Passion of the Christ 30 times and then tries to convert earnest, well-meaning Mel Gibson Fan Clubbers into foot soldiers for his Final Solution. Jewish Kyle pukes all over himself in the theater and starts to think, well, maybe his people owe an apology to somebody-anybody. Stan and the oft-killed, oft-resurrected Kenny, on the other hand, decide the movie just freaking blows and set out to find Mr. Gibson and demand a refund.
When they arrive at his Malibu mansion, Mad Mel turns out to be a hyperactive, tighty-whitey-wearing, banjo-playing bondage monkey. He smears poop on the walls. He does a little song and dance. He tries, many times, to kill them. Apropos of nothing, he begs the boys to whip him or squeeze his “tender” nipples. About Mr. Gibson, Stan declares: “He’s cuckoo, dude. He’s absolutely out of his mind.”
Of course, Christ is Himself a longtime resident of South Park, Colo., where he hosts the popular Jesus and Pals cable-access show, but in this particular episode-as in many moments of crisis or controversy-He keeps His head down and His mouth shut.
– Mark Lotto
[ The Passion of the Christ (2004), R, 127 min., $29.98.]
[ South Park: The Passion of the Jew (2004), unrated, 22 min., $19.99.]
Let the Savior Sing
Unlike Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Tommy -or the more recent Chicago -the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar , from director Norman Jewison, isn’t buoyed by lavish set designs or neato camera tricks (however hard he might try). Instead, what’s so memorable about the film are its iconic performances and funkadelic soundtrack-putting the rock in “rock opera,” if nothing else.
Set during the last days of Jesus’ life and told largely from the point of the view of Judas, Superstar allows Carl Anderson, as the cynical, tormented apostle, to give the performance of a lifetime. His soulful, gospel-inflected condemnation of Jesus’ rising grandeur gives the film’s soundtrack an audacious vitality-even while Mr. Jewison’s locations, set entirely in pre-existing ruins in an Israeli desert, are completely devoid of life. Mr. Anderson’s musical gifts are matched by Ted Neeley, whose small frame and boyish looks belie a voice that shrilly growls like Robert Plant’s. Unfortunately, to convey Jesus’ piousness, Mr. Neeley must remain still and steely-eyed for most of the film.
When possible, the spotlight is stolen from these two by an equally talented supporting cast comprising the devilish baritone Bob Bingham (Caiaphas), the enchanting Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), the “haunting, haunted” Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate) and the delightfully chubby Josh Mostel (King Herod). The soundtrack-which features such varied artists as the London Symphony Orchestra and the keyboardist from Deep Purple-succeeds in part because it doesn’t sound like a musical, but like a genuine product of early 70’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Regardless of how the film was received when it was first released, for better and worse it has had an undeniable influence on every staging of the musical since then. The release of the special edition features commentary by Mr. Jewison and Mr. Neeley and an interview with lyricist Tim Rice. In light of The Passion of the Christ , Jesus Christ Superstar reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll stars still make for the best martyrs.
[ Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) , G, 108 min., $14.90.]