I'm neither a theologian nor a historian, so debating the accuracy of Mel "Sexiest Anti-Semite Alive" Gibson's controversial passion play is a cup I'm happy to let pass me by. As a critic, though, I'm more than capable of detecting when a director is stacking the deck, and Gibson has clearly learned his propagandistic lessons: In filming a crowd of Jews calling for Christ's head, be sure to put the high priests and elders up front. Also, instruct your Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) to look as anguished as possible when he gives the masses a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. He should fall just short of admonishing, "Now think about this very carefully ... ."
Still, if the liberal intelligentsia gangs up on Gibson's flick, we'll have lost our right to defend folks like Eminem. The artistic merit of a heartfelt but politically incorrect treatise doesn't evaporate when it's yours sensibilities being threatened. (Abe Foxman's denunciation -- that the picture might inspire negative behavior -- sounds like a great reason never to make any art at all.) And its more questionable assumptions notwithstanding, "Passion" affords exactly the moviegoing experience Gibson intended: an appreciation of Christ's sacrifice via an explicit rendering of his suffering.
Beginning with his hour of doubt and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, the film charts the self-proclaimed messiah's (Jim Caviezel) capture, persecution and crucifixion. The story is as familiar as a catechism class, but that doesn't prevent Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald from playing it for maximum drama, largely through the judicious placement of flashbacks that contrast the most loving interactions of Christ's life with the awful circumstances of his death. Those drop-ins also allow Caviezel (whose Jesus becomes a bloody bop bag mere minutes into the main storyline) to show the character's gentler, more human side, and he rises to the challenge with a portrayal that's accessible yet never too secular.
The performances, cinematography and pacing are all first-rate, and Gibson makes good use of grotesque signifiers. A pale-skinned Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) skulks about during the story's darkest moments of betrayal; elsewhere, a cadre of demonic children torment Judas Iscariot (Luca Lionello) in the hot sun until he hangs himself in despair.
The intense violence, though it won't be everyone's cup of grape juice, is wholly necessary to provide the desired emotional context -- as when the landing of the first nail is juxtaposed with one of Christ's greatest lessons of tolerance. Such moments are the reason I didn't walk out of "Passion" feeling provoked to the point of vengeance, as Foxman feared, but with immense respect and admiration for anybody who's ever endured physical torture for a moral principle. Having that kind of reaction to a movie is far more important that worrying if its director is: a) insane; b) using cinema to indulge his personal obsessions; or c) carrying a distorted perception of the Jewish people to middle America. If those were the criteria for censure, Woody Allen would be out of a job.