The journey and life of Jesus Christ in film and television has always struggled, ironically, with the connotations of faith that surround him. Fictional works that allude to or talk of Christianity are far greater tools than those that wish to adapt the death of Christ because they have the benefit of artistic merit and metaphorical wisdom. Controversial The Passion of the Christ may be, credit must be given to Mel Gibson’s directing efforts here. He has attempted to channel his own belief into an adaptation of Christ’s final days and the dabbling’s of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ lingers both on-screen and on the script.
It is hard to remove the adaptations of Christ’s life from Kazantzakis’ work considering how revered it is. A benchmark for the effectiveness of any adaptation or romanticisation of religious benevolence. Jim Caviezel is fine enough in the leading performance as Jesus. No Willem Dafoe, but a man dead set on adapting his life and his own faith to this feature. That much is a respectable aspect of his performance, but beyond looking like the Western caricature of Christ, he offers little in a leading role that will spark less discussion. Aside from the behind-the-scenes factoids of him being struck by lightning and suffering as Christ did, there is little to his role and even less to the technical structure that surrounds it.
This is not Gibson’s finest hour. It is dark and unknowable, in stark contrast to the other texts that would hope to present Jesus. Bloodshed is on the mind of Gibson, who pours gallons of the stuff over this feature and hopes that through the rot and shame of the Roman Empire audiences can sift through and piece together some representation of Gibson’s vision of Christ. It isn’t a potent vision, not one that someone can think of as all that natural or physical or even that different but even then, he’s tried his best and the outcome could’ve been much worse. Caviezel gives it his all but what prevents him from reaching the top is not just himself but the combination of Gibson’s direction and the unsound qualities that poke up through the cracks of a script that doesn’t sound itself out and a design of the times around them that just doesn’t make much sense. It steers itself into manic fantasy, relying on the moon and the stars and the pale figures that swallow the horrors of the dark whole. It doesn’t work though.
Gibson takes a more Christian and controversial approach to the adaptations of the Gospel with The Passion of the Christ. It is far bloodier than expected and far more wishy-washy with the truth than necessary. But should there be any less expectation for the man that directed Braveheart? Gibson’s work is there to have fun with, although the topics of his joy and interest are often questionable, especially when the majority of his features depend so immediately and independently on the facts that guide them or, in this instance, the sanctity of religious belief and the coordination of it. The Passion of the Christ is by no means a bad rendition of this story because it knows how to utilise its scale, but it isn’t a remarkably tightly wound feature either.