The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Christ on a Merry-Go-Round

Lisa: “The mound builders worshipped turtles as well as badgers, snakes, and other animals.”
Bart: “Thank God we’ve come to our senses and worship a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.”

That bit of snarkiness, courtesy of the always profane The Simpsons, highlights why we cannot talk about Mel Gibson’s piece of cinematic insanity as “just a movie.” We have not, as a culture, come to our senses. There is nothing “just a movie” about this self-flagellating exercise in inciting mass religious frenzy. In fact, there’s so little that’s “just a movie” about The Passion that it cannot even be appreciated on any level, never mind the “just a movie” level, unless you enter the theater already in a state of religious ecstasy. If you were an extraterrestrial who’d just landed from outer space and knew nothing about the story of Jesus, this film wouldn’t teach you a thing, but it might sicken you to see audiences cheering and applauding a relentless, two-hour-long depiction of the brutal torture and murder of a human being. These people — supposedly good, decent folk — are hardly better than Gibson’s cartoonish Roman soldiers, who take such pleasure in their flaying of Jesus, literally to the bone.
This isn’t a movie: it’s a theme-park ride for Jesus freaks. SEE the hunks of flesh ripped from Jesus’ side! EXPERIENCE the stations of the cross like never before! HAMMER the nails into Jesus’ hands! WITNESS the crucifixion in all its blood-and-guts glory! Bring the kids! It’s disgusting to think that the same ratings board that gave an NC-17 to The Dreamers, because it shows a couple of penises and a few scenes of teenagers having sex, let this film pass with an R rating — its gruesome violence is far more graphic and depicted with far more intent to tantalize and titillate. I can’t see how any loving parents could let their child see this film… but then again, I can’t see how any loving parents could teach their child in the first place that a rabble-rousing hippie had to be nailed to a cross because little Johnny was born full of sin and evil.

But Gibson knows that this is his audience, and his only audience — he can dispense with everything but the highlights. So Jesus doesn’t have to be a character, and though Jim Caviezel (High Crimes, The Count of Monte Cristo) does what he can with what little he has to work with, Jesus is a cipher — the audience already knows what they need to know about him, brought it into the theater with them, thank you very much, and Gibson (who cowrote, with Benedict Fitzgerald, as well as directed with such fanatical glee) isn’t aiming to change anyone’s mind about the man. He’s just taking the faithful on a tour, with all the points of interest underlined with slo-mo: Oh, there’s the 30 pieces of silver! There’s the Judas kiss! There’s the crown of thorns! There’s Pontius Pilate, washing his hands!

(On second thought, there are a few things I don’t recall from my Bible stories, like how Jesus invented the tall dining table, and how Judas was taunted to suicide by the maggot-infested corpse of a donkey. That sounds like a Shakespearean insult: “You maggot-infested corpse of a donkey,” and I intend to deploy it at some appropriate point. It’s the only useful or interesting thing I got out of the film.)

Is the film anti-Semitic? I have to admit that I don’t understand the question. Sure, Gibson gives us a bloodthirsty crowd of hypocritical Jews, calling for the Romans to crucify Jesus because they can’t do it themselves: their temple laws forbid putting a man to death, but apparently do not forbid demanding that someone else put a man to death. Gibson’s Pilate is by far the most sympathetic character in the film, a minor functionary at the mercy of the rabbis if he wants to maintain what little power he has. (Hristo Naumov Shopov gives the best performance, but perhaps only because his Pilate is actually something approaching a realistic human being.) And the Jews are also idiots who’d rather release the murderer Barrabas instead of physically harmless but politically dangerous Jesus, when given the choice by Pilate. Oh, and Jesus does tell Pilate, who apologizes for having to execute him, that “he who has delivered me to you has the greatest sin,” meaning, of course, it’s all the fault of the Jews.

But I don’t get the anti-Semitism thing for a couple of reasons. First, since when is guilt hereditary? Even if the Jews of A.D. 33 did kill Jesus, how does that make all Jews everywhere guilty? Oh, but I forgot: the Jesus freaks think we all inherited the “guilt” of a woman who ate an apple 6,000 years ago, so never mind. But there’s this, too: Didn’t Jesus have to die, according to his fans? Didn’t someone have to kill him? Shouldn’t these people be thanking whomever killed Jesus? It makes no sense that Christians should punish the very people who supposedly gave them their savior. Wasn’t the whole thing prearranged and preordained by God, anyway? Shouldn’t God be the one who’s blamed or thanked? There’s no reason or logic to it. But I guess once you start talking to an invisible superhero who lives in the sky and can see you all the time — even in the bathroom — reason and logic kinda go out the window.

And that’s the worst thing about the circus surrounding this film, and the real reason why it cannot be seen as “just a movie.” The people who in all seriousness buy into this stuff have an influence way out of proportion with the sense they make, which is little, and get a free pass on their fairy stories — I’ve seen not one suggestion anywhere, in all the media’s fawning delirium over this film, that perhaps Jesus never existed or, if he did, was nothing but a crazy guy who roamed the desert, got his brain a little too sunbaked, and merely thought he was God. And there’s been not one scrap of discussion about whether his legacy has been something we could have done without.

When Gibson fades to black after Jesus finally expires on the cross, I so wanted to see the bitter, cynical “2,000 Years Later” epilogue. But no: we get the “Three Days Later” epilogue instead. And with all the cash Gibson is raking in on Jesus’ back — part of that bitter, cynical legacy — I’ve no doubt that coming for summer of 2006 will be Passion 2: The Revenge of Zombie Jesus.

Christ on a metaphor
Now, The Last Temptation of Christ is a Jesus flick I can get behind, even as an atheist. Jesus is still a crazy desert roamer here, but he’s a far more compelling one than Gibson’s: He’s an actual character, flawed and intriguing and contradictory and angry and real. Christian audiences were so terrified, back in 1988, at the suggestion that Jesus might have been a human being who had the same needs and desires as the rest of us that they boycotted the movie sight unseen, and that’s another thing I don’t get about these people: If you don’t want to believe that Jesus was human, then doesn’t that lessen the sacrifice you believe he made? What is he sacrificing if he’s not human?

Temptation is based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and director Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, Bringing Out the Dead) knew what he would be in for: He opens with the declaration that “This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon [a] fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” There’s a story here, not just a roller coaster to Calvary, and relationships and irony and confusion and resolution — it’s, you know, Just A Movie. Jesus (Willem Dafoe: Spider-Man, American Psycho, in maybe his best performance ever, so far) is your basic personal mess, in all aspects of his life:

Career: He’s the only carpenter who will make crosses for the Romans’ executions — “a Jew killing Jews,” Judas (an unlikely but effective Harvey Keitel: The Grey Zone, U-571) spits at him.

Romance: His old pal Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey: The Portrait of a Lady), the busiest hooker in Nazareth, really want to be more than just his pal, but he’s guarding his virginity jealously.

Hobbies: He talks to lions in the desert and raises guys from the dead; he removes his heart from his chest and turns water into wine. But he thinks it’s Satan telling him he’s the son of God.

Sure, it’s fantasy, but it’s a pretty impressive one. And if you prefer not to think of it as fantasy, then surely it will at least challenge you to examine your own beliefs, just a little — how dangerous could it be, honestly, to consider that Jesus may have been tempted by the idea of a normal life of a man at the time, with a wife and children and a little mud hut of his own?

It’s only a dream sequence within the fantasy, anyway: While Jesus is hanging on the cross, suffering horrendously, an angel, kinda like the Ghost of Christ’s Life Yet to Be, comes and shows him how things would be if he climbed down off the cross and gave up this burden-of-all-sin stuff and just lived. It’s all so normal and human and warm and happy that you have to wonder what people find so threatening in that.

Then again, in the dream bit, Paul’s (Harry Dean Stanton: The Big Bounce, Alien: The Director’s Cut) got a whole speech about how the power of the Jesus story is more important than the reality of it. Maybe that’s what scares some folks: that it’s possible for the Jesus story to exist without Jesus himself ever having walked the earth at all.

Christ on a skewer
Still, the best antidote of all for The Passion of the Christ is the wonderfully profane Month Python’s Life of Brian, which isn’t merely blasphemous itself — if you’re a Jesus nut, that is — it sends up the entire concept of blasphemy as nothing but an idea’s method of self-preservation. This was another film that Christians protested, back when it was released in 1979, and the standard excuse from its defenders was Hey, it’s about Brian, not Jesus. But make no mistake: Though Jesus appears in the background once or twice — “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers'” — this film is entirely about Jesus and what his followers did and continue to do in his name.

Sectarianism, fanaticism, sanctioned blood lust, groupthink, tribalism: these are the things that define life in Nazareth, a city downright lousy with insane prophets and streetcorner preachers. Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a nice Jewish boy with a secret heritage, gets caught up in a rebellion by the Judean People’s Front — or is it the People’s Front of Judea? — against the Romans, who’ve done such awful things as bring sanitation, clean water, and public order to Judea. The Pythons — Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, all in multiple roles, as usual — go to town with Brian when he’s mistaken for a prophet in the course of his terroristic activities — oh, the overtones that has for today. There’s nothing on film quite like the scene in which Brian, who doesn’t want to be a prophet, is chased by frenzied horde who will not be dissuaded from their error and will not heed even direct contradictions to their beliefs. The shoe, the shoe… it’s how religions get started: a clueless anti-Roman activist loses a sandal while running from a mob, and before you know it, someone sees it as a sign of something — interpretations differ — and people are being killed in the name of the sign of the shoe.

But clear-eyed cynicism aside, there’s something else notable about Brian: It’s the only movie about Jesus to feature aliens and a space battle, which is still more plausible than a man turning water into wine.

[reader comments on this review]
[more reader comments]
[even more]
[and even more]

The Passion of the Christ
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for sequences of graphic violence
official site | IMDB

The Last Temptation of Christ
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

Monty Python’s Life of Brian
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

share and enjoy