Actor Christian Bale once said in an interview that when he played a deranged serial killer in American Psycho he slept like a baby every night, but when he took the role of Jesus in the TV movie Mary Mother of Jesus he was wracked with violent nightmares whenever he closed his eyes.
The role of the carpenter from Nazareth probably comes with more baggage, expectations, and preconceptions than any other in Western drama. To counter that, the two most recent notable big-screen depictions of Jesus—in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—stress his qualities of approachableness, ordinariness. They sought to highlight Jesus' humanity in ways that spoke directly to the anxieties of their respective eras; his divinity was either largely left aside or treated awkwardly, unnaturally. The Jesus in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ is played another way entirely—not as a human, but as divine victim, which reflects either the anxieties of the current era, or of the film's director.
The earlier movie Jesuses are humanized by playing up his role as a political man. But Gibson's more inhuman, apolitical Jesus may be the most political one of all.
Ted Neely's Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is the angry rebel—the charismatic activist hippie. This Christ hit the screens during the Vietnam era, and thus his Jesus is preoccupied with fighting the powers-that-be, the government. He is quick to anger, bright, sharp, and in control. He answers with alacrity the questions the disciples put to him; he knows what he is doing; he's the empowered, self-aware dissident. Even in Gethsemane, he doesn't evince doubt. When he asks if the cup could pass him by, he already knows it can't and he is pissed off about it. And when he acquiesces to God's will, the anger is still there, just translated into intensity of purpose.
Neely is physically small, delicate, and he has what may be a walleye. There is no real godliness here; basically he is just a scruffy long-hair mingling with the riffraff. But his Jesus comes off as formidable. His moral and political certainty—lost to many of us after Vietnam—are heady reminders of the power of protest at the time.
Willem Dafoe in Last Temptation plays the Christ as utterly human, but unlike Neely's his is the flawed, possibly ill, accidental hero. This man seems to be epileptic; he has had a relationship with a longtime girlfriend, whom he then deserts; and when he goes into the wilderness to divine his destiny, he apparently loses his mind. When Dafoe's Jesus emerges from what is supposed to be his defining encounter (after he meets the Baptist, gets qualified assurance that he is the messiah, then spends 40 days and nights hallucinating in the desert) he wields an ax and mostly looks seriously nuts.
This Jesus is befuddled and maybe only incidentally "right" about his mission. He is not sure of anything about himself, as Judas and Peter complain to him. "First it was love then it was the ax, and now you have to die!?" They worry privately to each other, "What if he changes his mind again?" Mary Magdalene sneers at his masculinity—mirroring the kinds of insecurity animating a time in which the men's movement in the '80s and early '90s was striving to reconnect with its manhood, after the "castrating" women's movement had done its work.
The '80s were also a hyper-realist decade, when spiritual identity was regrouping for the big booms of the '90s (the heyday of the New Age and the revival of Big Churches), and Nikos Kazantzakis' mentally-ill Jesus made sense. When this Jesus does miracles, they either don't smack of the supernatural (when Peter thinks they've run out of wine at the party and Jesus insists that there is still plenty, this could easily be Peter's boozy miscalculation); or else they seem to surprise even him. Ultimately, these miracle scenes don't mesh with the rest of the film, which largely consists of Jesus angsting. This Jesus doesn't seem divine. He is an uptight insecure mess, powerless, like the rest of us, in the crack-smoking, money-crazed "Me" era.
And now we find ourselves in a hyper-violent period, in which even little children are inured to celluloid viciousness. Enter Jim Caviezel's Jesus, who is absolutely conventional, conservative; the Jesus of a kiddie Bible, come to life. He says all the things we expect him to say (I was waiting for all the famous lines, mouthing them in the darkness like a Rocky Horror devotee: "My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?" "Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do," etc.) and nothing else. We crave Neely's or Dafoe's humanness here, if only as a means of accessing, or at least understanding, this man.
The sole effort to achieve this comes in a single scene in which he clowns around with his mother, which is meant to show he was a regular guy. But it doesn't fit with the rest of the film. This awkwardly laughing Jesus doing his woodworking doesn't seem even remotely like the bleeding wreck on the cross or the coiffed prophet preaching handsomely in flashbacks to the disciples. The horsing-around with Mary is jarring, out of place. It proves nothing, offers no connection. Caviezel's Christ is good-looking, but not charismatic, and just because his mother loved him …
So, what are we left with as proof of this newest Jesus' humanity? The fact that he got beat up and murdered. If humans are capable of anything, the movie seems to say, it's this: killing one another and being killed.
The same scenes in all three movies most clearly show Jesus' degradation and thus, his consummate humanness; these are the whipping scenes. But no matter how long Gibson drags those out in his new movie, it doesn't touch us to the quick as it should. We aren't thinking, "What agony that man is going through." We're thinking, "God, those Romans are sadistic pigs!" We should be thinking about Jesus, but Gibson has made him too remote. This director had to choose between a two- and a three-dimensional Christ, and he picked the first one.
Because of this decision, this Jesus may also end up being a symbol of our times more than a character. We don't feel for him, but we instead fall back on our intellects and understand that he is holy and a terrible victim. But how is this flat, holy, destroyed Jesus our political symbol for today? Does this starkly 2-D rendering say something about a new age of moral certainty? Does it say something about the simplicity of being a victim in a post-9/11 world? Does it mean that only gods can be holy anymore? Does Gibson just want to remind us that our country, or the world, is beating up on the best man that ever lived? If so, it is a pretty thin message. And a pessimistic and somewhat angry one, too.
Why bother making a movie about Jesus if you don't make him someone touchable, someone lovable? Or if not lovable, at least political, or nutty, or in some way genuine? Gibson could have given us a visionary Jesus fleshed-out for our age, but instead he just animated the cut-outs in a Sunday school book, which itself says more about our age than Gibson may know.