I promise, I'm not trying to be the flippant atheist. My intellectual cover is that David Edelstein, in the article where he invented the phrase "torture porn", named-dropped our Good Friday subject, but truth be told I was already planning this essay before I recalled that fact. It's not, of course, a horror movie in any meaningful sense, but this is the Year of BLOOD, not just horror, and I think it's worth revisiting the controversial film years later, to see how it's holding up; and for that matter, to spend some time on the contentious subject of whether "torture porn" is a meaningful genre or descriptive phrase in the first place. It is, regardless, neither my intention nor my wish to offend anyone, and I hope that what I say hereafter will be taken in the spirit of debate and discussion.

Eight years later, it's not clear to me how much baggage there still is, culturally, surrounding The Passion of the Christ; but I think it would be useful, going forward, to start out with a few ground rules about what the film Is and Is Not, irrespective of its content and what people do or do not believe about such content.

For this is the thing about the film, and it's been pointed out, but not with nearly enough force: TPotC, as much as any movie ever made, assumes a very certain viewer, and does absolutely nothing whatsoever to help anyone falling outside of a specific range of parameters. I'm not talking about theology; I'm talking about mere narrative. Simply put, the film, as adapted by writer-director Mel Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald, expects you to already know exactly what's happening, and why. In fairness, since the synoptic Gospels are quite literally the foundational narrative of the modern civilizations of the Americas and Europe, it's a safe assumption. That does not change the facts on the ground, which is that TPotC starts out by throwing us right into a garden late at night, soaked to the point of absolutely ridiculousness in deep blue lighting, and has a bearded man speaking in Aramaic of his doubts and fears. There will not, for the remainder of the 127 minutes of the movie, be a more formal introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel) than this; there is no real explanation of what he did that was noteworthy, other than irritate the local priests, led by Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia), by claiming to be the anointed king of the Jewish people. And then... well, that's just it. You don't need me to explain what happens, any more than Gibson needed to worry about anybody being confused. It's right there in the title, of course: the Passion. The last 24 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, with a few flashbacks, and a very brief coda that hangs around just long enough to make it clear that Gibson did, in fact, know what happens next, though such knowledge does not necessarily inform the film he made.

I bring this up not because it's a particular flaw of the film - though even within the six-century tradition of Passion plays, from the York Cycle to Andrew Lloyd Weber, Gibson's film is unusually light on context - but because it is the broadest and most invisible iteration of one of its defining characteristics, which is that it has been made, for and foremost, for Mel Gibson himself, and then for people who believe exactly what he believes, and so on radiating outward, eventually passing by me and my fellow atheists with a Christian family history on the way to ending up at the feet of Pacific islanders practicing an animistic religion, who if they ever were to see it (and I can't really figure out why that would happen) would undoubtedly be thoroughly befuddled.

Because one thing TPotC is surely not, is an apologetic, or evangelism. If anything, it's something like a worship aid, not unlike those very same York mystery plays from the 14th Century, in which the dramatisation of Biblical narratives is meant to remind the faithful of the tactility and the human element of their religion. And I don't suppose that's much of an insight, but so much energy has been spent carving away what the film isn't, that I thought it would be nice to get back to what the film is, and implicitly allow that, when you come right down to it, I don't have any business trying to make heads or tails of it in the first place. It strikes me as emotionally inert, because the emotional content, like the narrative content, is something the individual viewer is anticipated to bring on their own. Gibson's film creates no emotion, but reflects back what the audience brings to it.

That being said, emotional resonance and spiritual meaning are one thing, but they are not the only thing. And this starts to bring us 'round to the reason that I rolled the dice on including the film in a retrospective of violent movies, eventually. To reiterate, this exists in a tradition of stories designed to remind the watcher of the humanity and physicality of the Gospel narrative; to put it another way, Gibson's aim is to remind the viewer that Jesus was a human being. Famously, he did this by recreating the physical reality of 1st Century Jerusalem as precisely as he could, particularly by the use of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin (which should have been Greek, I am told). Infamously, he did this by stressing, not just Jesus's humanity, but his fleshiness, with special focus on the physical torments visited upon his mortal body. That, of course, is why I've brought us all here tonight, but let's hold onto it for a moment.

As a costume drama, I actually rather like the first 54 minutes of The Passion of the Christ. Because, and don't tell anybody I said this, but I think it's pretty hard to deny that Mel Gibson is a hell of a director - the battle scenes in Braveheart are, to me, among the best action sequences in the last quarter-century, better by far than all of the movies that tried to copy it, all the way up to Gladiator and The Return of the King - whatever misgivings one has about the morality of the stories he tells, or his personal opinions on things (it amuses me to recall that when this film was released, it was actual a matter for debate and serious consideration whether Gibson harbored anti-Semitic beliefs or not; I think that's such a minor part of the film that it hardly deserves mentioning). He's a weird sort of throwback: Braveheart is largely a '60s epic made with all the blood and viciousness available to a 1990s director, while TPotC strikes me as nothing so much as a silent Bible epic (it's worth remembering that initially, Gibson had not intended to subtitle the film relying entirely on the visuals to communicate the story), with all the blood and viciousness available to a 2000s director. And I promise, I'll get to the viciousness in a second.

There are gestures all through the film which, if it were not a deadly serious account of the grueseome death of Jesus Christ, would be more widely recognised for the melodramatic, if not downright corny, flourishes that they really are: the depiction of a Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as a woman disguised as David Bowie, the monochromatic use of color in the early going that resembles nothing so much as the color tinting in a silent movie, only down via color film rather than via dyeing black-and-white images - and Caleb Deschanel is too smart a man, I believe, to have stumbled into this by accident - the famous moment near the end where a raindrop appears right in the middle of the camera lens the moment after Christ dies (I believe Cecil B. DeMille would have thoroughly approved of this gesture). I'm not complaining. It's precisely the melodrama that I love about Gibson's movies; "love" is a strong word for it, so maybe let's retrench to, it's what I respond to the most strongly. And taken just as a Bible epic, TPotC is both more robust and more realistic, and certainly more watchable, than even the best of them from the 1950s (the '50s Bible epic being one of the most leadenly stately and excruciatingly dull of all genres, typified by the achingly sincere and soporific Best Picture nominee The Robe).

In terms of humanising Jesus, and making his awareness of his sacrifice more relatable, I don't know that even the absolute best moments of TPotC (a flashback to his pre-teaching days with his mother, played by Maia Morgenstern in the film's best performance; his subdued words to the disciples at the Passover dinner the night before his arrest), it's as psychologically rich as any randomly-picked scene from The Last Temptation of Christ; but that is undoubtedly part of the difference between Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese as filmmakers and Catholics both.

Certainly, because insofar as Gibson spends a lot of energy in the first 54 minutes of the movie establishing and then stressing the human size of his Jesus, it's largely to drive home the impact of everything after the first 54 minutes - 54 minutes being the exact point where the Romans tasked with punishing Jesus on behalf of the Jewish leaders first begin to wallop him with wooden rods, the very pleasantest thing he will undergo for the rest of the movie. As I presume you already knew, TPotC hereafter becomes a protracted sequence of scenes that watch a man being tortured to death, interrupted by flashbacks to his life and (very briefly) ministry, with a couple of moments focusing on Pilate, the Jewish priests, or Christ's followers. This is also the point where the film gets incredibly difficult for me to talk about, which is why I've been putting it off.

It's one thing to get why Gibson made this movie. I understand it intellectually: it was a way to express his heartfelt belief that the torturous death of Christ to redeem the sins of mankind was the noblest and most painful act of sacrifice in human history, and that by virtue of being a sinner, Gibson himself constantly fails to live up to the gift of that sacrifice. It doesn't make sense to me, but I can parse it. And I certainly respect that the filmmaker is being absolutely sincere in every gesture he makes in this film.

That said, if we return to the question, what is this film, in and of itself, removed from whatever context that comes from outside, here is the answer: it is an hour of a man being tortured to death in sequences that would never have managed an R-rating if that man wasn't Jesus Christ. It is a film that displays scene after scene of violence, rendered in exquisitely precise detail, for the purposes of provocation; without question the provocation here is a thousand years apart from the provocations of Saw and Hostel, but I think it's clear what David Edelstein was driving at when he lumped the three together. These are all three films that exult in violence, and while the "torture porn" phrasing is maybe unfortunate (of the three, only Hostel can be truly called pornographic), I think it's been too easy for people in later years to get too worked up over the words he used and not the concept he was describing: these are, in three very different ways, all essentially geek shows, in which the promise of extreme cinematic gore and violence (though far below the levels of the Italian cannibal films of the '80s, right off the top of my head) is, itself, the selling point.

TPotC can be better-defended than the other two films simply on the grounds that Gibson truly believed in what he was doing, where Eli Roth and Leigh Whannell were being unabashed opportunists. But at the same time, the fact that the film, whatever its spiritual element, is functionally a feature-length version of the ending scene of Braveheart (a man is killed in a spectacularly awful way, and it's meant to instill the viewer with a feeling of martyred triumph), counts as a strike against it, and Gibson's subsequent Apocalypto certainly did his spiritual epic no favors, given how much of it plays as The Passion of the Mayans down to the use of a surviving, but obscure language. It's pretty well-established that Gibson simply has something of a thing for bodily mortification, and while it's nice that he was able to rope it into something spiritually transcendent, that doesn't change the fact that, in his body of work as a director and actor, the most characteristic element of TPotC is, indeed, the lingering, even loving depiction of violence, with many close-ups and lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of sometimes-gaudy slow-motion.

It's not my place to call the film's impact, or say that somebody is bad because this film put them in a state of religious ecstasy. I wrote a muted positive review of I Spit on Your Grave, after all. I do, admittedly, think it's very unfortunate that what is by a huge margin the highest-grossing religious movie in history is focused so much on torment and the spiritual transfiguration of bodily suffering, and so very little on the grace and peacefulness that make up the best parts of the Gospels (there is one quick cut to the Sermon on the Mount, and that's pretty much it). But I suppose that's what we have The Last Temptation of Christ for. Or atheist Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew. That doesn't make me any more comfortable with how definitively The Passion of the Christ turns into Jesus Dies: The Movie; for all that Gibson makes us believe in the character in the first half, it's solely to make the second half even more gruesome and distressing - and here again, I will compare the film to Saw and Hostel, which are effectively cartoons. Their violence may be more outlandish, but it doesn't feel so real: when little CGI chunks of skin are ripped out of Jesus's back in this film, the twin impulses to wince in sympathy and gag in disgust are more profound than anything in any of the Saw movies.

And then there's Caviezel, a fine actor, though how could you tell from a film that asks him to spend most of his screentime pretending to be unspeakable pain? He does it; he does it well. But the film locks him out from doing anything more recognisably human. Gibson wants us to be cowed by the torture heaped upon Christ, but he does not necessarily want us to know anything of the inner self of Christ; possibly, he takes for granted that a human couldn't possibly comprehend such a thing.

I do not deny that the film has power - no decent person could watch this and not be affected by it. Whether or not that power is worthy of either respect or admiration? I can't say that I particularly respect or admire it, but I know that countless people do and have. I ordinarily wouldn't like to close by admitting that a film simply was not meant for me, and that the uniformly unpleasant feelings it leaves me with are a sign more of the distance between me and it, rather than a sign of its failures to reach me, but in this case that's the only conclusion that I feel even slightly comfortable in making.

Body Count: 1, I suppose? That being Judas. Because on the one hand, Jesus dies and that is the whole, entire point; but on the other hand, he does not "die", and that is also the whole, entire point. One could count the thieves on his right and left, who are anyway about to die any minute now after the movie ends, but nobody ever really thinks very much about the thieves.