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By TJ Johnston

Fine execution, I thought of The Passion of the Christ, pun very much intended. I decided Good Friday would be an appropriate day to view the brutalizing of Jesus, according to Mel Gibson.

In the weeks leading to its release, Mel made the media rounds telling us the catharthis he underwent in the Greatest Story Remade. Just in time for Lent, he confessed to feeling "suicidal urges." Co-writing, directing and producing The Passion was his way of exorcising his personal demons: my jaded self thought it to be the peculiar brand of persecution the rich and powerful believe they suffer.

What I anticipated (and remain convinced) to be a vanity project surprised me for a reason the Oscar- winning hyphenate could never have seen. For two hours I was watching a man being put to death. Forget that it was the Son of Man, I was, repeat, watching a man being put to death. Given Mel's vocal support for capital punishment, I knew this had to be last thing he intended. The man who became famous as Mad Max belongs to an old- school sect within the Catholic Church that disregards the reforms of Vatican II

As a recovering Catholic, I have many criticisms of the Church, but as long as I can remember they always took an anti-death penalty stance. If "thou shalt not kill" doesn't clarify their position, stained-glass renditions of the Crucifixion displayed in parishes should. Looking at Jesus spiked to the cross and speared in the gut, it mystifies me as to how Mel could have missed it.

It's quite possible Mel chose to obscure the nagging detail by beating it (and actor Jim Caviezel) to death. Jesus reportedly took 39 lashes at Pontius Pilate's reluctant behest. In the movie I counted well over 40. Did Mel and Jim want to "improve upon the original," to borrow their professional parlance? Or just to outdo previous celluloid saviors Willem Dafoe, Max von Sydow and Jeffery Hunter and make them look like wimps? Still, that persecution foreshadowed the inevitable: Jim as Jesus would have to haul bloody ass to Calvary, tormented by Roman guards every step of the way. "Into your hands... I commend my spirit."

I found Natural Born Killers to be two hours of cinematic brilliance (however, Oliver Stone's picture ran for two and a half). I always enjoyed Sam Peckinpah's and Quentin Tarantino's aestheticized violence and took comfort that the mayhem fell upon their often-unsympathetic characters were deserved. The Passion forced me to confront the inherent brutality of state sanctioned annihilation. Whenever the topic is broached, I fall back on the "ineffective deterrence" theory ("death penalty states still have the highest murder rates"). I never fully considered the immorality of sentencing a Kevin Cooper, Tookie Williams or Mumia Abu Jamal, making him wait years on Death Row and executing him by electric chair, lethal injection or gas chamber. At least it only took twelve hours to try and put down Jesus (and that was without the flashbacks).

Who would Mel kill to affirm his faith, not just in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in a system that is immoral, unjust and fallible? How can he reconcile that paradox? And how would he explain it to Diane Sawyer?