LET'S TALK ABOUT JESUS
I finally saw The Passion of the Christ. I had been curious about the film, as I have enough of a religious background where such things interest me. I don't have any problem with the fundamental idea of religious movies, and think they could actually be pretty compelling. Unfortunately, this one isn't the sort of thing I'm looking for.
Gibson's beaten and bloody Jesus
Regardless of any greater moral debate, The Passion of the Christ is a badly made movie. It lost me in its second scene, where Judas stands before the Pharisees to collect his money and give up Jesus' location. The first problem of the scene is that it is poorly acted, in a stiff style that is meant to represent, one imagines, the formal nature of "life back then." The head Pharisee, who is our big bad guy for the whole film, says something to the effect of, "Thirty pieces of silver is what we agreed on. That agreement being between me [pause, points to self] and you [pause, points to Judas]." It played like a scene out of a bad cop movie, where the Pharisee would reluctantly be sent in to trap the bad guys in the Christ Corps, wearing a wire and secretly being filmed, and he overdoes everything so that it's clear, "Hey, I'm not the guilty one."
The scene only gets more ridiculous from there. The Pharisee tosses Judas his money bag, and Mel Gibson chooses to shoot the action head-on, so that the money is being thrown at the camera (and presumably the viewer, in one of many scenes that is meant to say, "Yes, you...you dirty sinner, you are part of this"). Then we cut to Judas, who of course catches it like a nerdy kid in gym, barely getting the bag in his hands, and the money flies everywhere. I guess the guy who gave up his Lord isn't manly enough to be good at sports.
That's not the worst of it, though. Both shots are played entirely in slow motion. It's the beginning of Gibson's heavy-handed technique of slowing down crucial moments so that we understand that this is important. It's the Lord of the Rings for the Lord of Man. Apparently, this already dramatic story wasn't dramatic enough, we have to have things highlighted for us so we get it.
It's appallingly clumsy, and we're only in the first five minutes. It doesn't bode well.
Much has been said about the rest of the film, and I pretty much agree with the negative criticism. The violence is extremely fetishized. The detail of it is entirely unnecessary. Everything is painted in the broadest strokes. The sadistic people who want to see Jesus go down cackle and emote to the point of distortion, while Jesus' followers are beautiful and serene in their sadness. Has anyone questioned the underlying misogyny in casting Monica Bellucci as the former prostitute, Mary Magdalene? Is Gibson perhaps trying to save this actress from her own sexy image? Sure, it's far-fetched, but you know, when you make a message picture, you have to be ready for every detail to be scrutinized. I personally didn't see the anti-Semitic subtext, but I can understand where you can find it in the film, and given Gibson's family history, I can't blame anyone for looking for it.
Mad Max saves womanhood
Ultimately, for me, it comes down to the idea that your message should be secondary to making a quality piece of art. You can have the best of intentions or the most noble truths to espouse, but if your presentation is crap, you've failed. (This, certainly, even applies to many of the documentaries I have reviewed recently, too.)
Then again, I am not sure I am down with Mel Gibson's message either. There is very little about Jesus' message to the world. Remove organized religion from the equation, and the basis of New Testament Christianity is a pretty good philosophy about personal responsibility and people treating each other well. Somewhere along the way, the religious powers that be decided it was best to make this a movement based on fear and consequences than about simply doing the right thing as a way to have a better life. Gibson presents us with Christ's suffering, but with very little reason for it. Jesus' life wasn't really about his death, it was about the message he delivered, which was then translated to ultimate action when he gave his life. People tremble before Jesus in the film, but only because he stares at them like a dreamy school boy--albeit, a dreamy school boy covered in blood. Where is the sense of the awesome power and inner contentment we are supposed to witness in Jesus the man? And how sick and wrong is it that Gibson supposedly had to be the one to drive the nail into Jesus' hand? That he himself knelt down by the cross to pound the spike in? Of all the characters, why would you want to be that guy? How about someone noble like the man pulled from the crowd to take the burden of the cross?
Martin Scorsese says that his lifelong priest once told him (paraphrased from memory), "The problem with your films is there is too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday." In other words, too much of the death and suffering and not enough of the life affirmation that comes out of it. That applies triple to The Passion of the Christ, and inevitably leads us to consider Scorsese's own Biblical picture, The Last Temptation of Christ.
Scorsese's movie was about a man trying to reconcile his heavenly message with the reality of the world. It presents a savior who makes sense, and who through the examination of his humanity, finds the truth that is the basis of his peaceful philosophy. With the film, Scorsese examined his faith in order to understand it, whereas Gibson merely presented his faith without any question. As Jesus' mother stares out at the viewer after taking her son off the cross, it's Gibson saying, "You either are with us or against us," a division he draws between the characters in the film, as well. It's ironic given the inclusive nature of his subject.
Essentially, I went into this film with an open mind, but Gibson immediately closed it with his own shuttered brain. I'm glad I finally saw it to form my own opinion, and maybe a little sad that I came to the one that I did. I don't think some religious discourse would be a bad thing for this world. It could go a long way towards creating some understanding. It's just that in order to do that, artists have to honestly open the door to their homes and be a lot more honest with themselves. And maybe see their own religion as a positive, rather than a negative.
Scorsese's image of a Jesus who feels
Current Soundtrack: Massive Attack, 100th Window; The Thrills, Let's Bottle Bohemia
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All material (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich