Hey folks, Harry here... Once again we have two more reviews in on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, one positive by Mr Beaks and one negative. Let's continue this exploration of this highly buzz-worthy film. Literally, everyone I know at BNAT has been debating back and forth all about this film. Fantastic!
THE PASSION OF CHRIST (d. Mel Gibson, w. Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald)
I am a Bush detestin’ (W, that is), Krugman readin’, church avoidin’ liberal, and I not only found Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF CHRIST the least controversial film of Butt-Numb-A-Thon (we’ll get to the non-stop Coon-ery of HAUNTED GOLD in another piece), I also really admired it.
Prior to Sunday, December 7th, 2003, I was a skeptic, having monitored with increasing alarm the filmmaker’s penchant for screening the film in optimal ideological settings (i.e. with pundits, politicians, and clergy already sympathetic to his point-of-view), while largely shutting out those who reside on the other end of the political spectrum (in Gibson’s defense, he did screen it for *one* of his more vociferous critics, a member of the ADL, and was rewarded with a big ol’ embargo break that smacked of headline grabbing by someone who’d made up their mind to hate the film long before they ever saw it). Though I am always careful to give films the benefit of the doubt (even when I detest the shooting script), I was beginning to worry that Gibson had concocted a divisive powder keg that was poised to turn Catholics and Jews into human Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots for the next several centuries, while sending Christians of every denomination on a proselytizing award tour with J.C. their man, goin’ each and everywhere with a Bible in their hand until the natives are shoed, the Muslims are converted Coulter-style, and the Ten Commandments are safely ensconced in every state house on both sides of the Mississippi.
Once again, pre-judging a movie based on its attendant media maelstrom has proved to be a fool’s pastime.
What I found remarkable, and more than a little surprising, about THE PASSION OF CHRIST from the outset is how pensive and reserved the film is. After a quote from the Book of Isaiah, the movie begins with Christ deliberating with an eerily sexless demon, and rejecting the devil’s temptation (represented visually by his squashing of a snake), all of which is juxtaposed with scenes of Judas betraying his master for thirty pieces of silver. In other words, Christ has chosen his destiny, setting up the rest of the film to play like the third act of an epic depicting the entire Gospel. Narratively, this is a bold choice; as a friend of mine perceptively remarked to me today, it’s like stretching out the end of BRAVEHEART to feature length. This shouldn’t work, and there are times when it all feels strangely unmoored, as if it belongs to a much longer epic that has yet to be filmed, but for the most part it’s clear that Gibson isn’t playing from the Hero’s Journey playbook. This is a tone poem that, for me, recalled Michael Mann’s criminally underrated ALI.
But whereas Mann was concerned with ruminating on Ali’s ascendance to god-like status, Gibson is after nothing less than the purest possible cinematic embodiment of sacrifice. His since-scrapped notion to release the film in Aramaic sans subtitles now makes perfect sense, and it would be quite something to see it in that form (hopefully, Gibson will give us that version on DVD at some point). Gibson’s religious convictions are so deeply felt, the film has an overriding emotional logic that almost transcends words. This is not to say that it would make a great silent film, but that hearing these dead tongues spoken gives it all a rich, dreamlike quality, and makes you feel as if you’re watching an eerily accurate dramatization of Christ’s final hours.
Continuing his habit of working with the best cinematographers in the world, Gibson has collaborated here with Caleb Deschanel, whose lush, painterly aesthetic is a perfect match for the film’s almost otherworldly feel. His imagery is perfectly complemented by, unfortunately, the temp-tracked music of Peter Gabriel’s PASSION, which, honestly, works better here at times than it did in the Jesus film for which it was written, Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Combined, they have the power to put the viewer in a trance-like state.
Understanding the need for at least some conflict to keep the audience interested, Gibson has taken the unusual step of making Pontius Pilate the film’s most tragically conflicted character (save for Peter, who exits the film too soon to be of much use). Egged on the bloodthirsty mob (identified as “Pharisees” in the subtitles rather than blatantly as “Jews”), Pilate is forced to balance his duty to justice with his political survival instincts; thus, making him a far more reluctant executioner than I think he’s ever been portrayed. Pilate’s wife is also a sympathetic figure, though her distraught gift of a white sheet to the Virgin Mary, which is, in turn, used to sop up Christ’s blood after his brutal whipping, is a new one on me. (An extremely cursory search of Google turned up nothing on the matter, while my good Christian mother isn’t around at the moment to help clear up the matter. Bible-literate talk backers, I leave this up to you.)
Humanizing Pilate at the expense of the Jewish mob – most notably, Caiaphas – might upset some, but Gibson has addressed this to a degree by expanding the role of Simon of Cyrene in bearing the burden of the cross. At first, Simon is careful to remind the crowd that he is only doing this because he has been ordered to by the Centurions, but as the humiliation of the grotesquely wounded Christ continues unabated, Simon lashes out at them, demanding that they leave the condemned man alone lest he refuse to shoulder his burden any farther.
Whether or not that’s enough to satisfy Gibson’s critics is a question I cannot answer (I will say that two of my Jewish friends didn’t seem terribly offended by this depiction.) The best I can offer is that, while Gibson may have been inspired by what some consider non-traditional versions of the Gospel, it doesn’t seem relevant to how it plays as a film. These are textual arguments that really don’t apply to a picture that strives to be about something more than words. And that something is most certainly not blame. What resonates most is not the mob’s single-minded insistence that Christ be put to death, but Jesus’ plea to his father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
Considering that I was among those suspicious of Gibson’s motives, I’d like to challenge his detractors to remain silent until they have an informed opinion, because, judging from their arguments, they’ve got this picture all wrong. THE PASSION OF CHRIST is not an angry film; it’s a solemn and compassionate one.
And here's the negative review...
Petsnakereggie here. I just returned to the frozen north from the awesome experience that was Butt-Numb-a-Thon 5 to give the world my thoughts on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
First, the disclaimers. This was an unfinished film. The soundtrack was not in place yet and Mel Gibson told us he still has some effects and additional scenes to add. What we saw was not what will be in the theatres.
Second, just so we all know my religious angle, I was raised Catholic but fell from the true faith in my teen years and have never looked back. I would define myself as a hopeful agnostic. The story of Jesus is compelling and I'd love it to be true, but I simply do not believe that it is.
The name of the film is fitting not only because of the subject matter but because of the passion Mel Gibson clearly had for his subject. Every frame of this film flows over with his singular commitment to creating the most brutal and honest film about the death of Christ that he could make. This is a personal story and I could see that both during the viewing of the film and in Mel's comments after the film.
Having said that, and having read so many other reviews that gush over the (almost) finished project, the film was tedious and almost antiseptic in it's emotional impact. While I think the final score could improve the emotional content of this film, there were flaws I do not believe a completed score can wipe away.
The primary flaw to the film was the presupposition that the viewer had an emotional connection to Christ and his disciples before they entered the theatre. If we are to be affected by the torture he is about to endure, we need to feel something for the man. To me, this emotional connection needed to be earned.
It is tough to make such a statement in a country where the majority of the population is Christian and has an emotional connection to Christ already. Why should Gibson need to create that when the majority of his audience (even the members that are not Christian) already have a knowledge of who Christ was? Gibson wanted to tell the story of The Passion, not the story of Christ's life to that point.
Yet there was no portrait of the relationship between Judas and Jesus prior to the betrayal. For that matter, there was nothing about Christ's relationships with any of his disciples. All we ever saw was twisted faces watching Christ endure the torture and death. The emotion was lost because I was never allowed into it. I was always an observer.
The other major flaw to the film is the pacing. The sequence of Christ carrying the cross was nothing short of tedious. The intent was to show the extent of the brutality as realistically as possible. A less committed filmmaker would have spent five minutes on this sequence. I have no argument with drawing the sequence out. At some point, however, it became about how long the walk was and not about the suffering endured.
The scourging scene was a better example problem. When the whipping began, I was appalled by the brutality of it. Not just the fact such a thing was done to Jesus but the fact it was done to anyone. As it dragged on, there came a point where I was no longer able to react emotionally. I once again became an observer, unable to engage myself in the experiences of the characters on screen.
It was odd to me that the most sympathetic character in the film became Pontious Pilate. I saw the conflict within him. I saw the pain. I felt what he must have felt when he condemned a man he knew to be innocent because he felt he had no alternative.
I did think that the cinematography was amazing. As a simple experience in visual storytelling, I would recommend the film. The choice to shoot the film in Aramaic forced Gibson to tell more of his story through pictures than through words. The result is a stunning visual achievement.
I wish I could say that it packed an emotional punch to go with the visuals.
I'm going to give the finished product another shot. I would love to have the experience that so many other BNATers had on watching this film. After listening to Mel talk about the project with such affection, I wanted to love it the way he did. I didn't.
I love the story of the Passion. It is one of the great stories in history and it is filled with sympathetic people and shocking brutality. The film never shied away from the brutality of the passion of Christ but I don't feel it ever achieved the sympathy.