Sunday, March 07, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

The last straight-ahead horror film I saw was 28 Days an apocalyptic variant on a zombie story. It had several scenes of distorted human faces, of humans being savagely attacked, and "shock shots" where the baddie seems to appear from nowhere. 28 Days was not nearly as gory as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this movie to anyone, unless they have a special appreciation of sadistic scenes of torture and are fans of "buckets of blood".

Elsie had a good comment, afterwards: "I think that movie has a lot more to say about Mel Gibson than it does about Jesus." When I asked her to elaborate, she said the movie revealed that Gibson liked gore. And that's when my horror movie comparison began. The first horror-movie element occurs within the first ten minutes of the movie: Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemene, and a snake is slithering toward him as he lays prostrate on the ground. Jesus suddenly stands, crushes the head of the snake under his heel, with a great "crunch" on the soundtrack. While one might trace this image to second Isaiah, it is not recorded in any of the Gospels, nor does it significantly add to the story.

There are a number of other "shock" shots. Judas is pursued by demonic children, whose faces distort in ways reminiscent of Linda Blair's in The Exorcist. Judas' suicide includes the rotting corpse of some pack animal, from which he get the rope to hang himself. A crow picks out the eyes of one of the thieves on the cross. These scenes are not canonical, and it is reasonable to assume their place in the picture is for shock value.

Some other impressions:

What's the Story?
This movie would not have made a lot of sense to a person who is not familiar with the Gospel story. Now, it may be safe to assume that most Americans (even non-Christians) are familiar with the basic outline. But one might need more than just the basic outline to understand what's going on here. As a number of reviewers have noted, the events of the Passion are not given any context. We hear very little that would explain why the Sanhedrin are so angry with Jesus, so their anger seems simply mean-spirited. Another example is a sequence during the Via Delorosa in which a woman has a flash-back to a scene in which Jesus saves her from being stoned. If one is unfamiliar with the story, the flashback makes no sense; again, we don't know why people want to stone her (the men pictured are the same Sanhedrin who condemn Jesus).

Super Jesus
The man we see in this movie loses an astounding amount of blood. Head wounds are inflicted with the crown of thorns, and we know how liberally head wounds bleed. I think it safe to say any one else would be dead long before the crucifixion. Here's another curious fact — the two thieves carry the cross beams of their crosses (which is likely accurate), but Jesus carries a full cross (inaccurate, but in accord with pictorial tradition).

I'm Posing for Michaelangelo!
Which brings us to another point — a number of elements reference classic Christian art, rather than the accuracy Mr. Gibson has claimed. The nails are driven into Jesus' palms, the traditional view of the method. The fact is, there is nothing in the palm to hold the nails in place; with the full weight of the body on those palms, the nails would have ripped through them (trust me, I'm being less graphic than Gibson). The two thieves are held on their crosses with ropes alone, and no nails are shown in their palms. Trust me, the Romans viewed the process like an assembly line, and would not have used different methods to crucify different people.

When Jesus is lowered from the cross, the camera lingers on the mis-en-scene of the group clustered around him, with Mother Mary at the center, holding her hand in an awkward pose. It's as though she is posing for the Pieta.

We're Talking Foriegn!
This is something Elsie noticed. The people speak their Aramaic and Latin very diliberately, which seems unnatural. Think of a hammy Shakespearean actor reading Hamlet's solioquy, and you have an idea: "To .... BE ... or ... not ... To .... be. ........... THAT .... is .... the.... QUESTION." This sort of reading might have been necessary for the Globe, but it's hardly necessary for a modern movie. It's all very cool that Gibson went to the trouble of having the actors speak Latic and Aramaic, but surely a few people in ancient Palestine talkedlikethis rather .... than ... like .... THIS.

So, What's It All About
The story of the passion in the published accounts is not very detailed, and would not make a full movie on its own. That's why most stories begin somewhere around the Sermon on the Mount. All movie representations of the story have added details, and that's to be expected. What we discern about the intent comes from what the director chooses to add, and what the director chooses to leave out. In the case of this particular passion play, Mr. Gibson has chosen to leave out most of Jesus' teachings. For example, we get all of two lines of the aforementioned Sermon. We get four lines from the Last Supper. The rest is the torture and murder of a man, told in exquisite detail, with an emphasis on the gore.

One may reasonably infer that, for Gibson, the point is the sacrifice rather than the teaching. And perhaps Gibson feels that he has been so very sinful that only the extreme sacrifice of a super being could possibly "balance the scale". There are many people who understand the Gospel story in that way, and those people are likely to have a more positive reaction to the film.

But even allowing for "sacrificial lamb" theology, one loses so much by leaving out the teaching. We hear two major teachings in the film: first, the "Love your neighbor" speech from the sermon — boy, that's controversial stuff that justifies brutal torture! Then, the scene at the Last Supper where Jesus says "no greater love have a man than to lay down his life for his friends", which emphasizes the sacrificial theme of the movie. In a sense, leaving out the majority of teaching — so more time may be spent on the torture — devalues the teaching.

Look, you want a decent re-telling of the Passion, rent Jesus of Nazareth. Scripted by Anthony Burgess, it has its flaws, but at least it tells the whole story and tells it comparitively well. If you're tired of other worldly depictions of Jesus, I recommend the made-for-tv animated movie The Miracle Maker, or the more controversial
Last Temptation of Christ
. If you've seen Gibson's horror movie production of the passion, and need a good corrective, may I recommend The Life of Brian?

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