February 24, 2004

Anticipating: The Passion

Dum Dallae sum, apud amicos manebo. Non scio quando The Passion of the Christ videbo. Nonne hoc intellegis? Quis est quin linguam Latinam amet? Eheu! Oculi mei fiunt languidi.

Oh, sorry, aren't you fluent in ancient languages? I'm pretty rusty myself. Allow me to provide subtitles.

The last movie I saw performed entirely in an ancient vernacular (not counting the occasional production of Aeschylus) was Sebastiane, a film about the early Christian martyr Sebastian. It managed to make naked Roman soldiers engaging in a variety of explicit acts incredibly tedious. The gimmick of performing the movie in Latin (pronounced with a wild array of accents and in randomly grouped syllables by the mostly buff and mainly naked actors) quickly became distracting, except for one amusing scene among buff, naked Romans about the latest arena spectacular by "Fellinus." All told, the movie was a conceitful vehicle for the director to explore a rather obscene obsession and it quickly became No Fun At All, even with all the buff, naked, sex-crazed ancient Romans, which I otherwise wish we would see more of in the movies. Sebastiane is pornography pretending to be Art—or, rather, the distributors thought they could pass a porno film off as Fellini. The language gimmick just distracted the audience from the nookie, which, as I recall, was rather shoddy itself. Purely prurient. But then, I'm a chick, and we generally like a little coherent story mixed in with the nudity.

Now, why do I worry an extremely religious man such as Mel Gibson would produce a movie comparable to a silly skin flick that just happened to be performed in Latin?

Extremism can be obscene even if it arrives under a veil of pious expression, just as much as any movie out of Hollywood, most of them extreme in their own ways.

What are we afraid of?

Misogyny? Anti-Semitism? The spectre of zealous piety in our dangerous era? Badly pronounced Aramaic? I won't know how the movie rates on those scales, and whether it simply presents a time-and-place truthfully, or whether it encourages a hateful message as rabidly and caricatured as D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation celebrated racism, until I see it for myself. Call me Thomas. My main fears about the movie are, truth be told, entirely on a different concern. I'm afraid it's simply going to be a bad movie, in the same way Bertolucci's recent The Dreamers has been criticised for narrow-minded self-indulgence. It's hard to imagine a film described as focussing on the suffering of a man (the root meaning of the word Passion, after all) can be anything else. I'll try to go in with an open mind. But I have my biases.

I don't yet rate invitations to special previews (some way, somehow, maybe after I have fifty reviews set in pixels, I'll be able to present myself as a Real Movie Critic and score!), so I sit in anticipation with everyone else, awaiting opening day on the first day of Lent. (You'd think it would be the sort of movie that would open on Good Friday or at a gala Maundy Thursday midnight premiere, but if you're being particularly overweeningly pious, you might not have much else to do between bouts of theological contemplation over the next forty days, except go see this movie.) I'm currently commuting 190 miles (each way) to a part-time contract job, adding a complication to seeing the movie at an early screening. Rumour has it the film is harrowing, gruelling, the equivalent of hitting the beaches in the early sequences of Saving Private Ryan (before that film became Just Another Cliched War Movie).

Heretically, in my theological contemplations, I focus on the acts, teaching, and philosophies, eschewing the (very human) need to zero in on the pain and agony of an are you listening now? event. The idea of ritual sacrifice and martyrs for the cause (for example, St. Sebastian) is so tied in with the human mindset it makes sense as a divine blockbuster production, but too singular a focus does seem to miss the point of the philosophy on how to live day to day. I won't go into an extended discussion, but my personal approach to religion does inform my general sense of distaste at displays of western pain-based sanctity, from ancient and mediaeval times through the present day. I also don't care for violent films about drag racing, war, or teenagers at summer camps stalked by psychopaths, when the films focus on the bloodshed rather than the people. I worry that this Passion will be not hyper-evangelism, not riddled with ugly and dangerous Anti-Semitism, not heavy-laden with reactionary Roman Catholicism, but an attempt to inflict emotional suffering on the audience just for the sake of manipulating frenzied emotion. I've heard Gibson filmed his own hands hammering the nails rather than an anonymous everyman/any-woman, and I worry it will be as self-worshipful as the prolonged slow-motion closeups of Braveheart. I worry where the focus will ultimately turn.

There's a part in the long Easter Even mass where the attendees assume the role of the rabid crowd in the reading. The worshippers are the ones to shout, Go ahead and execute this criminal. It forces the churchgoers to examine the callousness of ignoring the human being in front of them, and to examine the mentality of running with the crowd rather than paying attention to the message. It does not in itself assign blame to a particular group of ancient people of this or that cultural subset; it directs "blame" onto the behaviour of the blindly, willfully inattentive Human Mob. One of the best movies to demonstrate this very behaviour in the context of western/near-eastern religion is—brace yourself—Life of Brian. In unison the crowd flocking after Brian exclaims:

"We are all individuals!"

Which path does director Mel Gibson take? Sebastiane, Birth of a Nation, Saving Private Ryan, Life of Brian, or something entirely and creatively new?

Please stand by.

Posted by OutsideFood at February 24, 2004 12:00 AM

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