February 25, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

I don't like this film. You were warned.

There were funds enough left from a kind donation from a friend to cover part of the latest viewing: The midnight opening-day screening of...

The Most Gratuitous Story Ever Told

The Passion of the Christ
starring: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Francesco De Vito's profile as Peter, Hristo Jivkov lurking behind Mary, and Legolas as Satan.
directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, with some contribution from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John, but mostly Matthew.
running time: 126 minutes
MPAA says: R for sequences of graphic violence, and they aren't kidding
Release date: February 25, 2004
Seen at: to come

This movie made me feel yucky. And not in an introspective "He died for your sins" way.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ begins inauspiciously, on the soundstage of Gethsemane, in what looks like a Halloween episode of Xena. It might be a real garden, but, filmed in Murk-o-vision like the rest of the movie, it has all the character of styrofoam. Visually, the entire movie has the air of a cheaply, quickly produced Bible-Study video, but without the bright-eyed creative imagination some small-budget productions occasionally break out with. Mostly the film looks like a lowbrow remake of every other movie from Greatest Story to Superstar. It's all very flat and perfunctory, and director Gibson does love that slow-motion, which doesn't help. The movie only comes into its own (and a very scary own that is) when blood is pouring. But I get ahead of myself.

It's a good thing most of the audience will already know the story. The overly earnest actors pontificate, posture, and ponderously thud through the motions, but there is very little actual storytelling, and even less of human emotion. Certainly no exploration of Why—that's all presumed to be a given. Jesus' teachings are shown in flashcard snippets (ten seconds of the Last Supper here, six seconds of palm fronds there) before Gibson returns to what his movie is all about: torture, pain, gore, and directorial self-flagellation so prolonged it's silly.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it's silly in a Monty Python way. Sometimes, even more unfortunately, it's silly in a disturbingly sado-masochistic way.

Jesus is played in a creaking performance from Jim Caviezel... hmm... JC... you'd think I'd have noticed that before. At any rate, within five minutes I was entirely bored, no matter how much JC twisted and groaned in the garden. The subtitled dialogue is mostly not-awful ("This is not a party, you toothless vermin!" was an interesting subtitle, though), and the actors deliver it as best they can, some succeeding better than others. The Jewish soldiers who arrest Jesus in the garden take on their roles with the skill and subtlety of a collection of Xena Xtras playing warlord minions. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.

In fact, everyone's acting style and reactions (with exceptions noted later) are scarily uniform—the same Sunday-School-play posing from Mary Magdalene to Judas. The Murk-o-vision does not help, nor does the amateurish, facile direction that makes it clear the main concern is not the actors' performances but presenting huge dollops of bloody beatings so we can all cathart all over the place.

I wonder whether this movie will be accessible, will even be comprehensible to a non-believer, or whether it will merely confirm that some Christians behave in completely inexplicable ways based on a truly peculiar world view.

I'll just assume you won't mind if the review contains a few spoilers about the plot.

"He's Not the Messiah, He's a Very Naughty Boy"

There is a brief flashback to JC's carefree days as a carpenter, as his mother Mary looks on, fondly but somewhat puzzled by the odd ideas he brings even to building a table. JC is charming with his mom, playful, and briefly charismatic. (Are those his own light brown eyes gazing merrily on her, or lenses?) For about two minutes, the movie has an original spark, an artful turn. The moment does not last.

Back to the present. He is brought before the temple priests, most of whom seem to be in a Monty Python sketch. Even the sympathetic priests are caricatures, and the priests who want JC condemned are all huff and puff and bounce and glare. I could not keep visions of Eric Idle out of my mind. JC has been so thoroughly beaten even before he reaches the priests, he has been reduced to a puffy-faced stumble, and the beatings continue there, in numbing repetition. Not a Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List "My mind is so battered it is numb with shock" reaction. More: "Are you still at this, Gibson? Where did I put my drink?" The music swells to let us know we find it moving.

And the movie is only beginning.

"They're the ones what killed our Lord"

That one is a quote from an old television series called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, in case you're not steeped in television trivia. A sweet-faced, perky-voiced character announces this, I believe on a show within the show, causing the pretend-show to be pulled immediately from the air. Mary Hartman aired about twenty-five, thirty years ago, if I recall correctly. The blithely ignorant character is of course referring to (whisper, now) Those Jews.

In The Passion, Jewish soldiers pay a lynch mob, a posse, a few dozen people to be the angry crowd. Thus the director exonerates the common folk from responsibility. He exonerates them further, later, by sliding Satan into the mix. No, it's not that the entire Jewish people are to blame. Just that crazy Caiaphas and his goons and their hired mob calling down a curse on their heads (so I am told; the words are unsubtitled in the film). Much time is given over to explaining the pressure Pilate is under, but Caiaphas is just a leering baddie surrounded by Evil Minions. His own political, moral, and religious outrage is unexamined. JC is later hauled before Herod (Luca de Dominicis, attempting to channel Peter Ustinov). Herod capers more than Caiaphas, and his goons appear to be all the actors too stoned to have made it into a Fellini film. In the background, slaves (presumably non-Jewish) look up significantly before they have anything significant to react to. Like the birds and the little animals, the slaves just know JC is special.

On to the Romans.

"Romans they go the house"

It was hard not to start snickering at the Latin at first (and not just because of my bad experience with the movie Sebastiane), but then Pontius Pilate takes to the screen (played by Hristo Naumov Shopov—although I thought it was Giovanni Capalbo in the credits; I must have misread; he might be the Roman sergeant with the expressively craggy face). Ironically, with Pilate the film briefly explodes into humanity and passion. Pilate's Latin rolls naturally and easily. Although his wife, Claudia (Claudia Gerini), sounds like she's practising for a Junior Classical League competition, she is also fairly effective. This two-hour act of celluloid self-Indulgence becomes a movie whenever one or the other is on screen. Claudia's small kindness to Mary and Mary Magdalene evokes some emotion, because it shows a human connection, far too rare in the film. Having dispensed with this, Gibson can turn back to the beatings, with as much slow motion as he can muster, including what Tempest, my companion for the evening, termed "the worst scene in film history." Tempest doesn't go to as many movies as I do.

Now that JC is in the hands of the Romans, the movie really gets into its sado-masochistic roll. The Roman soldiers use whips and flesh-gouging scourges. I presume we're to derive some sense of how humans are infected with evil from the sight of Satan slinking, elf-like, through the crowd, but the effect of the long (long (long)) torture scene is ultimately pornographic and—although I hate to use the word in the context of what Gibson must think he has created—masturbatory.

"Ecce Homo"

Pilate seems to have evolved in movie folklore from a callous Roman villain, who executed thousands in order to preserve his governorship then denied responsibility, into a trapped and helpless bureaucrat. With much furrowing of brow, the actor excellently portrays the frustration of this whitewashed Pilate and his attempt to work with the people he governs, to understand them and understand his prisoner. He does a good job looking trapped, even when the script isn't giving him much to be overwhelmed by other than Caiaphas' leering smirks and capering.

But wait, there's more

The movie plods along, not drawing us into the event but repeating itself again and again; revelling in the sort of agony Gibson seems to like wallowing through (to judge by some of his previous work—Braveheart, The Patriot). JC begins his long walk to execution on Calvary. The audience knows the emotional level of the movie has heightened because the music swells and picks up a quick beat.

I think we may see the seeds of a sort of mother-goddess Marianism in the eyes of a Roman soldier. Gibson almost manages to make the point of showing Romans, who are spreading throughout that circle of land, picking up the religious movement. These touches are subtle, not through their own quality but in contrast to the bedlam around them. For every touch that Almost Works, are a dozen scenes of daft and dense-headed filmmaking. A flashcard of JC falling as a child and Mary rushing to his aid is set in contrast to Mary trying to reach him as he walks toward the cross, spoiled by a maudlin slow-motion that recalls some violin-laced scene of lovers running toward each other across a beach at sunset.

Pop quiz: Do we all know where the word "maudlin" comes from, class? How about "bedlam"? Okay, quiz over.

But wait, there's more... and more... and...

There's much perfunctory rushing about as people sprint in when spelled out in gospels and when it's time to make a holy relic or two. There are more beatings and lashings and kickings and lacerations. Without the languorous slow-motion caress across every spray of blood, I think this movie would last about a half hour. Finally we get the flashcard version of the Sermon on the Mount and the Powerpoint version of the Last Supper. Close-ups on JC, the sun behind him, wind riffling his hair, haloed with cliched cinematography. One might think these pivotal events, and the ministry giving hope and power to the poor and disenfranchised, would be a message worth telling. But this is not a movie about that—those can be dispensed with in less than a minute all combined, split into catchphrases suitable for bumper stickers, rather than as emotional build-up to the ending of the film or as counterpoint to the drama of the execution.

And what an execution it is. Gibson gets the Crucifixion set up so it can look exactly like those old paintings. He gives JC a cross-shaped cross to lug, although the thieves just get their crossbeams. Drops of viscous blood gush into the air around an upward pointing spike of a nail. (I leave that to you to interpret.) Red drips and pours everywhere. Gibson misses an opportunity to compare the execution with the bread and wine of the Last Supper, because he's just too darned anxious to get back to the gore. On and on the torture goes until it has no meaning whatsoever.

The post-Crucifixion earthquake is fairly effective. Pools of blood puddle around the future relics like a bad case of Venus Envy. Then everybody poses for a Pieta. The screen falls to black for a while, during which the audience is presumably expected to gather their dark thoughts and wipe their eyes dry. Then, in Murk-o-vision augmented by a yellow light-bulb, the movie continues. The Resurrection scene has nothing of wonder, nor of hope, nor of a new era. It is claustrophobic, dull, uninspired, and uninspiring. There is nothing artful or original or insightful here.

This is not movie-making on an epic scale. There are very few extras, relatively speaking, no sweep and grandeur. The movie makes its very large subjects—a prophet who claims to have come directly from the deity, his doubt and determination, the salvation of the human race—seem very small and inconsequential.

You'll have to go into the theatre already prepped for a religious high to find one here. Although, some non-religious people might enjoy it simply for the gore. This movie made Tempest badmouth Christianity. Which, admittedly, many of my Pagan friends spend a lot of time doing anyway, but it is certainly not a movie to open the minds of people to new possibilities. There is no emotional engagement, and certainly no logical engagement.

It is a slasher flick.

I tried to be engaged by the movie, to feel the suffering, to join in the grieving, but the unoriginal gross-out gore-fest pushed me away. One wonders what a Wes Craven would have done with it. Or that other director sometimes known for gorey movies, Peter Jackson. Oh, wait—Peter Jackson already made a successful movie about sacrifice, love, struggle, and redemption.

To See or Not to See: Don't.

Outside Food: This evening the role of Wine is being played by "Deus" twice-fermented Belgian Ale, and the role of Bread is being played by a lemon scone. Also: gummi worms, for the thing in Satan's nose (never mind, don't think about it). Tempest got the eight extra ounces of watered-down fruit punch for an extra 25 cents.
Posted by OutsideFood at February 25, 2004 06:00 PM

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