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Wednesday, May 5, 2004
Dead man walking
"There's enough torture in life without having to inflict it for no good reason." -- Mel Gibson, interviewed by Mike Figgis in Projections 10, 1999.
"The Passion of the Christ" is -- as most of you surely already know -- a film about Jesus. More specifically, it's a film about the torture of Jesus, a grueling, graphic gore-fest that's already caused several heart attacks among its viewers. This is not a film one enjoys, but rather a film one endures. The question thus becomes: Is there a good reason to sit through it?
As with any film about religion, there are plenty of people willing to hype or trash "The Passion" blindly, most of whom had already made up their minds before even seeing the film. Gibson courted fundamentalist Christian groups prior to the release of the film -- a canny move to head off the protests that dogged Martin Scorsese's far more thoughtful "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- and they have responded by embracing the film. In fact, a good deal of the film's $300-million-and-counting success can be attributed to pastors block-booking seats for their congregations.
Jewish groups, on the other hand, were sensitive about the depiction of Jewish "responsibility" for killing the son of God, and they were hardly reassured by Gibson's defensive reaction. Nor by the remarks by Hutton Gibson, the director's father, who has gone on record saying the Holocaust is an exaggeration. (For the record, the hook-nosed, heavy-lidded Pharisees come off bad, but the sicko Roman soldiers come off worse by far.)
Both these reactions are predictable, and Gibson slyly positioned "The Passion" as yet another battleground in the ongoing "cultural war" in the United States. Thus, for many viewers, seeing the film became an affirmation of one's faith in the face of Jewish and secular criticism. This is, however, something different from going to see the film because it's "good."
And yet, you can find many viewers -- in Letters to the Editor, in online blogs -- who will testify that they were moved by "The Passion," that it rekindled their faith. Yes, the film is violent, horrifically so, they'll say, but only by confronting Christ's agony in such detail will you truly begin to feel what he went through.
That's an interesting argument, especially coming from the religious, morally conservative segment of the viewing public. In giving us flesh-lacerating whipping scenes that go on forever (20 minutes plus) and leave even the camera lens covered in blood, a crucifixion that ramps the volume level up to 11 when nails are hammered through bone, Gibson has -- rather perversely -- made the first religious film that could rival anything in the canon of shock cinema.
Indeed, "The Passion" most closely resembles is provocateur Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible" (Japanese title: "Alex"), which featured equally repellent and graphic scenes of brutality, particularly a nine-minute rape of Monica Bellucci in which she's violated and beaten into a coma. Noe's reasoning was identical to Gibson's, that he had to make it that long and harsh to cut through cinemagoers' jaded sensibilities and make them truly feel the horror of violence against women. Unsurprisingly, "Irreversible" was largely denounced as depraved, scandalous and far too extreme by the same people who are rushing to embrace "The Passion." It's also interesting to note that Noe's film initially received an NC-17 rating in the U.S. -- the kiss of death that makes a film virtually "untouchable" for many theaters -- while Gibson's received an R, allowing it to play in the multiplexes.
Aside from noting such hypocrisy, it's undeniable that "The Passion" does connect with an impact. Watching the opening, as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, the film's Hollywood horror influences are overt: A sliver of clouds cuts across a ghostly full moon, while a black-cowled figure in the shadows (Satan? Death?) with a maggot hanging out of its nose taunts Jesus. A snake slithers toward Jesus, a literal embodiment of temptation that the son of God dispatches with a powerful blow as "Psycho"-strings shriek on the soundtrack.
Watching the end, as Christ gives up the ghost, we get disaster-movie special effects as clouds roil, earthquakes rumble and temples tumble. There's even action, a slow-motion brawl when Israelite guards try to seize Jesus and his Apostles resist, with Peter slicing off the ear of one man with a sword. As Jim Caviezel's Jesus -- bearing the heroic gravitas of a younger Aragorn -- miraculously heals the guard's wound, he admonishes Peter, saying, "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword."
Good Gospel wisdom, but it's more than a little bit galling to hear it coming from a Mel Gibson film, Gibson being an actor who time and time again -- "The Patriot," "Road Warrior," "Braveheart," "Payback" -- has starred in movies that glamorize the notion of cathartic, violent revenge. "Love your enemies" indeed. It's also a bit disingenuous, coming in a film that has sifted through the Gospels and 33 years' of Jesus' life to end up with nothing but the bits where the "action" is.
Yes, Gibson's film does flashback to the Last Supper, Jesus' life as a carpenter with Mary, his rescue of Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci, without even one line of dialogue), but these are mere moments, brief little asides to somehow try and break up what is essentially a two-hour snuff film. Gibson's "The Passion" is to the Gospels what crack cocaine is to coca leaf. It's barely concerned with what Jesus taught, what his life and resurrection meant, or the context in which he was compelled to accept this fate. Rather, it's all about the rush, the human-hamburger manner in which he dies. Why the decision to film the torture in real time, and the Sermon on the Mount in 30 seconds?
Gibson's justification for this approach is that he's seeking to make a historically accurate film, a claim that's subtly reinforced by his use of "authentic" dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. "I want to bring you there," he told The New Yorker, "and I want to be true to the Gospels." Some buy it: The Pope reportedly commented, "It is as it was," but this gnomic review doesn't mention that Gibson mixed up bits from all four Gospels, something discouraged by official Catholic policy regarding Passion plays.
"Truth? What is truth?" asks the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in the film, and it's a good question. For while it does mention in the Gospels that Jesus was flogged, nowhere does it mention that after falling from his punishment, he rose again in defiance (Jesus Christ: Superhero?), thus provoking the soldiers to lay into him again with razor-tipped flails that literally rip the flesh from his bones. This is pure speculation by Gibson. Though it's not half as creative as the little screeching devil that pops out of the corner of the screen howling at Judas as Jesus is dangled off a bridge in chains, a bit that's closer to "Gremlins" than the Gospels.
The film's most telling moment comes when Mary, seeing her son's skin flayed to shreds, can't bear it any longer and averts her gaze. It's a natural, human reaction, but one we're not allowed to share, as the camera takes us back to the torture. The fascination with cruelty, with the spectacle of extreme violence -- this has far more in common with the jeering rabble who taunt Christ as he bears his cross to Golgotha than Gibson may care to admit.
It's no coincidence that "Dawn of the Dead" -- another splatter film where the dead come back to life -- knocked "The Passion" off the top of the U.S. box office after three weeks. "Dawn" knows that it's prurient spectacle, while Gibson seeks to cloak his appeal to the audience's voyeurism in a mantle of religious epiphany.