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3/07/2004

 

locdog movie review: the passion of the Christ



it's hard to know where to begin with a film like this. i knew even as i watched the passion of the Christ that it was going to be impossible to maintain any critical distance. i don't even want to review it, to be frank. to objectify it, like analyzing the gas chambers of auschwitz on strictly architectural terms. there's an irreverence to the gesture, a sadism.

as i attempt to collect my thoughts, i find that they keep coming back to the rebukes of secular critics that i'd read before seeing the film. i look back on them now in dismay. they weren't film criticism so much as a criticism of everything but the film, a chance for critics to thump their chests and show the world just how tolerant they really are. david edelstein, whose views i deeply respect, was perhaps the harshest of all. less a review of the passion than an attempt to verbally crucify its director, his take amounted to a string of low blows aimed at mel gibson's supposed anti-semitism, occasionally interrupted by the glibbest tongue-clucking at the on-screen gore.

it’s hard to explain just how brutish these critics really are. imagine if after seeing schindler's list, a german audience member, tired of seeing his people vilified, stood up and excoriated the jews weeping around the theater. imagine him demanding to know who spielberg thinks he is, with his unflinching depiction of carnage. what purpose could it serve but to inflame old hatreds? maybe the holocaust wasn't really that bad, but even if it was, why dwell on it? why not show the destitution of the german people in the twenties, show the context rather than the bloody end?

am i saying first century jews were as responsible for the death of Christ as twentieth century germans were for the holocaust? no, and neither was gibson. he faulted the chief priests just as spielberg faulted the nazis. what i am saying is that, to Christians, the love of Christ and the emotion churned up by His suffering is no less real than that felt by many jews after seeing schindler's list--and that the cruelty and insensitivity displayed by edelstein and other reviewers is no less astonishing than the fictitious display described above. to faithful Christians, Jesus Christ is a living, breathing reality, as essential to their lives as air or water. they perceive the presence of Christ as clearly as others would that of a spouse, and relate to Him just as intimately. whether you personally feel this way, or think those who do are nuts, is beside the point. to millions of people, seeing the passion was like watching a friend die. it was a way of reminding themselves of the sacrifice He once made for them. to hear this film scoffed at like a grindhouse splatter flick is an outrage, and the intolerance shown towards Christians by edelstein, andy "a few laughs" rooney, and others is far, far worse than any anti-semitism contained in gibson's film, real or imagined.

and on the matter of anti-semitism in the passion let me simply say this: anyone who saw it in gibson's film was convinced of its presence long before they ever sat down in the theater, and anyone who walked out hating jews hated them long before they walked in. before the first drop of blood is spilled, gibson runs a verse from isaiah 53, reminding the viewer that it was for our sins that Christ suffered. as the romans are in the very act of crucifying Jesus, the film flashes back to Him telling His followers that He laid down His life of His own accord. NO ONE takes it from Him. the chief priests and elders are portrayed as the murderous villains they were--should gibson have revised their roles simply because they happened to be jewish? the lynch mob howling for Jesus' head as he stands in pilate's court is bloodthirsty, enraged, irrational: a mob like any other. but these are hardly offered as indictments of the jewish people on the whole. the only character in the film--and this is something i've yet to read in any review, negative or otherwise--who is specifically identified is a jew is simon as he helps lug the cross of Christ up calvary. the word is spat out by a sneering roman soldier miffed at simon's vehement defense of Christ, but simon wears it like a badge of honor.

if anyone is gets a raw deal from gibson's movie, it's the romans. there's a myth going around that pilate was shined up by the gospel writers, that though he was a brutal thug who would have killed Christ as soon as swat a fly, he was made a heroic figure by unscrupulous writers hoping to ingratiate Christians to rome. this is absurd. the gospels (and the passion) include an account of pilate's wife petitioning the roman consul on behalf of Jesus, but this is seldom heard outside of the Scriptures. even more scarce are mentions that pilate was written twice by caesar, admonishing--even threatening--him against further bloodshed in the province of judea. this latter factoid comes from secular, not Biblical, historical sources and throws real light onto the mystery of pontius pilate. i dare say it's impossible to properly understand his actions on good friday without it, but it's been strangely absent from the whole passion debate. good on gibson for including it, though, and lest you think he did it simply to get pilate of the hook, nothing could be further from the truth. pilate is portrayed as a weak, vacillating coward, immobilized by political pressure and determined to sacrifice an innocent man rather than stand up for his beliefs. his famous tagline "what is truth," has made him something of a post-modern hero, but his turn in the passion is as fine a portrayal of moral impotence as you could hope for. his cohorts come off even worse. while the chief priests and pharisees look on in grim distaste, Christ is scourged by cackling roman soldiers who revel in the suffering they inflict. the further the blood spatters, the harder they laugh. (gibson even omits the line from the crucifixion scene where the roman soldier was supposed to say "surely this was the Son of God." maybe he’s anti-romanic?)

speaking of pharisees, there have been some breathtaking displays of hypocrisy by film reviewers who praise lurid throat-slashers like kill bill (easily a more violent film) while condemning the passion in fits of indignation that can only be described as prudish. i'm not going to lie to you: this is a very, very, very violent movie, and some people aren't going to be able to watch it. but i never once got the feeling that the violence was anything more than what was historically justified--in fact it was considerably less. gibson has wanly claimed he toned the gore down, and i for one believe him. the scourging scene was an almost unbearably gruesome spectacle, but the real thing would have been worse. Christ's flesh on screen was badly lacerated, but in reality, what flesh he had left, if any, would have been hanging in ribbons. it took, on the average, two or three days to die on the cross. Jesus was dead in six hours. what does that tell you. gibson really does show you chunks of flesh being yanked out of Jesus' side while the head guard meticulously counts off the lashes, but he also zips away to the infinite sadness of mary's eyes, the glee of His torturers, the horror of onlookers. interspersed as well are flashbacks to different episodes from Jesus' boyhood and ministry, some familiar, some speculative. so precisely does gibson modulate the violence with these devices that you can't help but be amazed. you get the feeling that he is taking the audience to the brink, to the very limit of their tolerances. "the line" is a subjective thing, but in my view, gibson didn't cross it. i would caution parents, however, to see this film before deciding whether or not to let their kids watch it.

a word here about john debney's score. the film's most intense moments are offset brilliantly by some spectacular orchestral pieces, and i think those who complained about the violence they saw must have been deaf. the music was just perfect. that's not to say it was the most beautiful or most memorable or catchiest score i've ever heard, but within the context of this film it was sublime. as i recall the crucifixion, the tenderness of the score is as much a part of the impression as the brutality of the roman soldiers. there was--of all things--an air of triumph to it. it made you believe that this wasn't just the ultimate exercise in human depravity, it was also the ultimate expression of love. that the suffering was for a reason, that there was something indescribably wonderful just around the bend, a goal that, somehow, was worth the terrible price. i don't know how you can make someone believe that with a song, but the passion did.

caleb deschanel's cinematography is the one aspect of this film that has been universally lauded, and this review will be no exception. deschanel deliberately eschews demille's sense of spectacle: there's nothing to gawk at here. instead, shots are painstakingly framed in a vivid, iconographic tableau that presents events of Christ's last day with shocking immediacy. the formalism, though often strict, is never crushing. everything feels vibrantly alive, and skillfully interwoven between the scenes where renaissance paintings are brought to life are harrowing POV shots: when Christ stumbles as He carries the cross up calvary hill, the world whirls around in a dizzying montage of scowling romans, dust, and blood.

concerning james caviezel's performance, it's probably the calvary sequence that will stay with me the longest. he looks for all the world like a man willingly marching to his death, and he does it with a grace that must have come from above. caviezel is challenged to present nothing less than the outermost extreme of human experience on screen in a role that would have tested the physical and emotional limits of any actor. making that plausible to any degree is a real accomplishment, but he made you forget that you weren't really watching Jesus.

i could pick nits about certain of gibson's artistic devices, some of the secondary performances, etc., but i'll leave that to the bitter hearts. the only flaw with this movie--if it has one--is the feeling that gibson was sometimes following a laundry list of elements to include, but that just reinforces the liturgical nature of the experience all the more. the reverential handling of the passion narrative simply adds to the director's integrity, and reminds the viewer that, while you're watching something on a big screen, it is not in any sense a movie. it's an act of worship.

i can say without reservation that the passion of the Christ is the most moving film i've ever seen. i say that as a Christian, true, but firm in the knowledge that few but the most cynical among us could see the passion and not be profoundly affected. the film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, but more than that, it's a religious experience. and for the non-believer, it's at the very least an opportunity to sit in on arguably the most important event in history. regardless of your spiritual beliefs, i encourage you to see this film with an open mind, to forget about everything you've heard or read in the last year and, for two hours, give the passion your undivided attention. you won't be sorry.

locdog is sorry about the length of this review, but if you're here reading it on a sunday afternoon, you've obviously got some time on your hands