"The Passion of the Christ"
(Newmarket), 126 minutes, R
Directed by Mel Gibson.
Written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson.
James Caviezel: Jesus
Monica Bellucci: Mary Magdalene
Maia Morgenstern: Mary
Hristo Shopov: Pontius Pilate
Mattia Sbragia: Caiphus
How fitting that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" should premiere at the same time as our Culture War has escalated in San Francisco. The clash could hardly be starker. This war is a conflict between two different views of human nature and existence itself: One recognizes sin, human fallibility and man's submission to God's truth; the other denies sin and makes man aloneunconstrained in his subjective desires as a "free" individualits God and its "truth," which in reality is no truth.
Gibson and his film inspire the enmity of the Left because the objective truth of man's sinfulness imposes limits on human action; our fallen nature is an insuperable obstacle to the utopian dreams that are the life force of leftism. And on a gut level, Christianity, in its essence (as well as Judaism, in its essence), is hard, unyielding, and, above all, demanding, especially to our sybaritic, egalitarian age. The powerful, uncompromising faith expressed in "The Passion of the Christ" is too much for the Left to bear. The view of the New York Times, and the view of "sophisticated" opinion generallynow repeatedly hostile to Judeo-Christian moral truthis yet again well expressed, with her customary juvenile frivolity, by the Times' Maureen Dowd. Her "Stations of the Crass" column refers to a "spaghetti crucifixion" and "A Fistful of Nails."
So the first point about "The Passion of the Christ" is that, as a vivid rendering of devout religious faith, it represents a much needed and powerful counter-attack in the Culture War. It also is much more.
To a lover of motion pictures as an art form, it is most heartening to see a prominent and accomplished filmmaker like Mel Gibson employing the grand movie screen for the noblest of purposes. In recent decades, the screen has more often been employed to pander to and exploit the audience, rather than elevate it. Now along comes Gibson and his film, a risky, self-financed venture, spoken (no less!) in two long-dead languages with English subtitles. No film has ever remotely made the demands on the audience this one does; one might dread going to the theater, but one goes. Thus, anyone who values the motion picture art should applaud Gibson's integrity.
It must be said that Gibson's bold and inspired decision to have the actors speak in Aramaic and Latin works brilliantly. Every scene is extremely real and compelling: Jesus's "trial" in the chamber of the Sanhedrin; His confrontation with the mob in Pilate's courtyard; His unspeakable and indescribable ordeal along the route to Golgotha. Not once do we find a hint of self-consciousness or artificiality. The scourging may be the most brutal scene ever filmed. The verisimilitude of the settings could not have been done better; this is especially noteworthy in what is, by contemporary standards, a relatively inexpensive production. For this the art director, cinematographer and costume designer merit high praise. As does the editor: the film moves with maximum intensity and totally absorbs the viewer in its two-hour length.
Every character is fully realized and credible as an individual; indeed, they make the characters in classics like "Ben-Hur" (1959) quite shallow by comparison. The cast is outstanding: Caiphus (Mattia Sbragia), Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), Mary (Maia Morgenstern), all the way down to the truly savage Roman torturer-soldiersand above all, Jim Caviezel as Jesus. Caviezel's presence is both natural and arresting. The challenge he faces is extraordinary because in virtually every scene he is being acted upon by others and is reacting to them: mainly, he speaks just a few, pregnant words (early in the story) or, through most of the film, expresses the most horrific pain. Yet he delivers one of the screen's most impassioned performances.
The technical perfection of the film serves its supreme purpose as a compelling, unforgettable religious experience. The extreme violence thus is justified because watching Jesus's suffering is an act of penance, bearing witness to the heretofore unimagined, unending barbaric torture of the Savior who died for the sins of us all. For these viewers, any aesthetic considerations are completely beside the point, and that is at it should be. After all, the film opens with a quote from Isaiah 53:5: "By his stripes we are healed."
For others, aesthetic considerations do arise if they affect one's response to "The Passion of the Christ." Most important in this respect is the film's literalness: the vivid, shocking (and accurate) violence, beyond comprehension, as well as the blunt, forceful direction of the characters' interactions and the general aversion to visual metaphor. The direction is a product of its time. Of course, the violence of "The Passion of the Christ" serves a completely different purpose than the manufactured violence of moral and social subversion employed by Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York" ), Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction" , "Kill Bill: Volume 1" ), Oliver Stone ("Natural Born Killers" ), and the countless irresponsible exploiters who make films today. But the question can still be raised.
For me, the violence became numbing. To some degree it made me distance myself from the story I was watching. Let me invoke the teaching of Gotthold Lessing in his treatise on the ancient Greek statue, Laocoon, which I wrote about last May. ("Classical Greece and Classical Hollywood.") Lessing believes that beauty is the "supreme law of the visual arts." The artist should strive to treat his subject in a manner that will evoke a moral catharsis through the viewer's imagination; presenting horror literally will close off the imagination and defeat the artist's purpose.
People will respond differently to this unique film. I believe that Gibson could have taken, at times, a somewhat more restrained, subtle, poetic approach, to move the imagination. For example, at the end of the crucifixion, Mary embraces Jesus's nailed feet and we see her face smeared with His blood. This shot might have made a greater impactas a representation of the entire horrible scene, much like the figure of the Crucifix or the role of the cross in the Good Friday servicehad Gibson not been so direct, detailed and lengthy in showing Jesus's torment on the cross. As a result, the shot comes as one in a succession of awful pictures that, for this viewer at least, overwhelmed the senses. Aristotle wrote that poetry is universal; here a poetic treatment could have tempered the film and enhanced its impact.
Gibson does not appear to have a strong poetic sensibility; his blunt, indeed, pounding direction here basically has the same sensibility he demonstrated in "Braveheart" (1995). His unyielding tempo as a director might have benefited from some inflection: for example, when Jesus utters his fatal words before the Sanhedrin inquisitors"I am: and you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven"the direction does not give the famous words any special distinction as the climax of the scene. This could have been done, say, with a pause by Jesus, or by changing the camera angle, as a director like John Ford might have done; in fact, Gibson could have made the impact stronger by not breaking the lines into two shots, as he does. Second, the direct visualization of Satan as a sort of Gothic temptress (although the precise sexuality is a bit ambiguous), and its recurring appearance in the film, can be seen as rather heavy-handed; an allusive, symbolic treatment might have been more effective. Third, the one scene where Gibson's approach is weakest is the Resurrection; obviously, this calls for some poetic suggestion because it goes beyond the reality we know. But, from an aesthetic viewpoint, it is a bit earthbound.
By way of comparison, let me briefly note a film from that widely dismissed period of Hollywood Biblical films, the 1950s-60s. Gibson himself has joined in the derision. As with most generalizations, this one has its glaring exceptions. Many scoff at mention of "King of Kings" (1961). Last year I had the good fortune to see it in a big theater in New York, where the poetic direction of Nicholas Ray at times took my breath away. Ray, the director of "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) and other "against-the-grain" movies of the period (and thus a hero of Martin Scorsese), wanted to show that he could direct an old-fashioned movie like this as well as anybody. And he does. True, the Passion sequence is sanitized by modern standards, and the blue-eyed WASP Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus would nowadays be read out of court, although he is quite good in the role. But among many visually arresting shots that stand out on the big screen (but lose impact on a TV video), is Mary embracing the feet of her crucified son. More than in "The Passion," His nailed, bleeding feet are shocking and deeply affecting because this is one of the brief depictions of the bloodshed that has been inflicted on Him; the shot serves as a representation, for the imagination, of the broader horror. Another is how, when Jesus dies, Ray's camera is above and behind the cross, from where we simply see His head fall limpthe angle and the distance lend pathos to the scene.
For the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty; she then sees a figure in a hooded garment walking up a nearby hill; running toward the figure, he turns, and, to her surprise, it is the loving countenance of the Resurrected Christ. And in the final scene, the voice of Christ speaks to the disciples, who have been tending to a fisherman's net. The net forms one line on the wide screen. The disciples look upward and hear His final words, then they walk off screen, one by one, on their appointed missions. Whereupon the shadow from behind the unseen Christ falls across the line of the net, forming a stunning cross that fills the huge screen, and Miklos Rosza's rich symphonic score closes the film.
That was a different time. And Mel Gibson wanted to make a different film. He has made a very powerful testimony to his faith, as well as to his personal integrity and skill as a filmmaker.
One is obliged to confront the pain "The Passion of the Christ" is bringing to some Jewish viewers. Gibson, true to the Gospels, is unrelenting against Caiphus and the Pharisees. For the trial of Jesus before Pilate, he appears to rely on John. This Gospel puts Caiphus and his gang in the worst light: It is the one account in which Pilate orders Jesus's scourging in an attempt to avoid crucifixion, rather than as a preliminary, but this monstrous torture is not enough for the Jewish priests and their mob, who vociferously demand the crucifixion of this half-dead, mangled man. (In Luke they reject Pilate's offer of a scourging before it is done.) But John is the most detailed account, and includes the "What is Truth?" confrontation. So, on these grounds, it is a legitimate choice by the director.
Another question is raised by the very sympathetic treatment of Pilate, which makes the Jewish high priests look even worse. When Jesus is first hauled before Pilate, the Roman asks the Jewish priests why the prisoner has been so abused if he has not yet been convicted. This is not in the Gospels. Second, Pilate seems oddly quizzical for a Roman governor who was feared for his ruthlessness (although support can be found in Mark, where he is said to have "marveled" at Jesus's silence). Third, Pilate and his lieutenant are taken aback by the extreme barbarity of the scourging he had ordered. This, too, is not found in the Gospels.
On the other hand, a priest is seen trying to defend Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Simon of Cyrene's role is greatly expanded: a reluctant, fearful bystander forced to help bear the cross by the Romans, his goodness gives him the courage to stand beside Jesus and try to defend Him against the attacks of some in the crowd and the Roman soldiers. One soldier orders him back to lift up the cross, which he has put down to defend Jesus, with the words: "Go, Jew." Although a few critics have complained that the high priests look like Jewish stereotypes, Mary (played by a Jewish actress) and the disciples do not appear different from them ethnically; I see them as villains, but not stereotypes. Further, during the crucifixion, one of the many flashbacks in the film shows us the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says: "For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? …But, rather love your enemies and do good to them." And, of course, from the cross Jesus asks, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." I do not think the film is anti-Semitic; rather, it dramatizes the faith that all humanity is responsible for the suffering that is so cruelly inflicted on the one who is innocent.
Mel Gibson has filmed a religious experience that is deeply moving to millions of souls. He has done this as a challenge to the secularists who are at war against our civilization. We who believe and we who are endeavoring to defend and uphold that civilization are in his debt.