The Passion Of The Christ – Mel Gibson – 2004

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Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ might well be subtitled a visual essay in suffering. The first two thirds of the film actually have some narrative thrust, and offer some surreal, incredibly frightening depictions of evil. The final third of the picture, however, is filled with scenes that have not only been done and redone throughout the history of cinema, but it also lacks the strange affectations that make the first hour and a half so fascinating.

It is my intent not to examine this film from a historical perspective or even a theological one, but basically a narrative deconstruction where we examine exactly what is or isn’t in the film. The film is controversial for a number of reasons, and a woman reportedly had a heart-attack viewing the film and later died in the hospital. The violence in the film is as bloody as money can buy and the film has, to its’ detriment, a fairly anti-Semitic bent.

The film begins with Jesus in the garden. The music and colors clearly evoke horror. This man is terrified. A crazy, androgynous, Satan creature confronts him, and Jesus flees. This whole scene is blue and black and it’s a damn creepy scene.

We see Judas being paid thirty pieces of silver. Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel said they shot the film above 27 frames per second, giving many moments a true looking slow motion. When they actually slow the footage down, it’s downright breathtaking to look at. Caiphas gives Judas the silver and Judas leaves with some cops.

Jesus rouses Peter and gives him some shit. “You couldn’t stay awake?” The soldiers arrive and a fight ensues after Judas betrays Christ with a kiss. Peter cuts off a soldiers’ ear and Jesus puts it back on. Jesus tells Peter to drop the sword, for those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. His acolytes make good their escape but Jesus is arrested and put in chains. Really, he doesn’t even try to get away.

The next scene is much maligned for being one of the most anti-Jew scenes but I find it to be as anti-cop as anti-Jew. There are plenty of other scenes to be mad at later. Anyway, the cops kick the shit out of Jesus on top of a bridge. They knock him over the bridge and he falls just short of the ground, his chains catching on the bridge. If anything, this scene realistically shows what many cops do, which is needlessly beat detainees. 

At the bottom of the hollow is Judas, seeing again his betrayed master. Jesus is ratcheted back up into the night and before the terrified Judas can walk away the blackness behind him reveals a snarling demonic visage that torments him into retreat. This is precisely the type of visual detail that I actually like about this film. It’s a look into the mind of a wildly insane individual who has enough intelligence and clout to make a visionary film like this. This demon and the crazy Satan are compelling genre devices that make the film satisfying on an absurd and terrifying level.

Why are these things there? I’m guessing Gibson believes in evil personified. We are meant to take every note of this film literally, and if that is true, these crazy supernatural beings and events place the film in the realm of Horror-Fantasy. R-Rated horror fantasy is fairly small grouping of films, and this is certainly one of the more interesting of the bunch.

Back to the story. Christ is at the temple and Caiphas tries to get everyone to explain what crimes Jesus has committed. After many allegations Caiphas says that these people are under Jesus’ spell. Only after Jesus has declared himself the son of God does Caiphas rip his robe and call him a blasphemer.

I have to note here, to Gibson’s small credit, a Priest in the temple does call the kangaroo court out as a travesty but he is quickly escorted away. So there was one Jew who spoke out against the goings on. One. The rest of the crowd is ghoulishly played as over the top villains from a cartoon. One really wonders why these guys even give a crap about Jesus, you wouldn’t know from the movie why their even mad at him, but boy do they hate him.

Meanwhile, demon-faced children chase Judas out of town. They bite him and yell that he is cursed. These strange scenes culminate with the kids chasing him down a hill and then disappearing. He kneels beneath a tree where a rotting donkey lies and he sees Satan before him. He takes the rope from the ass and hangs himself. This scene is masterful and would easily be a standout scene in any horror film. Here, Mel Gibson asserts again that this film is designed to evoke terror and polarize. His mastery of technique clashes beautifully with the strange and controversial nature of the material.

Because it’s against Jewish law to condemn a man to death, the second act of the film is kind of a dog and pony show where they go around showing Jesus to Pilate, Herod, then Pilate again who ultimately orders the man scourged.

No one wants to condemn the man, cause he’s really just this harmless sect leader who basically teaches we should treat each other with kindness. No one in any position of real power sees him as any threat at all. But, even when Pilate asks Jesus what he should do, Jesus tells him, “You have no power over me, save that which is given from above.” It’s not like Jesus wants to escape. He wants to be this example for the world. He so truly believes in what he’s doing that he’s willing to overcome and endure anything to prove his point. Sound like anyone you know? Like maybe the guy making the film?

The film does portray Jesus as pretty radical and his cryptic messages mystify Pilate. He thinks a brutal punishment will quell the sour hearts of the rabble in his district. (There is a scene with Pilate and his wife where he tells here that Caesar has threatened his neck if there are any more uprisings.) So, he’s protecting his own butt, so sayeth this film.

The scourging is pretty much the high-water mark for the film, (high-blood mark?). It is probably the most brutal sequence of torture I have ever scene in a film and the Roman soldiers tasked with hurting Jesus are portrayed with every-bit as much snarling goof-ball horror show villain as the Jewish priests. These guys are mad-dogs but the performance is pure melodrama.

Satan shows up again, this time carrying and an old man baby. Yeah, what is it? Perhaps Satan carries a proxy for man, youth and old age wrapped in one body, a representation of what Christ is suffering for. If Satan retains this creature, man will arrest his development and regress in to sinful iniquity. Mel Gibson, what a nut.

This sequence, though never boring, and perhaps even effective at the desired goal of portraying the insane suffering Mel Gibson sees in his head, has a two-fold effect. 1. It puts Mel Gibson up there with Lucio Fulci and Peter Jackson when it comes to gore, no question. 2. Nothing in the movie will be as intense or hit with as emotional resonance after this scene. A big problem, cause you still have forty minutes left.

After Jesus is beaten the mob demands Christ’s crucifixion. Pilate washes his hands. And here, the film grinds to a crawl. The viewer has just been subjected to what is arguably the most intense and bloody scene of suffering in the history of cinema and now we’re supposed to watch this guy walk up a hill for twenty minutes. It’s agonizing, and not in the way it is supposed to be, it’s just, nothing happening for twenty minutes, sure he falls and a guy helps him and a lady brings him water, but man is it slow.

Once atop the hill, we move again through the motions so many films have covered before, with only a few small remnants of Gibson’s signature. I especially like the moment where the crow pecks at the hysterical criminal being crucified along with Jesus, and the “God’s Teardrop” shot is pretty novel even if it totally pulls you out of the story.

But that’s one of the big problems with this movie as a story. It expects the viewer to know many things without contextualizing anything. Several times in the film we flash back to familiar Bible scenes, but a non-Christian might not really understand these scenes. We flash back to the last supper and Palm Sunday, there’s even a completely queer scene where Gibson attests that Jesus invented the tall table! These scenes are weak attempt at characterization that pulls you out of the mostly engaging melodrama of the story. The film would be stronger without them.

The film is beautifully designed and photographed. The sets and costumes are top-notch. The mostly immersive style and decision to use Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic keep the viewer glued to the scene, well, until the third act.

Jesus is given little to do but take a beating and his brown CG eyes weirded me out for most of the movie. It looks strange. They couldn’t have gotten a Jewish actor? I’m joking, but seriously Mel, you suck, but you are an amazing artist.

I think the film is an amazing, passionately made project that echoes both the vision and neurosis of it’s creator. Essentially the text of the film suggests it is greater to sacrifice your all than to compromise your values. Only briefly in the beginning does Jesus discuss taking this on so others don’t have to. That doesn’t seem like a core value of the film. The film is more an adamant statement against compromise. It is also a declaration that there is manifest evil in the world, with unknowable supernatural power.

For a movie to be those things is a pretty wild thing, and yet this film is that. It works decently as a narrative until the final third, and the text is full of wild and strange devices that often work as titillating pieces of genre fodder and according to the box office galvanizing religious ideology.

Is this film dangerous? Is fine art dangerous? Yes. I don’t agree with all the ideas or values presented in this film, but I have a hard time not seeing it as a masterful effort.

Happy Easter.

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