Just Above Sunset Archives
I've long felt that religion was nothing but trouble in this world. I try to avoid it.
film finally opened this week.
Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes. In general release.
Combining the built-in audience of the Bible, the incendiary potential of "The Birth of a Nation"
and the marketing genius of "The Blair Witch Project," the arrival of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" feels like
a milestone in modern culture. It's a nexus of religion, celebrity, cinema and
mass communication that tells us more about the way our world works than we may want to know.
Of course Turan gives an analysis of the film's structure and technique, as one would expect out here in movieland. But in passing he does hit a few key cultural issues regarding the film.
It has the potential to foster divisiveness because of the way it exposes and accentuates the fissures in belief that otherwise might go unnoticed. We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads, and it is not to the gates of heaven.
Don't tell that to Mel
... it shouldn't be surprising that what's immediately most evident about "The Passion" is its complete sincerity. This is Gibson's personal vision of the greatest story ever told, a look inside his heart and soul. Gibson even personally provided, according to composer John Debney, the despairing wail that accompanies Judas' suicide. When the director writes in the introduction to the film's coffee-table book that he wanted his work "to be a testament to the infinite love of Jesus the Christ," there is no reason to doubt him. Which makes it even sadder that "The Passion of the Christ" does not play that way.
Well, how does it play?
The first hint of trouble is in a brief flashback to Caiphas, the Jewish High Priest (Mattia Sbragia)
arrogantly tossing a purse containing the legendary 30 pieces of silver to Judas (Luca Lionello) in such a way that they fall
and humiliate the traitor.
So Mel is just telling
it like it is? The Jews carry a collective guilt here?
As for the film's violence, it too starts early and stays late. Jesus is badly beaten and humiliated, dangled over a bridge by the chains he's bound in, before he's even brought before Caiphas. He's accused of blasphemy and black magic and then shunted back and forth between Pilate and King Herod, neither of whom, absent the persistence of the Jewish elite, would have the stomach to pass any kind of judgment.
Well, that will cause you
to think twice at stopping at Noah's Bagels for a snack.
As an actor, Gibson has always had a taste for playing heroes who are physically martyred and
put through the tortures of hell. His William Wallace is disemboweled in "Braveheart,"
the characters he plays in both "Payback" and "Ransom" are savagely beaten and his "Lethal Weapon" hero is nearly electrocuted. The violence in "Passion" is stomach-turning in part because that's the way Gibson
likes it. In fact, he likes it worse. When
asked by a friendly questioner during an outreach screening if he could have toned the film down, the director replied, "Dude,
I did tone it down."
I guess the guy didn't
Ever since his star began to rise after the 1979 Australian thriller Mad Max, Mel Gibson
hasn't seemed fully alive on screen unless he's being tortured and mutilated. In
the Road Warrior and Lethal Weapon films, as well as such one-shots as Conspiracy Theory (1997) and The
Patriot (2000), Gibson courted martyrdom, and he achieved it. He won an Oscar
for his labors in Braveheart (1995), which ends with its hero managing to scream "FREEEEE-DOM!!" as he's drawn and
quartered. Gibson snatched the pulp movie Payback (1999) away from its
writer-director, Brian Helgeland, to make the torture of his character even more gruelingly explicit: He added shots of his
toes being smashed by an iron hammer.
What follows, of course,
is a deconstruction of Gibson's personal psychological problems, and they are many.
I know, it sounds like a Monty Python movie. You're
thinking there must be something to The Passion of the Christ besides watching a man tortured to death, right?
So if you want to see Gibson
work out his martyr complex, by all means go see the film.
Gibson uses every weapon in his cinematic arsenal to drive home the agony of those last dozen
hours. While his mother and Mary Magdalene watch, Jesus is lashed until his entire
body is covered in bloody crisscrossing canals. When he rises, amazing the Roman
soldiers with his stamina, they go for the scourges, which rip and puncture his flesh in slow motion - all while the
Romans and the Jews cackle wildly. Carrying his cross, he falls again and again
in slow motion on his swollen, battered body while the soundtrack reverberates with heavy, Dolby-ized thuds. It is almost a relief when the spikes are driven into his hands and feet - at least it means that his pain
is almost over.
I suspect Edelstein is
not a born-again evangelical Christian. Otherwise, I guess, he'd know. I sure don't.
In "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson shows little interest in celebrating the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world. He largely ignores Jesus' heart-stopping eloquence, his startling ethical radicalism and personal radiance - Christ as a "paragon of vitality and poetic assertion," as John Updike described Jesus' character in his essay "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew." Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus' life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus' temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus' pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony - and to say so without indulging in "anti-Christian sentiment" (Gibsons term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate.
Well, I suppose Mel, his
father, and a good many evangelical Christian would ask the obvious question - Isn't hate sometimes appropriate? That does seem one way many here and, more particularly, many outside the United States,
would feel after seeing this film.
By contrast with the dispatching of Judas, the lashing and flaying of Jesus goes on forever, prolonged by Gibson's punishing use of slow motion, sometimes with Jesus' face in the foreground, so that we can see him writhe and howl. In the climb up to Calvary, Caviezel, one eye swollen shut, his mouth open in agony, collapses repeatedly in slow motion under the weight of the Cross. Then comes the Crucifixion itself, dramatized with a curious fixation on the technical details - an arm pulled out of its socket, huge nails hammered into hands, with Caviezel jumping after each whack. At that point, I said to myself, "Mel Gibson has lost it," and I was reminded of what other writers have pointed out - that Gibson, as an actor, has been beaten, mashed, and disembowelled in many of his movies. His obsession with pain, disguised by religious feelings, has now reached a frightening apotheosis.
Apotheosis? Mel Gibson finally make all his sadistic and masochistic issues holy?
What is most depressing about "The Passion" is the thought that people will take their children to see it. Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me," not "Let the little children watch me suffer." How will parents deal with the pain, terror, and anger that children will doubtless feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead? The despair of the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson's timing couldn't be more unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need.
Agreed. But did Denby just lump Gibson in with Isalmic fanatics in the mountains of Afghanistan filled with hate
and obsessed with death and pain and suffering? Yep. And appropriately so.
No child should see this movie.
But Gibson says it just
the truth. Well, as he sees it.
"Relentlessly savage, 'The Passion' plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians
turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To
these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion."
Well, Roger Ebert liked it. And Laura Bush said she really wants to see it.
As some readers know, I usually don't have much use for Christopher Hitchens, at least for the new, pro-Bush Christopher Hitchens version 3.1 as it were. But sometimes he hits one right out of the park. (Sorry about the baseball metaphor - but spring training is starting and I've been thinking about the "new" Dodgers now that Rupert Murdoch has sold the team and gone away to count his money and giggle with Bill O'Reilly.)
Hitchens does a number on "Mel Gibson's ghastly movie The Passion" - and it is really something. He even compares Mel to the persecutors of Dreyfus! Cool. And Hitchens even works in Francisco Franco (still dead).
Mel is unbalanced? "... he's become the proud producer of a movie that relies for its effect almost entirely on sadomasochistic male narcissism. The culture of blackshirt and brownshirt pseudomasculinity, as has often been pointed out, depended on some keen shared interests. Among them were massively repressed homoerotic fantasies, a camp interest in military uniforms, an obsession with flogging and a hatred of silky and effeminate Jews. Well, I mean to say, have you seen Mel's movie?"
Anti-Semitic? "... if someone denies the Holocaust one day and makes a film accusing Jews of Christ-killing the next day, I have to say that if he's not anti-Jewish then he's certainly getting there.
Mel with his history of crude jokes about gay men and now his new Jesus movie? "A coward, a bully, a bigmouth, and a queer-basher. Yes, we have been here before. The word is fascism, in case you are wondering, and we don't have to sit through that movie again."
You will find the whole thing here:
Schlock, Yes; Awe, No; Fascism, Probably
I'll pass on this movie.
Mel Gibson can work out his own psychological problems without my nine dollars. And I've long felt - long before the Muslim fanatics took town the World Trade Center - that religion was nothing but trouble in this world. I try to avoid it.