Review

I got to the theater expecting a crowd, but there was no line at all.
Well, no way was I going to watch a crucifixion if I couldn't be part of a crowd.

~ Tom Moore

The Passion of the Christ
A Motion Picture by Melvin Gibson

3/10/04

After reading a couple of reviews I quickly concluded that going to see this movie was out of the question. I've seen Mel Gibson's work. He specializes in great, rousing bloodbaths, savage disembowelments and expositions of over-the-top machismo prevailing over unimaginable mutilation and pain. Entertaining stuff if you're in the mood for it. But come on. Jesus?

It is one of those films that you have to decide about for yourself, because if you go looking to other peoples' opinions you aren't going to find a consensus. My Baptist friend Doug won't see it because it is Catholic. My atheist friend Mykl won't see it because it is Christian. Our Human Resources Generalist Amy, who puts down paper towels in the lunchroom so she won't get germs on her elbows, thought it was very powerful. David Derby of the New Yorker said it was a sickening death trip, and Mark Morford called it a radicalized, masochistic, blood soaked view of religious redemption. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops said it was a deeply personal work of devotional art. The Jerusalem Post said the film was virulently antisemitic and should be destroyed. Fadda Joe and Charlie Clark saw it last week, after lunch. Fadda Joe opined that the movie did not blame the Jews, although the high priests, or rather the actors who played them, did, under the direction of Mel Gibson, utter the words: "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children," spoken in Aramaic
but not included in the subtitles (hoping, I guess, that most modern Jews would not know any Aramaic and would not catch it). As for the reportedly stomach-wrenching level of violence, he guessed that any movie needed to be pretty bloody to get the attention of American audiences. The Seattle Post Intelligencer said it was ghoulish. The Toronto Globe and the Chicago Reader said it was pornographic.

I'll probably have to see it eventually, but so far it hasn't been something I've been willing to do. I had time to see it yesterday, but deferred in favor of going home for a glass of milk. I guess I'm just not in a slo-mo flaying frame of mind. It would be worth the experience if I could sit facing the audience. Watching them watch the movie might be scarier than the movie.

So, this will be my review. I will come to it with no less baggage than the above moviegoers/abstainers, including the following preliminary questions:

1. Does the movie acknowledge that thousands of mostly innocent men, women and children, all lacking the advantage of a God's-eye view of any kind, have been crucified, garroted, burnt alive and fed to wild beasts by their fellow campers? I am prepared to be unimpressed by the notion that the Passion of Christ was uniquely horrific, or that the truth of the Christian assertion is guaranteed by this instance of unimaginable suffering. We do this to each other all the time. It is not just Messiahs we kill. We are equal opportunity crucifiers. It's our way of saying howdy.

2. Does the movie give a sense that God, having found the means to incarnate Himself and inspect His own creation, having "come among His own who knew Him not," takes any responsibility for the grotesque mutants His children have become? Wouldn't you think this would be like designing a car, manufacturing several million of them and then taking it out for a test drive and finding out it isn't designed very well after all? Do we feel that Christ intends, after the resurrection, to recommend engineering changes? And why, after 2000 years, have we not seen any? We are still a lemon. Year after year, this same knee-jerk brutality problem, from Jerusalem to Jasper, every time we let out the clutch.

3. Or are we made in the image of God, not so much products as progeny? Is it Mel's view that we believe in tormenting our enemies and exacting blood debts and all of that because God's head is full of the same nonsense as ours? If there is no nonsense in the Mind of God, then what is this cosmic need for making the divine Logos into meat and then tearing the meat to bloody shreds to accomplish a redemption that could just as easily be done with a Hallmark card? A simple phone call? Why is there this space, in the vicinity of sacrificial altars, where men and their savage Gods speak a common language?

4. What is going to be the point of Mel's excruciating passion play? That this is a terrible way to treat a visiting God? Or is his idea more sublime, more philosophical? Is it the story of an avatar of the Spirit, the descent of the Logos which speaks the creation and then enters into what it has spoken, becomes a man, reaching his fingers of light into fleshy gloves and bruising his divine shins against the coffee tables of the material world, submitting to limitation, servitude, forgetfulness, torment, darkness and death while never ceasing to be a pure ray of spirit, and thereby demonstrating to onlookers that souls are intelligible and imperishable and that no matter how dismal things get or how creepy they appear, we resurrect and ascend and are gathered back, intact and victorious? Does Mel's Christ have anything to say about that? Does he come back to life at the end of the movie? Is there any kind of reality against which the carnage is balanced, or given meaning beyond itself?

5. Is man now redeemed in both historical directions, or only in the New Testament era? Why has this redemption not changed our behavior? Mel's Christ falls, say the reviews, and encounters Mary on the Via Dolorosa. "See mother," he says."I make all things new." But Mary is an earthling like us, and could not have seen the things to which he refers. We who enjoy a 2000 year retrospective view at least know it wasn't human history he was talking about, unless the novelty consists of the gradual phasing out of flayings and crucifixions and coliseums in favor of inquisitions, world wars, death camps, carpet bombings, napalm and radiation sickness, to tic off just a few of the Christian contributions.

6. Is it snuff porn? Mel has a tendency to depict his heros as tough guys enduring gruesome torments. There is something psychologically askew in the presentation or witness of this kind of thing more than once. Public lynchings were very popular Sunday morning events in Missouri, just as crucifixions and gladiatorial spectacles were popular in Rome. Today we watch televised wars and simulated brutality, all absolved of voyeurism and prurience by the claim that they embody some higher purpose or salutary lesson. But they are still pornography.

Enough people crowded the theaters the first weekend to generate $76 million in ticket sales. Did that many people attend churches or bible classes that weekend? Did they spend another $76 million on Christian charities or theology books to elucidate their faith? And yet you have this vast horde of moviegoers showing up to munch popcorn and watch a simulated Jesus Christ get the holy shit beat out of Himself for two gore-splattered hours, and they are claiming that they are there for the religious edification of it all. I don't believe it.


3/12/04

OK, I saw it.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" remains the worst Jesus movie ever made, but this one comes in a close second. No matter how you look at it, it is just awful. It isn't even worth spending time on a bad review, but here goes anyhow:

The above questions presuppose that the film has enough depth to have considered the various ways we might interpret or imagine the incarnation. It doesn't. We are not even sure, in all the scrupulous "this worldliness", that there has been an incarnation. Nothing save a few cheesy special effects indicates that we are looking at more than a good-looking bloke who has convinced himself (and to some extent, his mother) that he is the Messiah, and who is willing to tough out the crucifixion to make his point. He lives in a world filled exclusively with noisy, stupid, brutish people, ugly, evil Jews to be sure, but also ugly, evil Italians, ugly, evil children, kings, etc. If there had been Swedes they would have been ugly and evil. Except for the obligatory flowerlike maidens who have somehow remained uncorrupted by their ghastly surroundings, the human race is a pretty vicious and motley bunch. Mel is very angry at the Jews, but he's angry at everybody else too. The film does not explain why anybody would wish to save such a pack of demented hyenas as mankind-according-to-Gibson.

There is a net loss of horror at the sadistic punishments of the ancient world that might not have been intended in this depiction. Within the first five minutes Christ has been flogged into unrecognizable shreds and the audience is likewise hammered into numbness, so it doesn't get any worse from there. Or any better, or any different. The story mercifully brings everyone to a state of shock and then moves inexorably into a tedious sequence of Caravaggiesque visual cliches and the usual gospel moments - Pilate washing his hands - ecce homo - Veronica's veil - connected like rosary beads one after another until they have all been included. We are relieved to see him finally up on the cross and getting some rest. By the time the poor guy finally dies even his mother seems convinced that he was deluded. I think if I were Gibson I would have put in some kind of spiritual counterpoint, if only to relieve the monotony. Removing everything religious from what is essentially a religious story leaves nothing but the pedestrian tale of a guy getting horribly killed. It is redemption by machismo, a cinematic mindset that can not move the viewer except by making him wince. The last ten minutes of Braveheart, dragged out into an excruciating stand-alone epic.

It is not, I don't think, pornographic in intent, although it is psychologically disconnected and fetishistic. Someone said it is less about inflicting pain than about receiving it, and I agree with that. However I can't see that the unique ordeal of offering yourself up as a biblical blood sacrifice is something that is any of our business. Watching the intimate trials of a divine holocaust victim has not added anything to my understanding of such events.

Like the gospels, Mel tacks on a perfunctory resurrection of sorts. All the wounds except the hand holes have healed up over the weekend, and so Jesus moseys on out of the tomb to find himself some clean clothes and a stiff drink. He doesn't look relieved or transfigured in any way. Everybody in this film looks pretty grim all the way through, actually.

In terms of whether the experience was worth the five bucks, I'd have to say that I would pay another five bucks to unsee this movie. It makes me feel dirty and depressed. I will use it to underscore my side of an ongoing debate with Fadda Joe about transcendence. He thinks it is possible to have a viable religion without going beyond the conventional, material world. Only if God makes Himself into the Christ and steps into our world of space and history can we have any contact with Him, or the slightest report of His ineffable ways. But observe - the minute God makes Himself into flesh He becomes as uninteresting as the rest of us. We are not looking for visitors from Heaven. We are looking for the exit, our own bodies of light. We are like Pilate, who uttered the only sentiment I could wholeheartedly affirm: "The real problem is being stuck in this stinking outpost and dealing with this filthy rabble."

If I were making this movie I would have omitted the last hour and 55 minutes and introduced a gang of bald-headed post-apocalyptic sado-bikers who spend the next 2000 years fighting to the death over the last of the gasoline.


Postscript: After three weeks at the top of the box office charts, renewing the faith of countless Americans, The Passion has finally been usurped by
Dawn of the Dead, a remake of another resurrection movie featuring a large number of transformed humans who come back from the grave to interact with the living and eat their skin.

*****