Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 26, 2004 4:53 pm 
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See see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! (And that’s all we see)

The Passion of the Christ is a Jesus movie for our time -- a historical moment when violence-overkill and special effects in American movies triumph over reason and sense. It’s also a movie that shows us nothing but the narrow way in which Mel Gibson sees the Passion: as a sadomasochistic orgy with hardly any of the divinity and transcendent wisdom surrounding the Savior.

Braveheart had the same kind of gore. But this time the gore is all focused relentlessly on Jesus. The movie consists of little more than two hours of horrific physical torture. We see Jesus caught, beaten, knocked down in the Garden of Gethsemane; from then on subjected to every sort of painful battering until the last few minutes. There is no ascension or redemption, only a quick escape from the sepulcher. All focus is on Christ's physical suffering and little else. From the first few moments his right eye remains purple and swollen three quarters shut. He is brutally dragged before the rabbins of the Temple and reviled and beaten again and spat upon and questioned and taken to the Roman Consul to be put to death.

In Gibson’s dubious version of the events a kindly Pontius Pilate refuses to have Jesus crucified but agrees to have him scourged, whipped and beaten by huge, gleefully sadistic brutes using first stiff whips, then whips with clusters of small rocks and sharp glass shards at the end of them that tear his skin. It’s doubtful that any movie whipping scene has ever been as lengthy and unbearable to watch as this one. Christ endures with extraordinary fortitude but his body is crisscrossed everywhere with lines of bloody red welts. At this point the makeup artists take over and Jim Cazievel, the actor heroically enduring the ordeal assigned to him as Jesus, becomes little more than a manly carcass assigned to croak out a few words every ten minutes or so. The task is beyond any makeup artists, though. So much blood over a body inevitably begins to look like splashes of red paint, especially since it's too evenly applied. Up close the artificial welts look like barbecue sauce.

Much of our attention must go to the brutes with the whips. This movie, which has been so extensively pre-hyped as controversial, is always seen as all about Mel Gibson. And certainly it is his vanity project. But if you look at the credits, this is an Italian production: Cinecittà stuff. The “Roman” centurions and gleeful sadistic torture heavies and zealously cruel crucifiers who – appropriately considering their nationality – speak classical Latin, really are "Romans": they're just cheesy Italian bit players. And the mise-en-scène is actually inferior to that of Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione’s 1979 Caligula, which in some ways it resembles – without the sex.

Mel Gibson’s Passion sets its tone by beginning like a badly edited horror movie. Relentless and unsubtle, misjudging its pacing, the first scene depicts Gethsemane as a misty Transylvanian moor where Christ and his disciples clash with the Jewish police amid incomprehensible slo-mo and oppressively loud mood music. What’s happening here? Throughout its relentless length the movie avoids any context for the onscreen action other than a few poorly crafted little flashbacks of Jesus’ earlier life. The disciples aren’t well identified or differentiated except for Judas, and even he looks a bit like Jesus. Right away there’s an androgynous Gollum-like Satan spouting snakes and carrying a monstrous, hairy offspring: he/she’s one of a number of grotesque, unbiblical interpolations that offset any claim of “authenticity.”

Where are we? Well, Gibson reversed his audience-be-damned original plan and did provide subtitles for the soundtrack's mixture of Aramaic and Latin (and perhaps Hebrew? Authorities differ). But these languages aren’t historically accurate. The Latin isn’t likely to be of the sort anybody spoke at the time, and the Romans probably used Greek at this outpost of the empire anyway. That Jesus spoke Aramaic is hypothetical. Pilate seems to speak excellent Aramaic too. Or is it Hebrew? Anyway, the mixture of inauthentic tongues resembles History Channel dramatizations of ancient Egyptian life in which dubbed doctored sounds are mixed with some actors’ own voices spouting various unrelated dialects of Arabic to give an ersatz “authentic” feel to the soundtrack. The Gibson solution may be an improvement over the portentous English mouthed by British- and American-accented actors in the old Hollywood Bible spectaculars, but that’s debatable. It’s more accurate just to say the effect is weird.

So the movie was set up by Mel Gibson, but its look and sound owe a lot to Felliniesque Cinecittà production and the taste and methods of The History Channel. The costume epic style is upgraded or updated a bit due to Mel’s deep pockets but as suggested earlier, it’s never as fresh or aesthetically appealing as Caligula was. And Caligula basically was high-grade trash.

Although there’s little in the Gospels to suggest Christ exhibited superhuman physical powers in his final sufferings, by the time we get to the Via Dolorosa it’s plain that in order to pump up the level of violence as much as he wants Gibson has to make this Passion into an endurance event for the six-foot-two Cazievel. The sadistic punishments he undergoes are so overdone in the movie that it’s hard to believe he’d make it to Golgotha alive, or that he could have carried the massive cross, even with a guy assigned to help him, as it’s shown here. Covered all over with the tapestry of fake welts and blood, he keeps falling down over and over – always in that kindly yet oppressive slo-mo; but still he gets up and shoulders the heavy-duty cross, made of wood that looks like pressure-treated railroad ties, which would make it very heavy indeed. But before that it was already impossible to believe that he could have been beaten repeatedly, nearly flayed alive, then strung up all night in chains with a crown of long thorns digging into his head and still have been able to stand ramrod-straight (covered in red welts and dripping all over with blood) while Pilate and Caiaphas have a lengthy discussion of what to do with him now.

The rabbins throughout these early sequences certainly look like a chorus of greasy, nattering clones bent on sadistic revenge for reasons that are never clear; while, for a change, Pontius Pilate is a calm, moderate gentleman with a liberal, crypto-Christian wife. The kind way Pilate is treated and the lack of context for the Jewish priests' actions do therefore certainly create an effect of anti-Semitism, as has been charged. But the issue of anti-Semitism is a red herring, in a way, because nobody gets well represented here, least of all Jesus himself. Everyone needs to protest against Mel Gibson's version of Christianity – if you can even find one here: the greatest offense to religion is that the approach to the Passion is so numbingly physical that the spiritual, not to mention doctrinal, aspect of the life of Jesus -- all that you'd have thought was most important about this story -- is totally lost.

On some fundamentalist/mystical level this Passion may work, but as cinema it’s a total disaster. The hype is drawing in naïve audiences for the nonce (the movie just opened yesterday nationwide) but this reductionist version of Christianity really deserves to be forgotten, and the sooner the better; a shame because some of the acting, particularly Cazievel’s, is fine within the limitations the movie imposes, and the cinematography has its moments.

Earlier American versions of the life of Christ were saccharine and Hollywood-y. But the one that shows what can be achieved without excessive cash flow and tunnel vision is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s eccentric, movingly pure 1965 Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, US release 1966). Suffering needs no gaudy Technicolor gloss. Divinity needs breathing space, and is not to be conveyed with fake blood sprayed as in a slasher movie. Mel Gibson is one sick mega-rich movie dude. And he’s made Christianity seem more than ever a religion of violence.

Chris Knipp

Is the movie fomenting hatred? A comment by Steve Weissman of Truthout:

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