If you believe everything you’ve been told about this film then you’re probably expecting the most realistic, anti-Semitic film to ever usher in a major revival. So it’s probably best to lay aside those brain cells assigned to the task of remembering all the pre-release discussion and concentrate on the film itself.
And it is an unusual one. A smash hit filmed in two almost dead languages. The resurrection of a genre in a generation far more cynical than that which killed it. A violent film about love. Victory through death. This web of apparent contradictions seems appropriate for a film about the ultimate paradox -–Jesus – God in human form.
That this was a labour of love for Mel Gibson is well known. Most people seem greatly impressed that he spent his own money to finance it. However, what I personally find a far greater testimony to his devotion to the project is the way that he spent that money. 40 years ago George Stevens also spent $25 million making The Greatest Story Ever Told. This was an astronomical amount in those days, but it doesn’t look even half as good as The Passion (although it was twice as long!). It’s the care that Gibson has taken that speaks loudest; lavish sets painstakingly detailed make-up, detailed costumes. Jerusalem just feels real, in a way that the campy sixties biblical epics just don’t touch. Furthermore, hardly a camera shot goes by which doesn’t seem to have undergone an awful lot of consideration, and reconsideration, until it is just right.
Sadly, most of these highs seem to have been missed by many of the reviews. Instead praise in the Christian press has focused on two areas – its power to move people and its realism and historical accuracy. Personally I wasn’t greatly moved. Partly I guess that whereas many people have hardly ever seen a film about Jesus, I have seen 20-30 and have undergone many times what a lot of people are experiencing for the first time - being moved by a Jesus film. Perhaps more significantly I never really accepted that this was Jesus. There is so little time to get acquainted with Caviezel’s Jesus and thus connect with him before he begins his ordeal. Additionally, whilst the use of Aramaic was academically interesting I found it emotionally distancing (despite having watched many foreign films).
I also found the violence and uneven historicity took me out of the film. Some of this was to enable the film look more like Caravaggio’s paintings, but this left the much trumpeted realism resting almost solely on the amount of violence and blood. Whilst I admire the leap away from the sanitised crucifixions of Jesus of Nazareth and King of Kings (where actor Jeffrey Hunter had to shave his armpits!), Gibson seems to have leaped so far that he flies over the end of the sand pit altogether and crashes into an advertising hoarding. Its one thing to dwell on the violence, but another to import additional acts of violence so more dwelling can be achieved. Scenes such as those where Jesus is thrown over a bridge, or a crow pecks out the bad thief’s eyes can be defended as artistic license. However, artistic license is essentially the outworking of the director’s mind, how he views the person / story concerned. Here, nearly all of the insertions are extra violence, extra torture, extra blood – Mel clearly has issues. In places this compromises the plausibility of the story itself. The Romans were brutal, but they were also disciplined. They wouldn’t have needed to be told a third time to calm down. A Pilate as weak as this one would never have lasted in ruthless Roman society. Perhaps most telling is that the film spends longer on the road to Golgotha than on the time spent on the cross itself. The actual crucifixion was far longer in reality, but passes quickly here. It’s almost as if once Jesus is on the cross Gibson can’t do anything more to him, and so moves on.
Such quibbles should not detract too greatly from the overall quality of the film. The performances are uniformly excellent. The most poignant moments for me came from looking at Mary’s reactions, not Jesus. The colours and textures in the film are beautiful, but restrained, and there is some great camera work. Gibson pulls all the tricks out of the bag in this respect. There are shots from high above, and shots from the ground, points of view and upside down angles. Long ponderous takes are mixed with fast disorientating sequences. There are a few too many slow motion shots; perhaps the teardrop seemed a bit too sentimental and the earthquake too DeMille, but mostly these devices work well. It took me a while to decide that I liked the horror-esque techniques in a seemingly straight historical drama, but on reflection they capture the strangeness of that unique day when the "hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered".
There is much to applaud Gibson for. The Passion of the Christ is a Jesus film which manages to give Jesus Gravitas without detracting from his humanity. In fact of all of the films that I’ve seen this one best captures Jesus’ dual nature – divinity & humanity. This is a Jesus that I could follow, and after decades of Robert Powell’s blue eyes, Jeffrey Hunter’s monotone, Willem Dafoe’s instability and Bruce Marchiano’s cheesy grin that is a major achievement.
Will it fan the flames of another round of anti-Semitic pogroms? Probably not. Will it be the key to opening the floodgates of a major revival? Fairly unlikely I imagine. Will it give a generation a Jesus they can relate to and some understanding of what he did for them? Possibly. And for a film about Christ, that is probably the highest single piece of praise you can give.
Labels: Passion of the Christ