Remembering that, prior to the film's release, Gibson wanted to release it without subtitles (before church leaders apparently convinced him otherwise) I've long thought it would be interesting to watch the film in this way.1 Would it be able to "transcend the language barriers with... visual storytelling"?2
So I did it, and I think the answer to Gibson's question is that it depends on how well you know the story. I know the story very well, in fact I even know his version of the story very well, so I certainly had a good general idea about what was going on. But I was also aware that there was greater depth in the dialogue that I was missing out on. Indeed for anyone who was totally unfamiliar with the story the question may well arise as to why this prisoner is of particular significance. Sure he's treated brutally, but if he's ultimately going to die what makes this story special?What was good about the exercise was that it did enable me to watch the visuals more closely instead of trying to quickly read the words as soon as they flashed up and then have a look around. It enables you to enjoy the lighting, the atmosphere, the detail and the camera angles a great deal more. In other words it brings out the film's strengths.
At the same time, however, it also highlighted some of the film's weaknesses. In particular the frequent use of slow motion soon became tedious. It takes you right out of the moment and reminds you that this is only a film. "Look here's another camera effect", and so on.
The other thing that removing the subtitles did was enable me to focus more on the languages. I did a year of Latin at school (and hated it. How many 12 year old boys wouldn't?) so I'm vaguely familiar with that, but know nothing of Aramaic other than "Eloi, Eloi lama sabbacthani". Without the words being translated through subtitles the differences between how the two languages sound was much more apparent. Of course, many have pointed out that it's likely that conversations between the Romans and the Jews would have taken place in Greek, which would have changed things somewhat, but it was still interesting to be able to tell which language was being spoken when.Three further observations: firstly I don't recall noticing before that the shot of Satan screaming after Jesus dies takes place on the top of Golgotha. In fact this is the same camera angle (the God shot) and camera movement (pan back / zoom out) that we see when Jesus dies, only now none of the human characters are on the set, and everything is shot using a red filter. This also suggests that this is God's view on things.
Secondly, I was involved in a conversation a while back at Arts and Faith about the way the cross seems to levitate when the Roman soldiers turn it over to hammer the end of the nail round. I'd missed this on my initial viewings, but in watching again this week it was clear that the cross does indeed appear to levitate. Not only does it not slam into the ground (and this, remember, is a film where everything slams relentlessly into everything else all of the time) but also when the cross first begins to be tipped Mary Magdalene looks horrified, but then her reaction changes to a mix of relief and confusion. It's a strange moment in the film, and not one that is often discussed.
Finally, Peter's denial occurs in the actual room where Jesus is tried and amongst a frenzied crowd. This serves to make his fear at this point a little more understandable.
1 - "Mel Gibson's Passion", Holly McClure - New York Daily News, January 26, 2003 - Now available at crosswalk.
2 - "Mel Gibson's Passion", Holly McClure - New York Daily News, January 26, 2003 - Now available at crosswalk.
Labels: Passion of the Christ