• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, November 30, 2007

    The Passion Without Subtitles

    In preparation for yesterday's podcast on The Passion of the Christ I watched the film again. Although I've watched many bits and pieces of the film recently, I think this was actually the first time that I'd watched it all the way through since it came out on DVD.

    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.



    • At 1:09 pm, December 02, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      The levitating cross is rarely discussed, but it is talked about in the Definitive Edition commentary. I absolutely hate it. I had originally thought it was just an error, that the wide shot showing whatever rocks were holding up the ends of the cross was accidentally left out or something. The whole mess of turning the cross over is ridiculous in the first place, but in the commentary, I discovered why the cross floats. It's a miracle.

      Apparently it's based on another of Anne Catherine Emmerich's visions where Jesus is miraculously spared as the cross is flipped over. What a crock! He's fallen on his face and been beaten and crushed how many times so far? And for some reason, God decides to save him from this one thing? It makes no sense.

      Secondly, this film is about Jesus' suffering and his submission to pain and torture. It is his suffering that bears our sins. Why, then, would he be spared any pain? It's against the film's message - the message that he was not spared, that he was not cut any slack or given a peaceful death, that he suffered immensely. It totally contradicts the whole point of the picture.

      But then the crucifixion scene is full of problems. I won't go into them here, but as much as I am utterly pleased that such a violent death of Christ finally exists on film, this sequence just annoys the life out of me at times.

      Glad you got to see the non-subtitled version. I'm so glad there are subtitles in the finished film! But I believe the decision to add subtitles was made in pre-production, so much of what is lost in the current subtitle-free version may not have been put in or emphasized quite as much had the subtitles not been planned. Great podcast too, by the way! Really excellent!

    • At 8:20 am, December 03, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Yeah, I'd heard that the levitating cross was down to Emmerich (as with most, but not all, of the film's additions to the texts).

      I'm intrigued to know what the various problems you have with the crucifixion scene are. I have a few myself...


    • At 11:21 am, December 03, 2007, Blogger Melissa Neece said…

      Well, I'd be glad to tell you. Should I post them here or send you an e-mail?

    • At 11:23 am, December 03, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • At 11:29 am, December 03, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Oops! Sorry, I didn't realize my wife was logged in! I reiterate, then: Should I post them here (as myself) or e-mail them to you?

    • At 1:57 pm, December 03, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…

      It'd be good to post them here, then others can read / discuss / add their own thoughts. If that is OK of course.


    • At 9:03 pm, December 04, 2007, Blogger Unknown said…


      Have to correct you: the levitating cross is taken from Mary of Agreda not from Emmerich. And about the miracle, in the book Inside the Passion by Fr Bartunek, he writes that the miracle was not for Jesus' sake but for Mary Magdalene's because she was losing her faith and hope and after seeing the miracle (which is only witnessed by her) her hope and faith return and though she still suffers she has hope!

      God Bless

    • At 5:25 am, December 05, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Oh, yeah! You're totally right. Thanks for correcting my attribution, there. Yeah, I realize the whole thing about the miracle being for Mary's benefit. That's in the commentary as well. But, to me, it's not in the film.

      I had seen the film five times before I had any clue what was going on in the scene. And that was only because, on my sixth viewing, I watched it with commentary, which finally cleared up the mystery.

      Even with that explanation, I still don't see the point. It seems to me like a frivolous little invention that serves no purpose. Everyone - including Mary - thought the cross was the end for Jesus. So, what's the miracle for? To bolster her hope...for the moment?

      I don't know, it's a nice little story I guess, but as unclear as it was in the film what was happening or why, I see no reason for its inclusion in the film. And it still is contrary to the idea of Jesus' suffering being unrelenting. It still spares Jesus pain and that's still pointless.

      Actually, the only thing I like about 'The Passion Recut' is that it removes the floating cross. I don't know why it does exactly, except that I'd wager more people were confused by it than were inspired.

      Anyway, thanks again for the correction. I'm glad some people can enjoy that moment. It's not for me, though.

    • At 5:29 am, December 05, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • At 12:00 pm, December 05, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Okay, Matt. You asked for it. Here (at some length) are my problems with the crucifixion in 'The Passion of the Christ.'

      1. The cross. It looks great. Man, it looks awesome. Like some great, gnarled masterpiece of carpentry. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it's too perfect. But the main thing is the shape. It's not clear that this form was not used, but the T-shaped version is perhaps more likely, or at least is more closely reflected by archeology. That's not a big issue with me. But it is a fair criticism.

      2. He carries the whole cross. Which, again, looks great, but is unlikely to be accurate. Again, not a huge problem.

      3. The thieves get the 'cheap' crosses. This happens all the time, even in 'Last Temptation.' Jesus is crucified on a religious symbol, while the other two guys are hung on trees or scrawny pieces of wood tacked together by the two idiots from 'Life of Brian'. ("He's de-de-de...deaf, sir.") I like 'Life of Brian.' Jesus gets the same cross as everyone else. ("Out the door, line on the left, one cross each.") Brilliant. I digress.

      4. Nails through the palms. Who doesn't catch this these days? It's like the one bit of Jesus scholarship everyone knows. I love the shot of the nail going in, which is rarely done and done very well here. I also love the shot of the nail about to go in. Man, so visceral. Great sound. But, most researchers don't think a crucified person could hang by their palms. Some say wrists, others say at the base of the hands between the wrists and the palms. But these days, almost no one depicts nails through the palms. Except traditionalist Catholics. Oh, yeah...

      5. A pre-drilled hole in the wood. This is a huge one for me. One of the biggest, along with those related to it. I heard this proposed during a Rosary meditation once and I thought it was utterly preposterous. Who would use a pre-drilled hole for this? Firstly, nailing into an existing hole will never get you a strong hold the way nailing into fresh wood will. Try it. Pound in a nail, then pull it out. Then nail it in again. It's not so hard the second time. That's because there's less tension on the nail. This means the nail also won't hold as well and is more likely to get pulled out. No one ho wants a nail to hold nails into a hole. So, that part doesn't make sense. Then, they pull his hand over the hole to nail it. But that won't work! Think of nailing a hand to a cross like nailing a piece of meat to wood. If you had a big piece of meat between your nail and a dot on the wood, how easily do you think the nail could precisely hit the dot? Chances are, you'd never make it. You can't see the dot! Just like the soldiers can't see their useless hole in the wood, let alone get a nail into it. It's so much easier to just nail the hand where it lies! Then you don't have to go...

      6. Pulling his arm out of socket to reach the hole! In an effort to get his hand over their useless hole they can't hit, the Roman soldiers pull his arm out of socket. Ouch. First, it's pointless because the hole is pointless. Secondly, a crucified person had to lift themselves up with their arms and legs to take a breath because crucifixion constricts the diaphragm. This is why the thieves' legs were broken - so they would suffocate and die more quickly because the Sabbath was starting. The point of crucifixion is suffering and a man with an arm out of socket won't last long. I doubt he would be able to breathe at all, which we know Jesus did. Thirdly, the arm is stretched as far as it can go straight along the crossbeam. This causes a...

      7. Continuity problem between the arm-pulling scene and the rest of the crucifixion. According to how tightly we was stretched, his arms should be straight out on either side along the crossbeam, which they are when the cross is flipped over. In the next shot after he is flipped face-up, though, his elbows are crooked fairly significantly. Then they're stretched a bit, but not as much, then bent again. Later, they're straight at the elbows, but bent at the shoulders! He might sag a little as time wore on because the nail hole might stretch, but the position literally changes back and forth from shot to shot. At any rate, if he could've been nailed with his arms slightly bent at the elbows or shoulders, they wouldn't have had to pull his arm out of socket. So, essentially, one stupid little nail hole has caused a whole mess of trouble. But that's not all.

      8. The footstool. Probably, this wasn't used. The best evidence we have points to something similar to the way the feet are nailed in 'Last Temptation' - with the legs turned sideways. Not a big deal, though. Many of the details we have about crucifixion are best guesses based on minimal evidence and there was no orthodoxy for how people were crucified. Though, I'll say it seems like it would be easier and less trouble to not deal with nailing at such an odd angle and simply do without the footstool.

      9. Flipping the cross over. It's just unnecessary. These crosses were short. If you wanted to bend the nails, you could do it as the cross was going up or immediately after it was raised. Just reach up and tap. Turning the cross over, if it's as heavy as it seems in the film, could kill the condemned, or at least crack some ribs. Especially if you walk on it, as the soldiers do. If Jesus' ribs had been broken, of course that would violate the prophecy that none of his bones would be broken. Which, if you accept the cross flipping, actually makes a weird sort of argument for...

      10. The floating cross. I've addressed this. You know I hate it. It's just that the whole cross is never shown, so it leaves a question in the mind as to what we're looking at. You could have some rock or other support at the top and bottom of the cross and the scene would look the same. If you're going to show a fictional miracle, at least be sure you've shown the audience what's happening.

      11. The cross is too tall. Italians are short, but not that short! Crosses were not but 8 or 9 feet long and were dropped into a 2 to 3 foot hole. That leaves about 6 to 7 feet of cross above ground. Jesus' cross goes at least five feet up before you get to his feet. That makes it some 10 feet over the ground, meaning the whole thing would be 12 to 13 feet! That's almost twice the actual size! Looks pretty, but isn't very accurate.

      12. Another small continuity issue. Mary kisses Jesus' feet. Man, so moving. Impossible to do standing up at a real crucifixion, but beautiful. Of course, I think this breaks Jewish law because a person on a cross is unclean, but hey - she's a mom. Anyway, she comes away with her lips thick with blood. Next shot, it's practically all gone. No biggie, it just bothers me!

      13. Does the raven peck the thief's eyes out or what? He looks to have swallowed at least one eye. His beak's all juicy. But later, as far as I can tell, the thief still has both eyes! It's another miracle! Wait, maybe it's just another continuity error. In the re-cut version, this scene makes even less sense. I hoped someone would mention it in the commentary. One guy starts to tell a story about the bird, but then he's interrupted and doesn't get back to it before the end. I doubt he would have shed any light. Anyway, birds are known to have pecked out the eyes of the crucified, but usually after they had died. "Then dogs come and rip off your feet..." - 'Last Temptation'

      14. The earthquake splits the temple in two. The temple veil, yes. But the whole temple? It looks physically impossible anyway, like a set or model made to crack open, too. Plus, I don't think there's any record of this. Am I forgetting something? If anything in the movie seems anti-Semitic, this might be it. But, as I've said, it would seem more like a statement against clergy and religious institutions, not all Jews. Still, when Ciaphas is all disheveled and crying and burns his hand on a brazier, you've got to feel sorry for the guy. Anyway, I don't think this actually happened.

      15. The spear. Looks like a fake body and a very iconic but unrealistic spray of blood and water. Though this film does serve as an interesting experiment of recreating Catholic iconography in a realistic setting.

      16. Taking him down. The point of using the sheet is so you don't touch the body. Everyone touches the body. The body is unclean. This violates Jewish law.

      17. Pieta. Mary touches Jesus all over. Kisses him. Totally against Jewish law, but again - she's a mom. Usually in a Pieta, though, the sheet is well draped so she doesn't touch him.

      And I guess that's about it. Just couldn't hit 20. Drat! ;) All that said, I love this picture. I pick on every single Jesus movie. Especially crucifixions. It's just what I do. Okay, discuss away!

      And Matt, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the scene as well. Got any nitpicks?

    • At 1:31 pm, December 05, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi JoAnne,

      Thanks for your comment - hadn't heard that before about Mary, but it explains why the focus of that shot is Mary, rather than Jesus.

      Kevin, I'm pushed for time today so I'll have to comeback to your list of objections some other time.


    • At 9:15 am, December 08, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • At 9:17 am, December 08, 2007, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Yeah, no kidding. I wrote a book. :) Sorry about that...

    • At 8:11 am, July 17, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Sorry not to have come back to this sooner Kevin, I guess I agree with most of those, there's a fair few I've not spotted, particularly some of the continuity issues. I don't have a problem with the way Mary acts though. I think if your son has just died it's at least possible that the rule book would go out of the window. It may not, but it's at least feasible.

    • At 1:36 pm, July 17, 2008, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Yes, totally agreed. It is possible. I was just being very picky. ;) It's a ridiculously long post, so I can imagine it takes some time to get around to if one ever does. I tried to warn you. Thanks for your thoughts.


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