The Film: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
The Principles: Mel Gibson (writer/director), Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Belluci, Hristo Shopov, Mattia Sbragia, Wood
The Premise: The last twelve hours of the life of one Jesus Christ. Pretty sure you know how this plays out.
Is it any good? Not really. Now before I go into detail here, keep in mind that I am approaching this solely on its merits as a film and how successful I feel it is in its mission. I am not going to be attacking or defending the beliefs of Catholicism, discussing “historical accuracy,” nor am I going to discuss my own thoughts on religion.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
The film opens with a gothic, horror-esque portrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he has just learned his fate. The sense of dread and foreboding is established well here, as the dark and foggy garden could easily see Larry Talbot leaping out from behind a tree at any given moment. As Jesus is struggling with the news of his impending sacrifice, a pale, bald, hooded Rosalinda Celentano drifts into frame with a serpent to tempt him into denying his destiny. And just in case you were unsure if this androgynous, snake-carrying, demonic looking figure was Satan, Gibson decides to have a lone maggot drop out of its nose, because why the hell not?
Unfortunately this strange (though kind of cool) little detail is somewhat symptomatic of the film’s running problem: Gibson takes what would be effective scenes and inexplicably kicks them up about a hundred notches into unnecessarily extreme territory. Caleb Deschanel shot the film at a higher frame rate to create a sense of slow-motion in order to “give the scenes more weight and drama.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that if this had not been done, The Passion of the Christ’s runtime would likely drop from 125 minutes to around 60. The bird’s eye view of the blood-stained ground upon which Jesus was scourged is one among many striking shots throughout the movie, but then it slows down and spirals and slows down more and zooms out and holy crap okay Mel enough already. When Jesus is first brought before Caiaphas and the other high priests, we see Peter (Francesco De Vito) looking on from behind a column, devastated and saying everything we need to know with his face alone. Then he hops on over to another column, looks up and makes the same pained face.
Then another column.
And another column.
And I suddenly feel like I’m watching a Marx brothers bit.
John Debney’s score is suitably understated and very effective. The acting is consistently good across the board, though almost every character’s motivation consists of pain, sadness, and/or anger. Hristo Shopov is convincing in his portrayal of the conflicted Pontius Pilate. Caviezel not only does a great job selling the suffering and weight of his sacrifice, but also the heartfelt and sincere desire for the forgiveness of his enemies.
Which brings me to the violence.
It is nigh-impossible to discuss The Passion of the Christ without touching on this, the most notorious aspect of the film. I’m not really treading on unfamiliar ground when I say that Mel Gibson is slightly unhinged, and not in the fun, Martin Riggs watching Three Stooges with a prostitute kind of way. The man has been spewing out repugnant bile on and off for years now, directed at everyone from Jews to gays to whoever he is romantically linked to at a given moment. He can sing the “my words were taken out of context” song until the cows come home; there is no acceptable context on this planet for some of the vitriol that has come from his mouth. As hard as I may try to separate the work from the artist, there is something slightly unsettling to me about a film that consists of basically nothing but brutal, bloodthirsty violence made by a guy who has the hateful history that Gibson does. Though this is his baby and his alone, I can’t help but wonder what a movie about Jesus’ last hours would be like had it been done by a filmmaker with a few more crayolas in the crayon box.
It is, indeed, one of the most violent movies this horror-loving gorehound has ever seen, and the jokes about putting it under the torture-porn genre are not baseless (how many times have we seen the lingering shot of the various tools of suffering on the table during the torture scene?). Though Jesus Christ and his story are known to the vast majority of the world, Gibson takes this for granted in his decision to throw the audience into two hours of context-less graphic violence. This is where many of the film’s defenders will say “That’s the point! He only wants you to understand exactly what Jesus went through for you!” I get that. But relying solely on the visceral is the easy way out. It’s shock value, the equivalent of a two hour jump scare. Will it leave a large number of people affected as the credits roll? Probably, but it won’t do much more than that. Yes, realistically graphic violence does play a necessary role in telling this story, but unfortunately our society has little problem shrugging off even the most barbaric violence once a short bit of time has passed. If Gibson had decided to have a little less slow-motion, a little less repetition, a little less focus on pieces of flesh hitting people in the face, and more flashbacks that focus on what made this man so influential, rather than flashbacks that show him inventing tables (thanks Jordan), the depth and importance of his sacrifice would be much more fully-realized.
Is it worth a look? I have to say no, though this is one of those movies which you most likely know whether or not you’re going to see it no matter what a review says.
Random anecdotes: Gibson had the makeup department create a new type of fake blood to make the scourging wounds look as realistic as possible. He’s crazy.
The hands that actually nail Caviezel to the cross belong to none other than one Mel Colmcille Gerard Gibson. Did I mention he’s crazy?
When Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’ foot, guess whose foot it is?
He’s fucking crazy.
Cinematic soulmates: The Passion of Joan of Arc, The King of Kings, Hostel, Martyrs