Passion of the Christ, the - Passion
| Upon viewing one of the most controversial film of the past few years, I decided that the only way I could fairly discuss it is to get past the hysteria and hype and treat it as what it is; a film. Therefore, I wonít address the charges of anti-Semitism, which would be surprisingly easy to disprove. I wonít address the issue of historical accuracy, which is as irrelevant as it is impossible. Finally, I wonít address the issue of scriptural precision because that is an issue of personal faith. Each of these topics can be more appropriately debated in another medium. I will put aside my own religious and political differences with Mel Gibson in an attempt to discuss the power of this piece as film, as entertainment and as art.
The first hurdle I had was to realize that The Passion of the Christ isnít the film that I would or would not make about the story of Jesus. This is the film that a literalist Christian made about a subject that has a great deal of meaning to him. Just as other film makers have made highly personal films that mix fictional and historic events, like Polanskiís The Pianist, Gibson has told a story for our enjoyment and reflection. That is the context in which I will discuss this film.
In accordance with its name, The Passion maintains a very specific focus; the sacrifice of Jesusí suffering to redeem the sins of humanity. It is the cornerstone of Gibsonís faith and therefore it is an idea of personal paramount importance and worthy of his intense examination and reflection. Gibson sticks very close to this, never wandering far from the experience of the persecution and crucifixion. This isnít the story of Jesusí life or an assessment of his teachings. It is one manís rumination on what he sees as the significant historical and spiritual moment. Therefore the film is intricate, intense, and nurtured. Nothing is rushed or neglected.
In the wake of this, Gibson surprisingly indulges himself sparingly, keeping most of the imagery restrained. This is all the more shocking due to the fact there is no evidence of delicacy in Gibsonís previous work. His images of the personification of evil are subtle. He only periodically lashes out with Lynch-like grotesques to remarkably horrifying effect. He also keeps grand spectacle in check, using it only to punctuate his story. When he does indulge in dramatics, it is lovingly rendered to be poetic. However, most often he remains intimate with how his characters interact as if we are privy to their private moments. His restraint maintains the focus on the ďPassionĒ of the title and this is the one area where he doesnít hold back.
The violence in this movie is like nothing we have seen before. This has been an area of great debate and discussion over the appropriateness of it all. However, to complain about the violence in this piece is to miss the very essence of the film. The violence in this movie is extreme because the protagonistís sacrifice is extreme. To pass over the horror that is crucifixion is to downplay the significance of the sacrifice. From the point of view of the faithful, the endurance must be worthy of washing away the sins of the entire world. Nothing short of the worst horror imaginable would do.
Gibsonís vision of this is excruciatingly beautiful. He juxtaposes the worldly brutality of Jesusí persecutors with flashbacks to the gracious love he brought to the world. These solitudes are understood in opposition to each other, the one being more powerful due to the other. For Gibson, Jesusí love was limitless and therefore his suffering had to be as well. As the redeemed, the audience must understand just what was endured.
Gibson surprised me with the subtext behind his story. The Passion of the Christ is not about blame despite the fact that most of the hype around the movie is. Instead, the film says we are all responsible for these events both because of our complicity in scapegoating and because of the redemption we benefit from as a result. This is clear from the way Gibson builds to the crucifixion and the way he illustrates each character.
This is another aspect of The Passion of the Christ that surprised me. The characterization of those around Jesus is remarkably complex. Despite the fact that Gibson spends little time away from his main subject, no community or individual is portrayed one dimensionally. Except for a few sadistic Roman soldiers, both those who make noble choices and those who donít are motivated by conflicting emotions. Their humanity is always maintained.
Maia Morgenstern stands out as Jesusí mother in a performance of beautiful complexity. Still, she isnít alone. The cast embody their roles, including Cavezial as Jesus himself. While Pilot is generously allowed to wash his hands of responsibility, his brutality towards the Jewish population he oversees is acknowledged. Even Caiphas, who some mistakenly refer to as the villain of the piece, is portrayed as a complex and conflicted character whose decisions are not easily reached or digested.
Gibson has obviously crafted The Passion of the Christ with a great deal of love but it seems that the mayhem of publicity overshadowed the beauty of this film in a manner similar to the reaction to Scorseseís The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1988, audiences divided themselves along political lines that had little to do with the actual film in question instead of appreciating that film makerís portrait of the humanity of Jesus. In 2004, an election year, we were no better at being able to listen to each other and Gibsonís story of the suffering of his God was lost in the cacophony of partisan rhetoric.
If one can get past that, The Passion of the Christ can work on many levels. Non-believers can recognize the metaphor of the persecution of those who challenge the status quo. Christians who read the bible as allegory can use the story as a vehicle for reflection on the nature of their faith. Biblical literalists can experience this as an expression of their most potent beliefs. Whatever way it is embraced, as long as it is embraced, it is an extremely uplifting parable about the very best of our humanity overcoming the very worst in us all and that is truly beautiful.