Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Passion of the Christ (movie, **)

I saw The Passion with my Ginny and some friends, Jeff and Ashley. Going into the movie, we speculated that maybe the claims about how violent it is might be a little overblown. After all, it's a Christian movie, people probably don't expect much violence at all, so their perceptions are amplified a bit.

Having seen it, I can confirm: this is a very, very graphic movie. And I'm someone who really doesn't mind the occasional violent flick. This movie is practically a celebration of torture. I mean, it covers every detail of Jesus' wounds in loving slow motion. The most brutal scene is when Jesus gets scourged. As you may be aware, a scourge is like a cat o' nine tails with nice big spikes on the end. James Caviezel is turned into hamburger meat in this scene, over an excruciatingly long period of time. Or, as Ginny observed, his latex suit is turned into hamburger meat. But this is not some indie Christmas special done by your local Baptist chapter. This is a professional movie done by big time Hollywood talent, and the special effects are impressive, to put it kindly. Several people in the theater audibly gasped and moaned at the lashing. Me, I may have winced a few times.

In my opinion, if there is one overriding theme in Mel Gibson's Passion, it is "Yes, you'd better believe that this REALLY FUCKING HURTS." As Christ, Caviezel conveys one powerful overriding emotion, and that emotion is: "Ouch."

And on this level, the movie succeeds. I did my best to go into the Passion with an open mind, appreciating it as a dramatization of a famous work of fiction. And boy, does it work hard at being faithful to the book. Some people have criticized the Harry Potter movies for being slavishly devoted to the source material, just going down a checklist of scenes and making sure to include them all. That is definitely the philosophy here.

"Judas, here are your thirty pieces of silver."
"Ah, thank you for my thirty pieces of silver."
"Yes, your thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus."
"Yep, that's why I betrayed Jesus, to get my thirty pieces of silver."

Jesus getting scourged... check.
Crown of thorns... check.
Jewish mob spares the life of Barrabas rather than Jesus... check. (Or for you Monty Python fans out there: "I shall... welease... Wodewick!")
Jesus says "Forgive them for they know not what they do"... check.
Mean guards give thirsty Jesus a sponge full of vinegar... check.
"It is finished"... check.

Not that this is necessarily a criticism. Anything less than scene-for-scene perfection, and I would expect Mel to be crucified (haw haw) by hordes of angry apologists.

However, there's another problem. I believe the original story of Jesus' betrayal and execution takes up only a few dozen pages -- even taking into account that there are four different retellings. To fill a two hour movie, there's got to be a little foot dragging thrown in. There are, of course, a few flashbacks to earlier scenes. (Jesus washes disciples' feet... check. Sermon on the mount... check. And so on.) But even these don't come close to adequate time filler. There is also a little side story thrown in about the devil, who looks like either a very effeminate man or a very butch woman, keeping tabs on Jesus. I'm pretty sure this subplot is a deviation from the text, although the devil gets almost no speaking lines. But this too is quite short.

What I'm trying to say is that this is not a fast paced movie. Ginny was positively bored. Most of what I would consider filler is just more effort to convince you that Jesus is seriously in pain. There's only so many minutes when you can effectively watch the camera linger on a lash mark, or establish that the cross he's carrying while half dead is REALLY REALLY REALLY HEAVY. Like, even a perfectly healthy guy thinks it's quite impressively heavy.

So I agree that Mel and Jim both did fine jobs of conveying the impression of a guy in pain. Do I feel bad about how little I appreciate him for taking on my sins? Not really. Do I wish I could help him out? Yeah sure. I would take Jesus off that cross in a second, but I presume that wouldn't be a good idea because then all of humanity would have to suffer the eternity of torment we so richly deserve.

There is one bit of comic relief in the entire movie. Barrabas. I think we were the only people laughing, but I am pretty sure that scene was meant to be funny. When the crowd demands to let Barrabas off the hook because they hate Jesus, Barrabas grins and postures and struts around. Then the camera goes over to Jesus and his raw hamburger skin, and it's not as funny anymore. But the moment was there.

Okay, let's move on to the big controversy surrounding the movie: is it anti-semitic? Well, I'm a non-observant Jew, so my opinion is only semi-relevant. My opinion is that yes, it's kind of anti-semitic. There are some good Jews in the movie, to be sure. The guy who helps carry Jesus' cross is very deliberately identified as Jewish. ("Help him with that cross, Jew!") But every single character who is a powerful Jew, such as Caiaphas and a whole bunch of Jewish temple guys, are portrayed in the worst possible light. This is definitely the version where the Jews have the famous words put in their mouths: "His blood be on us, and on our children."

(Sidebar: According to some secondhand information -- see news story -- that line was actually spoken in the movie, but the translation from Aramaic was not included in the subtitles. Receiving flack from Jewish groups, Gibson claimed he took it out, but only removed the caption. Even if this line hadn't been in there, however, the intent was pretty clear)

By contrast, every character who is a powerful Roman, particularly Pontius Pilate, is portrayed as being flawed but basically decent. Pontius doesn't want to kill Jesus, but he has no choice because of the demands of bloodthirsty Jews. There are some extremely horrible Roman characters in the movie, especially the lashers who take an obscene amount of pride in their work, but as often as not they are reprimanded by superior officers who tell them to crank it down a notch.

So the lesson is: Romans neutral; Jews not necessarily bad; Judaism definitely bad. It's okay to be Jewish as long as you aren't involved in promoting the religious part. All clear?

Here's another angle that Jeff argued. Two of the really bad characters were gender ambiguous. The devil's got this whole "It's Pat!" dynamic going on where you can't really tell what s/he is. And Caiaphas wears eye makeup and froofy outfits, and kind of minces around. According to my friend, it's a very Catholic thing to imply that gender ambiguity is so very evil.

At the end of the movie, there was a conspicuous lack of applause, even though the last scene of the movie strongly indicates that Jesus' skin got all better and then he went on to save humanity. Interesting. I'm not sure whether a passion play should be an "upper" to a largely Christian audience, but the yuckiness of the images before the end obviously lingered. I suppose a few people may have cried at the end, but I didn't hear much of it.

On the whole, I would recommend seeing this movie only if you have a certain mindset, and with a whole bunch of caveats. Do not bring your kids: the R rating is there for a reason. Expect there to be some boring bits, actually lots of them. Don't watch if you're squeamish. On the whole, though, regardless of what your personal feelings about the Bible may be, it IS an enduring piece of literature and this IS a well produced facsimile. You can at least watch it in the spirit of having some Cliff Notes(TM) on the Bible if you don't want to read the whole thing.

By the way in case you wondered: Judas hangs himself. He does not throw himself off a cliff, so obviously that version is not divinely inspired. Glad the movie could clear that up for us.

Score: ** out of 5.