Friday, May 11, 2018

The Passion of the Christ [dir. Mel Gibson]

For the longest time (now almost 14 years after its initial release), I avoided watching The Passion of the Christ. A lot of it has to do with the word surrounding the film. "Torture porn", it was called in many quarters, "Anti-Semitic", others judged it. It didn't help that helmer Mel Gibson at various points of time after, rightfully earned a Crazy Mel badge. But after all this time, my misgivings gave way and I decided, mainly after a re-watch of his Apocalypto, that a film-maker of his calibre deserved at least a viewing. Also, with the Definitive Edition home video release in hand, even if I eventually disliked the film, it would not be for lack of context.

Passion is specifically about the final hours in the life of Jesus Christ, covering the period from his betrayal by Judas, his trial by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, subsequent torture and crucifixion. Along with calling it "the most violent film I have ever seen" critic Roger Ebert says in his cautious review of Passion, "...[it] is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of...This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it." A very accurate description of the film as it turns out. In that sense the film makes for an interesting pairing with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese's film confronts the internal battle he (and source book author Nikos Kazantzakis) imagines Christ faces, scared and emotionally fractured by the messages he perceives, doubting his own role as divine messenger and Son of God. As interpreted by that chameleon among actors Willem Dafoe, Jesus is heart-tuggingly human, and his eventual sacrifice the more weighty for that.

Jesus as presented by Gibson and actor Jim Caviezel is a different beast. As we see him in these last hours, he has no doubts about his role and his ultimate destiny. There is pain and suffering, but there are no second thoughts. Jesus performs miracles, insta-attaching a soldier's ear after Peter lops it off during a struggle in the Garden of Gesthemane. To offset any idea of a personal hallucination it is suggested that apart from him mother Mary also sees Satan (looking like, as critic Robert Wilonsky puts in his review "escapees from a David Lynch film"). This actually puts the character at a distance from us. We could better appreciate the enormity of Jesus' act of self-sacrifice, "of dying for our sins" if we were convinced that he felt the pain that any human being would, subject to those tortures. Here blood flows freely, and Jim's Jesus totters with convincing agony when flogged while carrying the cross, but there's the nagging feeling, "What if Jesus is just playing for an audience, what if he feels only a fraction of the pain an ordinary human being would? If he's not one of us, how can his suffering be measured in our scales?" While Gibson is to be appreciated for not following in Scorsese's trail, he is so quick to glorify Jesus and draw a halo around him (not so much in the gritty visuals as in the overly adulatory music score), that for any non-dyed-in-the-wool Christians he ends up making him more remote.

My problem is less with the torture sequences - they're done well, and the courage and dignity Jesus shows in the face of suffering indubitably elevates them above the quality of torture porn or snuff film. I was more jarred by cheap shots like Satan throwing a hissy fit after he is frustrated by Jesus or that last passing shot of a resurrected Christ, which felt like one of those post-credits spoiler hints in the Marvel superhero movies.

So that's my impression of the film per se. I will try to update this post with my gleanings from the contextual supplements provided in the home video package.

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