Friday, February 27, 2004

The Passion Of The Christ

You may remember my last opinion on this subject, which was rendered after reading a Salon.com article in which a liberal Episcopal bishop lamented the cultural insensitivity of the film -- which was so harsh it made him "want to vomit." My response at that time was, as I recall, STFU. People were debating a film they hadn't seen.

I've seen it now.

I can report that my strongest reaction to the whole film was a powerful, visceral disgust, but that disgust was entirely directed toward the nimrods that complain this movie is anti-Semitic in any way, shape or form. The reactionary Zionists and reactionary liberals who have been running around wringing their hands have set the B'nai Brith back a hundred years, because any reasonable person who sees this film concludes that the protests are completely unfounded.

Did I make that emphatic enough?




The most galling thing is the condescending attitude of the intelligentsia who have opposed it -- "you know," they say, "I understand that the film isn't saying we should blame the Jews, but I have a college degree in Communication Theory, and The Great Unwashed Rabble will get confused by all this." It's a great illustration of what so many people find ridiculous about the Ivory Tower.

Screw them. Screw all of them.

If anything, Gibson went out of his way to portray the plot against Jesus as the work of a small group of Jews, who worked at night, in defiance of the rest of the Jewish Council. Rabbis shouted in protest at the unfairness of the procedure: the timing, the attempt to hide from the rest of the council, the reliance on inconsistent witness testimony. For Pete's sake, he even added a scene that had no Biblical basis, in which this splinter group bribed a group of Jews to agitate for Christ's execution. And there was plenty of "context" for the theological issue, which is that Christ died for everyone and that everyone is to blame, not merely the Jews. The beginning scene in Gethsemane features Christ being tempted by Satan with the declaration that "No one man can bear the sins of the whole world..."

Now, on to an area where there is some room for disagreement.

1. I did not find the film to be "lacking context." It is true that the "problem" of the Passion story is that the main character does not have a character arc. Dude gets tortured, dude dies. But Gibson understands that the drama comes from the character arcs of the characters around Christ, and works well with that material. Gibson also added many flashbacks to give context and reasons for why Christ remained silent, why he had to be scourged as well as crucified, why the punishment was so over-the-top and public, and why the various groups did what they did.

2. The film is indeed very violent, but I thought the violence served a purpose. In that sense, it was far less offensive than "Bad Boys II." I did not find the violence to be gratuitous in any way, but there are some that would be turned off by this much violence even if it is historically justifiable.

3. I thought the choice to use Aramaic and Latin was powerful. We've come a long way from the days when we think Christ was a blonde dude who spoke English, and that worked well for me. It was a good reminder that this was another time and place. It did not seem xenophobic to me in any way, especially because Christ himself speaks Aramaic.

And, more generic comments:

1. I was startled by how completely Catholic the film is. That is, there were some very interesting things added to the screenplay that come from Catholic tradition, not the Gospels themselves. There was also a great amount of focus on Mary, but I found that to be logical in the context of the story. Indeed, the most powerful and moving aspect of the Passion -- one that I had never really considered much as a Protestant -- is that Mary watched her son go through all that. Perhaps it was the fact that I now have a son of my own, but there was one moment when I almost ran out of the theater to go hold Jonah for a while.

2. The movie seemed to be quite accurate, with only minor alterations or omissions to serve the screenplay. The only one that bothered me was that Peter was depicted as fleeing the trial after Christ's conviction by the Sanhedrin, and he rejected Christ while pushing his way through the mob. The gospels all agree that Peter followed Jesus to the Sanhedrin, but then sat down outside in the courtyard. He denied Christ while he was outside, sitting by a fire. If Peter denies Christ while fleeing a raging mob, that is somehow less egregious than his denial while among a group of people sitting by a fire.

If that's the only theological complaint you have, that's a good sign.

3. The movie is very pretty in parts. They didn't give an Oscar to Caleb Deschanel out of pity, after all. The performances are quite good, though it was a little distracting to have Monica Belluci as Mary Magdalen because she is so stunningly beautiful that she has to either star in a film or stay out of it entirely. The screenplay is very good, but not great, and the directing is competent but uninspired. And if there is any justice in the world, the movie should win for Best Makeup next year at the Oscars. I mean, holy crap! They managed to flay Jim Caviezel and make it look realistic. Very realistic. Disturbingly, chunks-of-skin-hanging-off-his-body realistic.

It's a very good movie, though not a great one. A solid 8.

Indeed, it's easily the fourth-best life-of-Christ movie ever made. "Jesus of Montreal" is still way, way, way out in front, and I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone that hasn't seen it. It is a modern-day retelling of the Christ story that manages to get at the heart of what Christ was all about far better than the Southern Baptist Church ever has. "The Last Temptation of Christ" has more serious gospel-inaccuracies, but it never purported to follow the gospels, which may be why (ironically) it works so well. It's a great, gorgeous, deeply flawed film. (Harvey Keitel as Judas? Oh, come on.) In third place is "The Matrix," which is the Gospel of John told in a cyberpunk atmosphere. That is, "Neo" is "The One" of the prophecies who was foretold, sought by a voice in the wilderness (Morpheus), betrayed by one of his number, is killed, resurrected, and who gives a final message to the world before flying off into the sky. There are many more comparisons, if you want to sit and think of them, including multiple lines of dialogue. (Program buyer: "Hallelujah, man. You're my own personal Jesus Christ.")

So, "The Passion of Jesus Christ" is in fourth place, but it is way, way ahead of any other movie that tried to carefully adhere to the gospels.

 12:38 PM

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