The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Dir. Mel Gibson
So OK, I’m a little late on jumping into the controversy about this one. Like a good liberal, when this first came out I acted all offended about the perceived ant-Semitism, but of course the truth was that this film is sort of scary to me. The very idea of this film is scary to us secular humanists; it’s bizarre and alien and hostile to our most basic sensibilities. We don’t like it admit it, but the hordes of true believers who buried this film in cash and wept and spoke in tongues and reaffirmed their faith to this little motion picture scare the bejeesus out of us. We don’t understand them and they can’t be reasoned with, and when they get fired up they can drastically alter the course of this country. Hollywood has no shortage of films filled with paranoia about Christian fanaticism, and that probably reflects my demographic pretty well. These unironically stone-serious religious films for a specifically religious audience are widely regarded by my people as weird outliers for a somewhat disturbed fringe demographic, probably the same way normal people look at stuff like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. So yeah, when the film came out I was intrigued but – I’m man enough to admit it— sort of scared of it, sort of disturbed by the way it was received and not quite interested enough in the content to overcome those hurdles and go out and watch it.
But then in 2006, APOCALYPTO came out and became one of my absolute favorite films of that year and reminded me that whatever else Mel Gibson is, he’s one of the best working directors out there. And guess what, everyone acted like that film was a Klan rally too, a ludicrous charge by any stretch of the imagination. If you think APOCALYPTO is racist enough to write strongly-worded scolding essays about, you better be burning every copy of BREAKFAST WITH TIFFANY you can lay your hands on, man.
Basically, the critics were reviewing the man, not the movie. I suppose I can understand that logic; I think its ultimately very difficult to create a work of real art without a particular vision, more or less necessitating we involve the artist in our consideration of the art. And it seems pretty well beyond debate that Gibson is a fairly intolerant fanatical nutter, which sort of makes you look at his work with that framework in mind. But come on, people, you gotta actually look at the work, too. Just because a racist made a movie doesn’t automatically make that movie racist. Yeah, it seems like Gibson is none too fond of the Jews, but portraying the high priests who pretty well form a lynch mob to kill Jesus a bit negatively seems fairly reasonable in the context of the story. Accusing the film of anti-Semitism or racism is an easy way to get out of really examining why it makes you uncomfortable. And besides, a great film is a great film. Insidious as BIRTH OF A NATION is, I don’t hear anyone dismissing its artistic merits simply because it’s a blatantly toxic, hateful sickening display of racist paranoia. OK, so Gibson isn’t exactly reinventing cinema the way Griffith did with that one, but he’s indisputably a master of the art form and his consummately crafted classic style is rare enough to seem almost experimental these days.
As the 581 preceding words indicate, then, this movie comes with a lot of baggage. But I was in it to watch one of my favorite directors do his thing, and was genuinely ready to be won over by it. Unfortunately it turns out that lost in the culture war rhetoric is the fact that the movie itself is easily Gibson’s weakest. Amusingly enough, though, I’m not sure its Gibson’s fault. For the greatest story ever told, I think this is about as well as you can tell it and it’s just not that great a story.
Here’s the problem: this film has a lot of similar issues to another movie which I only liked when I wanted to love it recently: PIRANAH 3-D. It’s well-made, but the parts don’t add up to much. It’s well-acted, but none of the characters really does anything. It gets the tone right but never builds to anything. It has interesting events but not any real narrative. And it’s really fucking violent, with some great imaginative touches, but eventually fails to get much emotional mileage from that violence. Which is a problem in both cases, because violence is really the star of the show.
Seriously, I doubt I’m the only critic to notice this, but THE PASSION is basically a horror movie. It’s sort of a parade of the grotesque, in a dirty and dangerous world packed with demons and brutal sadistic senseless violence. And at the center of it is the guy you’re supposed to know is the best person who ever lived, intentionally taking the worst of what the world can throw at him. He’s doing it out of love, trying to absolve his fellow man of their suffering.
Or at least, that’s what Gibson says about it. Problem is, the film doesn’t really tell you much about Jesus, who he is, or what he’s doing. You gotta bring all that with you for the film to have any context at all. For a film from a guy who supposedly loves Jesus, we don’t really get to know him much in this thing. He’s on-screen a lot, but mostly all-but comatose-- first because he’s petulantly refusing to answer his captors, and later because he’s basically incapacitated by torture. We get tiny, tiny flashbacks of him before this point in his life, but most last less than a minute and don’t really tell us much about him, his philosophy, his personality, or his character arc. Caviezel does a fine job in the presumably easy role of making Jesus seem like a nice guy; in better times, his warm smile and open expressiveness do a lot to endear him to us (despite his inexplicable dark Jedi yellow eyes, like that evil kid in A CHRISTMAS STORY). But ultimately he’s kind of a cipher.
The biggest problem, really, is that Jesus is basically the main character, but he doesn’t really do anything. He’s an incredibly passive character. Now, I think the point is that Jesus is not actually passive, that he’s basically actively accepting his fate even though it’s hard, like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance deal. Gandhi hated the term passive resistance because of course there’s nothing passive about it, it’s actively engaging in a nonviolent way. But Gibson doesn’t quite make Jesus active enough to pull that possibility off. The film breaks him down so much he’s pretty much helpless by minute 20, and spends the rest of the film simply enduring. The film opens with him having doubts, struggling to believe in himself enough to do what he knows he has to do. He makes the decision there to go for it, but that’s the last decision he seems to make throughout the film. His wordless refusal to save himself, even given a few chances to do so, don’t read as advancement in his character arc so much as glum resignation that he’s finished no matter what he does. So it just feels like stuff is happening to him.
Likewise, the few side characters don’t really develop in any interesting way. Peter starts off with a badass slow-mo action scene (?!) but quickly disappears after he gets his one scene of triple-denial. How does this affect this guy who was so certain of his faith that he lops off a guy’s ear and still tries to get into Jesus’ trial? We’ll never know, I guess it wasn’t important, and it doesn’t seem to mean much to Jesus, either. John (heavily hinted to be Jesus’ brother) is in almost every scene but I don’t think says a single word. Mary Jesus’ mother watches and cries, but the most she ever does is walk up to him one time and give him a hug. Mary Magdalene is basically a sidekick to the already inert older Mary, although she’s much more interesting to watch since she’s played by Monica Bellucci. Judas is clearly torn up about what he’s done but the film isn’t at all interested in what his motivations were, and seems only interested in giving him a suitably horrible death (it succeeds – the shot with his feet dangling in front of the desiccated donkey carcass is truly disturbing and admirably poetic). Even the film’s most interesting and charismatic character, Satan, does a pretty piss poor job of causing Jesus any trouble –(s)he (ooh, scary androgyny! Too bad David Bowie was too old to play this one) spends the whole movie watching impassively from the sidelines. The only character who really has any meaningful narrative conflict is poor Pontius Pilate (inexplicably the subject of great sympathy and compassion in the film) -- and his conflict is resolved by him deciding to do nothing! The only two characters that are really given anything to do are the two stations-of-the-cross cameos from Simon de Cyrene and Seraphia as two completely uninvolved bystanders who take a moment out of their apparently busy days to give Jesus a little assistance on his way to his death. Jesus is so out of it that Simon’s gradual turn from not wanting to get involved to basically carrying Jesus and his cross himself is arguably the most character development that happens in the whole movie. So of course as soon as they arrive Simon just walks away and is never referenced again.
I guess my point is that Gibson fairly faithfully follows the story told in the gospel, beat for beat. But it’s not all that interesting a story. Gibson leaves out most of the things which would give it emotional weight and instead focuses on the brutality, which in point of fact the actual bible doesn’t really emphasize. I fear that Gibson is probably so invested in the character and his mission already that he doesn’t understand that he needs to communicate those points in his actual film. The film is just a checklist of events which happen to Jesus at that particular point, and he’s counting on you to fill in the gaps with the lovey compassion stuff while he supplies the cruelty.
And as a committed atheist, it just doesn’t work. Like most atheists, I’m extremely familiar with the Bible and hence knew every beat pretty thoroughly already. Gibson crafts compelling, sometimes beautiful scenes but offers very little in terms of enriching these events with details which might give them weight and meaning beyond a literal rendition of the text. If you know the text, you know the film already and it adds only a few colorful details to make it worth experiencing visually. The film is at its best when it throws in weird creepy details like the WTF Satan-and-scary-baby or the dead donkey at Judas’s death scene – that’s a take only someone as crazy as Gibson would see in the Bible and I like it because it gives the film a little more unique vision and reason to exist than most of its paint-by-numbers runtime. Gibson also taunts us with a few nicely done human moments in flashback (the scene where Jesus builds [invents?] the modern table is probably the best, as it capitalizes on Caviezel’s gentle, charming good humor) but these scenes are frustratingly brief and too few to amount to much more than the slightest of suggestions. Weirdly, Gibson actually seems to impose too little of himself into the thing and it ends up feeling surprisingly timid about offering its own vision, with the exception of its overwhelming focus on suffering. The brutality of the thing does make it Gibson’s own, but just isn’t all that interesting when it so blatantly upstages any kind of context. Jesus is getting beat up from almost minute one, and its ability to shock kind of plateaus at the excellent scourging scene and fades to a sort of dull monotonous drone by the end (which doesn’t help itself by being almost entirely slow motion). Ok dude we get it, sucks to be Jesus, is that really why you dragged us here and made all this fuss?
This would have all worked much better had Gibson realized that Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t mean much if we don’t get what’s at stake. Christians know already and they’re thinking about it all the time --and I know what they think-- but you gotta have it in the film for the thing to work. I love a good story, I don’t have to actually believe it to get hooked, but you gotta give me a narrative. I mean, I don’t believe that if the baby dies in WILLOW we’re really fucked in real life, so I’m not turned off by the Christian mythology either. But Gibson never really offers you his take on why Jesus’s death is important. What would it mean for mankind if Jesus punked out and escaped? What exactly does Satan fear if Jesus succeeds? Can we at least see Jesus doing his prophet thing a little bit, so even if we don’t have a good sense of the big picture we can at least feel bad that the world is losing this one nice dude? Instead of doing this, Gibson treats Jesus the same way Tarantino treats Hitler – as cinematic shorthand. Of course you’re against whatever Hitler’s doing, he’s fucking Hitler. Of course you’re on Jesus’s side, he’s fucking Jesus. Sadly, for people who aren’t really into Jesus the way Gibson is, this failure to establish him as a character with a clear goal kind of undermines the story’s potential power.
And ultimately, Jesus was more interesting than the bullied victim Gibson makes him here. One of my absolute favorite films of all time is JESUS CHIRST SUPERSTAR, which covers roughly the same time period as Gibson’s film (it starts just a few days earlier) but manages to find great richness and complexity in its characters, deftly examine the political and cultural landscape, find a clear and satisfying narrative, and mine more pathos from less violence. And it’s a gorddam musical which still finds time for a pink fringe jumpsuit. For all its earnestness and claims to historical accuracy* THE PASSION is simply a much shallower, less involving film. And also less funky, which of course hurts any film. Might have saved itself if they’d kept in the pink fringe.
Anyway, the thing banked some serious loaf and fish money for Gibson, which maybe it didn’t exactly deserve, but that’s OK. Even though this one is hobbled a bit by Gibson’s reverence for the source material and inability to see beyond his own perspective, it’s still a gorgeous and bold and crazy production that no one else on Earth right now would have made or even imagined. He may not be a great human being, but he’s a great director with an absolutely unique kind of insanity that consistently translates into fascinating films. He’s been working a little more steadily than usual lately as an actor-- which is fine because he’s a great actor too-- but I would rather he spend his autumnal years pulling a Coppola and making passion projects that only he really understands, like his long gestating PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION big budget conspiracy thriller (just kidding. I hope.) Judging from this one, the guy has a truly great horror movie in him somewhere. Whatever he chooses to do, there’s more personality and class and transfixing bugnuts crazy in a single scene of his than in most of the studio films that came out this summer. Come on Mel, spend some of that PASSION money and let’s find out what else you’ve got on your mind!