March 4, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

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For now we see through a glass darkly. Or, rather, through a lens smeared in blood and sweat. Whether it be through faith, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it is how we must view Jesus Christ.

Yet Christ rarely appears like this. Following Jesus (James Caviezel) through the final twelve hours of his life, The Passion is a gratuitously violent vision of Christ’s death, a nail driven through the forehead by God’s hammer.

If Christ died for the sins of Man, then Gibson believes we have sinned far more than we ever realized. Gibson’s interpretation is decidedly puritanical, delivered with the wrathful gravity of a Jonathan Edwards Sunday sermon. Christ is tormented, whipped and lacerated with barbed chains and morning stars beyond comprehension, so that what remains is not a glorified deity, but a ragged, broken body. Unlike past cinematic interpretations, Gibson focuses solely on the violence. It becomes a leit motif, but in no way does it ever feel anesthetizing. It is horrific, some of the most disturbing violence ever put to film, and no miscalculation by Gibson could render it otherwise. If this is meant for spiritual reawakening, then it is rebirth at gun point.

If the film were left to just the flagellation, mockery, and crucifixion of Christ, it would be excellent. But Gibson interrupts the orgiastic procession with flashbacks and iconic imagery. This is an egregious error, one of great detriment to the film. Satan stalks around in white clown makeup and a black shroud, an image that was imposing when Bergman used it in The Seventh Seal, but today comes off as silly. The antichrist even makes an appearance, looking like the genetic hybrid of Mini Me and a gremlin. Then, there is God. As Christ gasps “It is accomplished,” a solitary tear of lament falls from heaven and hits the earth like a hydrogen bomb, cracking Golgotha and crumbling the temple of Caiphus. The religious bombast and masturbatory indulgence of this, combined with a swollen soundtrack, threatens not only to deflate the puissance of the crucifixion, but of the entire film. Neither Satan nor God were present in the Biblical telling of Christ’s death, and they have no place in this film.

As Christ, Caviezel is rather unremarkable. Yet as a slab of raw, bleeding meat, he offers a seminal performance. Whatever dialogue he has (both in his native Aramaic and the occupying Roman’s Latin) becomes irrelevant amongst the drone of his anguish. He is not a character, but rather an archetype, a vessel of salvation bearing the sins of Man. The same goes for other characters: Mary (Maia Morgenstern), the virgin mother to humanity; Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), the prostitute turned follower; and Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), the governor who compromised compassion for political ambition.

Certain critics have dubbed this film proselytizing dogma. This is an embarrassingly cynical judgment, a product both of a prejudice against Gibson’s intensely Catholic background and the ridiculous attempts by Christian fundamentalists to bill the film as a tool of evangelical fervor. This is not a film that speaks to those outside the faith. But is that a fault? In an age of pluralism, when films are expected to be ecumenical in their relevance, Gibson has had the audacity to make a film strictly for those of the Christian faith.

This is not conventional narrative, but something like a moving painting of the stations of the cross as rendered by Hieronymous Bosch. Although Gibson attempts to, it is ultimately the audience’s responsibility to fill these images meaning. Is there grace? Salvation? It is hard to say. Still, the question of why this man embraced such torture and then prayed for his killers resonates throughout the entire film.

As I watched this film, I realized that people were not just crying in the theater, they were full out sobbing. Regardless of its inherent flaws, the very fact that any film could possess an audience’s emotions with such force speaks to both the raw power of the imagery and the inherent need for grace. It became evident that the dialect of the film was irrelevant; these visuals communicate something that transcends human language.


Archived article by Zach Jones

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