“For by grace you are saved … not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no man may glory. For we are His workmanship.”
— St. Paul, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2
When describing AMADEUS, Salieri is frequently described as an initially pious man who turns against God because He gave Salieri the gift of the love of music while giving the gift of music itself to Mozart, an impious clown. I myself used almost those exact words a couple of years ago when describing the effect seeing AMADEUS had on me in the late-80s. While it is obviously correct as a description of the general narrative trajectory, I used one word there that is significant. “Initially.” The central event is the tossing of a crucifix on the fire, and the whole back half of the film is about an explicitly-named plot against God.
Or so I thought.
When I looked at AMADEUS again a week ago for this blogathon, I had religious questions and issues in the front of my head because I had told Bilge in vague terms that I would write something about how the character of God is presented. This caused me to look more closely at the ways in which Salieri describes his piety, and to privilege mentions of religiously-fraught details. Viewed in that light, the film turned itself upside-down from how I had previously seen it. Never before had I seen how spiritually inevitable it was and how Salieri’s undoing was the result of his own vices, which he sees as virtues. AMADEUS is not the story of a pious man cruelly treated by a Tyrant-god given to cosmic jokes (though that IS how Salieri presents it). Rather, it is the story of an impiously proud man who tries to exercise Providence as if he himself were God.
I recently saw that trailer, for the upcoming DOUBT, before seeing HAPPY GO-LUCKY a second time. I whispered to the church friend I brought along, who is a recent convert … “this will either be the awesomest movie ever or the most-evil movie ever.”
After the film, I dashed over to the B&N bookstore across the street to buy the play DOUBT. A floor manager told me they had it, and she was probably amused when she called downstairs to the clerk in the Theater section to say “a man in a Notre Dame sweater is on his way down” for DOUBT. I read it straight through on the subway ride home and almost missed my stop so absorbed was I in the final scenes.
The dialog is more in the Mamet or Labute ping-pong style than the Shakespeare or O’Neill soliloquy style, so it is entirely performance-dependent. Hoffman is a terrific actor, but a relatively naturalistic actor who thrives in Everyman roles, not this sort of work. Meryl can do anything — even not totally suck in MAMMA MIA. But she looks from the trailer like she’s overplaying the “stick up her ass” act. The play has only four characters — the priest, the two nuns and the pupil’s mother — and the trailer makes it clear they’ve done quite a bit of opening up. If you’re gonna make a movie of DOUBT you have no real choice; the play is just too short to stage more or less as written. In the play, the boy Father is suspected of abusing remains offstage and of course we never see the action in the rectory itself — the trailer makes it clear that those two choices Shanley did not repeat for the movie.
As a result I’m pretty confident the movie DOUBT be far less ambiguous and thus less conflicted than the play. And … I will be vague … the ending would be VERY easy to change, and I doubt that one element in the mother’s character (I’ll avoid for spoilage’s sake) will survive for the film. And if one were to change those two things … a really emotionally-baffling work evaporates into Maria Monk or “bitter Hollywood boomers” territory.
So I’m leaning toward … film probably sucks. Though I should add that I know nothing about the film *other* than the trailer, the play and author John Patrick Shanley’s written intro to the play (which I so wish I hadn’t read … kinda removes all the … ahem … doubt).
FIREPROOF (Alex Kendrick, USA, 2008) — 4
I couldn’t even bring myself to see the Kendrick brothers’ previous film FACING THE GIANTS,¹ which I was reliably told had the football-coach main character get on his knees and accept Jesus Christ as his Savior in a field. After which, his football team becomes champions and he gets a new red truck, which is not only risible but pernicious — religion as a means to worldly success.² Methodism and Buddhism, e.g., are incomplete or mistaken; but the Prosperity Gospel Heresy is wicked.
FIREPROOF avoids the Prosperity Gospel Heresy because it centers on a dying marriage, which saved by a mid-movie religious conversion. Unlike high-school football, marriage is a Godly institution, the success of which matters and has something to do with one’s religious/moral qualities. FIREPROOF has its heart in the right place, has entertaining parts, and is clearly better than (my received notion of) FACING THE GIANTS. It isn’t an awful movie, and it doesn’t deserve the F-grades or the sort of toxic hatred that you can see in the comment fields (or anywhere else secular liberals are gathered).³ I also acknowledge it had the value of being in the small Georgia city, Albany, where I lived for two years, which gives you a certain level of interest in spotting locations and details (e.g., I am 90 percent sure I know what restaurant that lead art is from). Still, it is more earnest, pat and “messagey” than Cynical Gen-X Catholic Moi likes. Maybe it would look better if it had been shown on the Hallmark or Lifetime channels as a movie-of-the-week. And its fundamental dramatic weakness suggests something about contemporary Christian works of art that lies in the very theology of Protestantism. (I swear … the one Amy Grant song I have just popped up on iTunes.)
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (Julian Jarrold, Britain, 2008) — 6
After fearlessly predicting, I now must sheepishly retract: The new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED doesn’t suck pretty hard (thanks, Peter and Jeffrey both, for quoting that precise line). In fact, it doesn’t suck it all, though you do have to go in with low expectations and/or some boundaries set very firmly in your mind.
I went to see it Friday night with a couple of friends from Church. All three of us had low expectations (I would probably not have seen the film if I hadn’t been asked); and all three of us had more or less the same reaction — good or very good until it cops out in the coda; profiting from those low expectations; and not a complete travesty of the novel’s themes and Catholicism.
I wish I could have seen this movie innocent of the trailer and of the statements by the filmmakers, as noted in my previous post, of which I actually don’t take anything back. My expectations, though not borne out, WERE reasonable. The stridency of the score on the trailer, the emphasis given Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain (both the weight within the trailer, and the choice of what she says and does), and the plain words of the film-makers are what they were.
It’s as if the trailer-maker was given the specific task of finding everything a Catholic fan of the novel might object to, and putting that in, to tart up the film to look like an Edwardian version of THE DA VINCI CODE
That the new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED movie will suck pretty hard.
We can already be morally certain that it will be a vulgar reduction of Sebastian in ways designed to pander to contemporary narrowness and sex obsession. Actor Ben Whishaw bluntly says he has played Sebastian as a gay person, in today’s parlance, because he and the others involved in the film needed to give the let’s-pat-him-on-the-head-since-he-can’t-have-been-expected-to-know-better-because-of-the-times treatment to Evelyn Waugh (as in principle any contemporary artiste could have to any other DWEM who needs to be pat on the head since he can’t have been expected to know better because of the times), and so they helpfully filled in the gaps left unfilled by his insufficient enlightenment. The money quotes (oops) from Whishaw:
“Sebastian knows what his nature is and believes he’s going to hell” …
The film … aims to speak to a new generation, in part by portraying Sebastian as unquestionably gay. Waugh left Sebastian’s sexuality somewhat ambiguous, and purists may balk at the inclusion of a kiss between Sebastian and Charles Ryder, his school chum and the story’s narrator (played by Matthew Goode). “The kiss was quite a bone of contention,” says Whishaw of discussions on the set. “But Waugh said as much as he could at the time he was writing [the novel], and it seems fairly clear-cut. He’s a gay character.”
CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Britain, 2006, 4)
What a disappointment.
There’s no doubt that this adaptation of P.D. James’ Christian dystopia is thrilling in pieces … particularly, the single-take escape as the camera goes into, out of, through and around a fleeing car. But by the time we got to the bravura closing scene (already dubbed “Fireman, Save My Child” by some wag), I was in such intellectual rebellion that I had long ago emotionally checked out of the film.
What caused this intellectual rebellion is that Cuaron made the material incoherent by completely secularizing P.D. James’s themes and characters, and decoupling them from what concerned her. He soft-pedals her judgment of the contemporary culture of death in order to make a politically-correct presentist smirkfest against Bush, Guantanamo, immigration, fascist jackboots, etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera. P.D. James as rewritten by LULAC.
Let me be explicit about one thing. It’s not that immigration might not be a valid topic for a movie, or even a liberal take on the subject.¹ But rather that it doesn’t belong in an adaptation of P.D. James’s CHILDREN OF MEN. In her plot (thanks, Matthew), immigration is actually encouraged (albeit on morally dubious terms) because of the labor shortage; there’s no widespread and deadly campaign against immigrants or the constant public exhortations against them that Cuaron imagines (and even if there were, **under these dystopic conditions,** why would they not be justified — lifeboat ethics and all).
Then there are all the ways Cuaron secularizes James’s text — Julian is no longer a Christian, nor are the Fishes identified as such, Julian no longer carries the miraculous baby, the baby isn’t baptized, a Wiccan midwife is added, there’s no reading of the title Psalm from the CofE Book of Common Prayer, and religion itself is shifted to a “Repent Now” cult glimpsed on the side, like in Stanley Kramer’s ON THE BEACH (which CHILDREN OF MEN resembles in some ways). And maybe worst of all, the wholesale killings of the elderly are re-presented as a voluntary suicide kit.
For James and many other Christians and conservatives, collapsing fertility rates in the West are the ultimate sign of hopelessness — a self-hating culture of death contracepting itself into oblivion (and the basic demographic data are pretty much beyond dispute, as is the response — to import more immigrants). Western Civilization (Europe especially), the argument goes, has put itself on the road to extinction through its embrace of radical selfdom, feminism and sexual hedonism (and the consequent rights to frustrate fertility and then murder babies). So the novel’s premise is simply a radicalization of what already is going on on these matters. It doesn’t make sense as anything else.
What trips Cuaron into thinking this is detachable from the “no child has been born for 20 years” premise is that he misunderstands the nature of hope, or at least the nature of Hope, the theological concept. He says:
What I was attracted to was the concept of infertility as a premise. I was not really interested in doing a science fiction film, so I had completely disregarded it. But the premise kept haunting me. It was not until I realized that the premise of the film could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, that it could be a point of departure for an exploration of the state of things that we’re living in now, the things that are shaping this very first part of the 21st century, that I wanted to do it.
He has it exactly backwards. Sure … obviously the material is about the Death of Hope, with infertility as a metaphor for that. But the Death of Hope isn’t neatly separable from infertility. To have a child is the ultimate irrational act of hope, both a vote of confidence in the future beyond one’s own life, and the participation in this future’s creation. To lack all hope is to sink into depressive who-gives-a-damn torpor. Indeed, there are scenes from ON THE BEACH that resonated much more with me than anything in CHILDREN OF MEN — the auto races.² This is why James’s dystopic England is so terribly tranquil with low crime, rather than Cuaron’s Hobbesian war. Indeed, in a perverse way (and obviously whatever else might be said of them), the guerrillas and terrorists and fascist jackboots that Cuaron peoples this film with don’t lack hope — indeed, they have little else.
In short, by short-shrifting James’s religiosity and taking infertility as merely a “point of departure” for matters of today, Cuaron makes the situation’s central premise completely incoherent. A non-signifier that drags the film down because it makes no sense, even as a mere Hitchcockian Macguffin. If you want to rant about U.S. treatment of immigrants or terrorists, you don’t need to set it in a world like James’s (nor is it very helpful to do so). I don’t know how any film of CHILDREN OF MEN could have adequately handled or made explicit James’s background concerns. But Cuaron just wasn’t interested, and as a result has made a sci-fi dystopia that doesn’t hold any water.
And it’s not as though the immigration material that Cuaron DOES add is even really handled all that well. Because it has nothing to do with infertility, it just feels clunked on top of what would otherwise be just an elaborate chase scene like THE NATIVITY STORY or APOCALYPTO. It’s just, as Cuaron almost says, a bid to provide a veneer of topicality. I once wrote a piece on LEGALLY BLONDE 2, where I compared that film’s liberalism to product placement. That’s exactly the level at which Cuaron deals with practically every topic in the film. We see out the side of our eyes some people in hoods, and the liberal viewers and reviewers solemnly cluck “Abu Ghraib” as if they’d just a sublymonal ad for Sprite. Those images have nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary immigration, much less the economic logic of a society short of youth and workers. But why let the facts interfere with a good inflammatory smear? The film has bumper stickers and badges and old newspaper headlines against the Iraq war on walls and desks and other places where such things show up. But if the world has gotten this screwed up in the 25 intervening years, shouldn’t there be fresher protest icons — maybe a “to hell with Hillary” over her nuking Pakistan, say? There are vague ones, sure, but nothing that anyone could derive anything from. But no … not when the real audience for these ads-from-the-future is contemporary liberals and their fantasies, wish-fulfillments and self-vindication.³
¹ Though I will admit a pretty thoroughgoing contempt for Mexicans who bitch about how mean and inhumane are US immigration policies and practices. They are a model of charity and humanity compared to Mexico’s policies and practices.
² I’m tempted to just come out and say ON THE BEACH is the better film. But then I remember Fred Astaire trying to act, Anthony Perkins trying to act, and Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck “spreading fertilizer” in the wheat fields. And I’m cured of that temptation.
³ Greatest irony: Behind all the “fuck Bush” product placement in the movie, you would never guess that apropos the film’s major concern, i.e., immigration, that Bush is one of the “good” guys — pushing for a major amnesty for (potentially) more than 10 million illegals and that he is widely distrusted among non K-Street/Wall-Street conservatives, i.e., we fascists, on precisely this score.
THE NATIVITY STORY (Catherine Hardwicke, USA, 3)
It would have been easy enough to ignore this movie or maybe enjoy its small favors or appreciate its (efforts at) piety if it had been made a few years ago. But we are now after THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and are in an era when the phrase “Passion dollars” means something other than the 50-bucks you leave on the nightstand of the rent-by-the-hour motel. Every studio and his brother is launching a Religious Division or some or another Jesus project. But THE NATIVITY STORY has all the faults of “Contemporary Christian Cinema (Music)” — and without the excuses.
This was not the $100,000 work of a bunch of inspired amateurs (in the best sense of both words) from a Georgia church. This was a major film with a $30 million budget, an Indiewood A-list director and cast, location shooting in Italy and Morocco, a premiere at the Vatican.
And for what — to produce a rote Christmas pageant so lifeless, so lacking in dramatic juice that you come away more interested in the gossip about the child of Keisha Castle-Hughes (Mary) than about the child her character was carrying. This isn’t dispositive, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that a religious film should leave you wanting to know more about the religion. After I saw Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING … well, I didn’t go shave my head and get fitted for saffron robes, but the film certainly made Buddhism “attractive,” in a certain sense. But THE NATIVITY STORY fails completely on that score — it’s a dramatically inert series of picture postcards, relying 100 percent on pre-programmed responses. It’s one thing to assume that the audience knows the basic story and accepts it as truth in order to take our emotions in new directions, as THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST does; it’s quite another to require the audience to provide those emotional responses too.
This should be a Marian story, as she is the principal human protagonist. But Castle-Hughes plays the Blessed Virgin in a manner so blank-faced that you have to think she was either not directed at all or is trying to act “numbed.” The problem for the latter is that she has not been convincingly “shaken up” in the first place, which would have required either a more interesting conversation or a different sort of “presence” from the angel Gabriel, or a bitterer family quarrel. Give me Maia Morgenstern’s Mary from THE PASSION every second of every day.
In fact, the whole movie is boringly low-key and conflict-free (i.e., no “drama” in the usual sense). It’s trying its durndest to be devout and uncontroversial, but that only makes its deadness on the screen comes off as offensive. Say what you like about Gibson again, but surely one of the lessons of the PASSION is that religious controversy sells, at least if it flows from real conviction. But hey, if what you want from movies is that they not use the filthy words they had in GONE WITH THE WIND and that they have a more moral “uplift” than SAW 3 (and some do) … then rush out and see this by all means.
“There were some things he (Gibson) did that maybe were a little controversial. We wanted our film to be uniting and make the public see the similarities between religious instead of the differences.”
Sorry, but I prefer my religion true, which is to say sectarian (error has no rights, etc.). Further, why would anyone think that the Nativity story is a particularly good vehicle for ecumenism. If you take away Who this is … there’s nothing interesting here, except a generic tale of a family fleeing a nasty dictator or the birth of a (possibly) cute baby. Why should the Three Wise Men give gifts and pay homage to *this baby,* say, unless he’s distinguished from other babies in some unique way? What would the urgency be that *this baby* escape Herod’s wrath, etc.
What’s so special here, in other words, if Christianity isn’t true in some privileged sense denied to other religions? And, in the words, of THE INCREDIBLES … if everyone’s special then nobody is. But if this baby is somehow different, then religions aren’t similar.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Mel Gibson, USA, 2004, 9)
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross.”
— Richard Niebuhr, “The Kingdom of God in America”
Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is not a movie made according to the kind of Christian creed Niebuhr mockingly describes and that has become the dominant religion in this corner of Christendom. Hallelujah.
In fact, between this film and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming DOGVILLE, every one of those four “withouts” gets put through the wringer. Both my two favorite films of the year to date are religious movies that play up these “negative” countercultural features of the Christian faith that have been watered down in this era of Nice Jesus Who Affirms Us In Our Okayness. Gibson’s film is a film about man’s sin and Christ’s cross — viewed unsparingly and without sugar coating. If we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried,” then THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is about what we really mean by that sentence. Nothing else.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t flawless, in fact I was frankly surprised I was moved by the film as much as I was. But I was. The shivers went up and down my spine from the first appearance of Satan in Gethsemane and the tears flowed on several occasions (usually in concert with Mary’s IIRC … this is a very Marian Passion play). But my response was not preprogrammed. Jesus movies generally haven’t fared well with me — I really liked Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW and had a restrained admiration for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. But Nicholas Ray, Franco Zeffirelli and George Stevens left me tepid or downright cold, and let’s not even talk about the “Junk for Jesus”/straight-to-video schlock that some of us were exposed to in school. And Gibson’s previous directorial work (primarily BRAVEHEART) I found pompously overblown, overwrought, telegraphed and repetitive. Some of those flaws find their way into his latest work. And though I think Gibson’s flaws as a director mostly work for him, I will go to my grave thinking he could been more discriminate in his use of slo-mo and didn’t need quite so much music score mixed quite so loudly. Their overuse, like all forms of promiscuity, eventually dissipates some of their power when most needed and most-deeply intended.
But Gibson’s limitations, which produces movies that come across as self-important and grandiose on other projects, become strengths when applied to a Passion film, as if he’s found his project and his niche (think a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille). THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t a drama with a plot (it lacks the usual narrative hooks and assumes you know the basic story already), rather it’s more like a ritual — a real-time Stations of the Cross. If the Roman soldiers doing the scourging behave in a flamboyantly evil style, like the rednecks in DELIVERANCE, it serves to underline that this isn’t a story about some arrogant, privileged yuppies learning a lesson about intruding on nature. Nor are the Romans beating up some thieves. Or the English executing some foreign rebel. To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world’s sins, dammit. If any event deserves to be portrayed as Big, over-important, it’s this one. We’re seeing, at a certain level, an act of evil beyond comprehension and so cranking up the whipping to the infinitieth degree is the only way to make the scale of the point, given that Gibson is restricted to making a film featuring a mere man. Look at the contrast between Jesus’ body by the time He is crucified and those of the two thieves. If Jesus looks like the two thieves, the brutality is merely equal and thus the uniqueness of this suffering and death, what makes it the Atonement, is not shown.
*As works of art* (the only meaningful way to compare the Gospels to a movie that will be dust one day like everything else) the Gospels offer a different experience, though they have the bonus of a unique-for-all-time guarantee of infallibility. They’re very direct, unembroidered accounts (especially the first three), with minimal description — “Jesus was scourged” is about as detailed as it gets. But since the Passion is such a familiar story and has been done so many times, it’s reasonable to demand that an artist bring something new to it, some of the kind of embroidery absent from the Gospels, and that’s where film’s immediacy comes in.
Movies are concrete, particular, and veristic; while words tend to abstractify and conceptualize (which is a good thing, I hasten to add; it’s just a matter of how the different media operate). Gibson’s style, overblown as it is, produced for me something even the Gospels themselves don’t — being overwhelmed emotionally by the sensation that something extraordinary and world-historic is happening before my very eyes. And that’s the bell to try to ring if you’re gonna make a *film* of the Passion. A film can show the utter ruination of Christ’s body, something other media can only suggest. The Suffering Servant parable of Isaiah, which Gibson alludes to in the opening title card though not this particular verse, says that the Servant had “no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him” (Isaiah 53:2). We see what such a body looks like, what “the stripes by which we are healed” (the part he does quote, 53:5) look like.
Even the John and Matthew films I favorably cited are Gospel films, not Passion films. Gibson’s movie owes more to the tradition of Passion plays, a centuries-old genre that cinema has generally shied away from but *is* the genre of one of the greatest movies of all time — Carl Theodor Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which I deliberately watched again the day before seeing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. While Dreyer, who is ten times the director Gibson is (that isn’t an insult … Dreyer is ten times the director pretty much anyone is), doesn’t amp up the violence like Gibson does, he certainly went for the same effect — a single-minded, compressed appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Dreyer just amped up the feeling in other ways. JOAN is one of the most aggressively eccentric films ever made — shot almost entirely in closeup against white backgrounds, with odd angles and compositions, strange camera movements and montages, chosen for subjective involvement above even logical sense. Much of Dreyer’s drama is contained in the actors’ makeup-free faces, shot like bas reliefs on a wall, and those faces are usually something less than serene. Even when they are serene, the film’s out-of-scale close-ups greatly magnify small details like the path of a tear and a blizzard of sputtered spit.
The entire genre of the Passion play was never intended as a “life of Christ” primer any more than one week’s Mass is the whole liturgical year or one TV episode the whole season. Dreyer tells us nothing about the Hundred Years War and we never see the Dauphin. The genre simply assumes you know something about the Bible (and it once could) in order to get more out of it than the bald events, which aren’t on the surface very interesting otherwise. There are only a few short moments presented as the import of it all — but they’re there.
One of the earliest lines of dialog is Satan taunting Jesus at Gethsemane that no man could bear the burden of all the sins of all men. It’s too much. Jesus shrinks from the prospect, but then crushes a serpent, the symbol of Satan’s reign in the world, and proceeds to do just that — to take on, according to the Father’s will, the sins of the whole world. Q: How can a mere man tolerate this? A: He was no mere man — both again justifying the hyperviolent quality of the film, but also giving us a Jesus worth following to the ends of the Earth and dying to self for, rather than just a teacher whose homilies we can take or leave at will as they suit us.
This extremity also plays with our identification. Jesus’ superhuman endurance, along with His lack of speech, make it hard to “identify with” Him in the usual sense. Instead, Gibson cuts away from Jesus (far more than he’s given credit for) to give us plenty of shots of the people who see Jesus — Mary primarily, with subsidiary roles for Peter, Judas, Pilate and Simon of Cyrene. The dominant identification, I think, is to associate with how they react to Him, to see the meaning of His suffering and how they do or do not contribute to it, more than to Christ’s suffering itself. This is Gibson’s (and the Church’s) point about how we all crucified Christ. If we identify too closely with Jesus and see ourself in Him, then we’d kinda miss the point. Everybody but Mary contributes in some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas’ betrayal; the Temple Jews’ accusation; the disciples’ abandonment; Peter’s denials; Herod’s insouciance; Pilate’s condemnation; the crowd’s mockery; and finally the soldiers’ executing Him. And Satan remains behind the whole action — floating above and through it, and motivating the people.
When watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the first time I remember the tears flowing over my eyes came with Peter’s denials — something I’ve read, referred to or seen represented a thousand times, but in terms of making that denial convincing as something *you* might do, there’s just no substitute for actually *seeing* a threatening, angry mob constructed as Other (and constructing you as Other). Just words on a page, or just a few people milling about, or a Hyde Park soapbox crowd instead of a lynch mob, just won’t do. Since we live in basically a risk-free environment today, it’s easy for us to say “I’d never deny a friend” and so look down on Peter. Well, no. That’s part of the reason I had such scorn for the ADL’s whining that the Jerusalem mob was threatening … well, duh. How could it have made a man deny his rabbi three times if it weren’t?
There was also an uncanny event that I’ll remember forever. The church I had gone to for Ash Wednesday Mass had some nails set up in the vestibule and you were encouraged to take one as you left for keeping with you during Lent and nailing it into a cross on Good Friday. I kept that nail in my pocket and it began to lie against my thigh a little uncomfortably just at the point of the film where they arrive at Calvary. So I fished the nail out of my pocket and held it in my hand, fingering it and fiddling with it, for the rest of the film. Partly for comfort’s sake obviously, but holding a nail during the last 30 minutes conspicuously underlined and, as a sacramental, reminded me of the role I played in the crucifixion being depicted.
Gibson personalizes the Passion both through that kind of visceral concreteness, the sacramental quality of his images, and through the liturgical points made in the flashbacks. They don’t really fill in backstory as much as tell us what all this gore is the implicit culmination of. The Passion is what the Gospels had been leading up to.
For example, the late Last Supper flashbacks are rhymed with the spearing of Jesus’ side and the resulting contemporary-Hollywood arterial spray. So when Jesus picks up the wine and says “this is my blood … it will be shed for you,” the same words the priest says every Sunday, THIS is what “shedding blood” means. Similar flashbacks take us from Calvary to the breaking of bread. It’s as if Jesus “remembers” the Last Supper even as he enacts the eucharistic sacrifice it both establishes and memorializes. Unlike most of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the Sermon on the Mount “love your enemies” admonition is shot in the usual Biblical Epic style, but it occurs as they arrive at Calvary, and after we’re already been through the streets and the scourging. It’s a way of saying THIS is what this admonition means, His command is neither abstract nor easy and no man could be exactly faulted for not wanting to live up to it or failing to do so.
As I say, the brutality’s very unendurability and relentlessness, taken in human terms, is pretty much the point. And it’s what gives force to the Sermon on the Mount … what makes it Commandments from a God rather than admonitions from a man. THIS was your ransom, a ransom only a God could or would pay. There’s also a raindrop effect that I don’t want to spoil beyond saying it puts God’s sovereignty and the universe itself in His tears, like in John 3:16. The resurrection itself is just one quick shot that’s barely long enough to qualify as an afterthought. The words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” come right after Caiaphas is shown at the Cross. A critic coming to the movie looking for anti-Semitism would notice Caiaphas’ appearance but somehow ignore what Jesus says.
Which is a longwinded way of saying that I believe THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST really works only if the viewer at least provisionally believes that Christianity is true — suspends disbelief in the same way viewers of comic-book movies allow for the purposes of the film that the sun’s yellow rays can give an alien super strength, x-ray vision and all that. Now this is obviously easier for those of us who do believe it’s all true, and my own Catholicism obviously predisposed me to liking this movie. But what infuriates me about many of the negative reviews THE PASSION is getting is that they are coming from a stance that is at least implicitly anti-Christian (certainly non-Christian) but usually doesn’t acknowledge itself as such (or even as a point-of-view). These critics simply would not or could not suspend disbelief — citations coming in the next couple of days.
There’s been a lot of talk in churches and the Catholic blogosphere and other Christian sites about THE PASSION being a great “teachable moment” in evangelizing a world that has turned away from Christ. And quickie books and pamphlets on the Passion are being published and whatnot. I have my doubts (actually, I have more than mere doubts) of this film’s effectiveness in terms of converting hardcore or convicted non-Christians. I think its impact will be much stronger with genially, uncritically lapsed Christians and in deepening the conversion of those of us who, while practicing, affirming and following Him, are not doing so as well as we should strive to do. Lord knows that’s a great achievement in itself and it doesn’t affect my emotional experience of the film. But I persist in believing this not-exactly-but-almost “preaching to the choir” aspect of THE PASSION to be an imperfection.
Maia Morgenstern as Mary gives by far the movie’s best performance. In fact most of the film’s best moments, as cinema, are scenes she dominates — this is a movie that only a mackerel-snapper like Gibson could have made. For starters, there’s the film’s second-last shot, not just a Pieta, but one that has Mary looking right at the viewer as if to say “look what you did to my son.” It frankly overshadows the rather rote and low-key Resurrection that follows it. There’s also a scene that combines the 3rd and 4th Stations of the Cross, where Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and a lying-in-wait Mary runs up an alley to see Jesus. It flashes back to Jesus as a boy and Mary saying something banal in the earlier context and heartbreaking when she says it in the current one. Then there’s a few short shots of Mary following Jesus by walking down one side of the street while Satan walks down the other. It’s like a kind of pas-de-deux, pairing the two black-hooded women in opposition.
The movie’s other outstanding performance was Hristo Shopov as Pilate, who’s played as the most-modern man in the movie — a bureaucrat who acts from prudence in this to him confusing inter-Jewish quarrel in which he ain’t got no dog. Shopov plays him in the very opposite register from his flamboyantly evil droogs that do the whippings — annoyed, well-meaning, but utterly ruthless in the end as long as he gets to wash his hands. The contrast of evils is brilliant — he’s Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil presiding over some evil Snidely Whiplashes.
The two biggest names in the cast do not quite so well. Monica Bellucci is mostly just wasted as Mary Magdelene. And then there’s Jim Caviezel as Jesus. To compare him to Falconetti in Dreyer’s JOAN movie is unfair (the films’ direction and what is demanded of them as actors is so different that you’d be better off comparing two athletes playing different sports). Caviezel plays this conception of Jesus as well as you can, but there isn’t much there for an actor to do but simply “be.” For the last 100 minutes of THE PASSION, he has to give his performance with one good eye. But his left eye is about the only body part he has in good working order from beginning to end, and it does give a fine performance, mixing defiance and serenity in its gaze.