Mel Gibson’s latest, The Passion of Christ, meets controversy with paradox. Many have accused the film as contributing to anti-Semitic feeling. Its characterization of the Jewish rabbis and Roman guards alike are villainous and voluminous. Only a flat interpretation would fail to see that Jesus’ own people condemned him. The movie does not fail to acknowledge Jesus, his mother and his disciples as Jews. The hysterics surrounding the release of Passion — a priest signing “Jews killed Jesus” — speak to the other narrowed viewings of its story.
Gibson (Braveheart, Lethal Weapon) stages the ultimate passion play for the eye of an unaffiliated camera. The medium and nature of film pledges no allegiances. And yet Gibson makes this film sing hymns. In film’s century-old history it has never been accused of piety. Certain cinephiles such as Andre Bazin identify in movies a sense of something spiritual — a connection with time and place unknowable except through the eye of a camera. Film reveals a way of seeing otherwise beyond of human experience, and this inspires human fervor about the medium. Passion’s rich success at the box office testifies to the medium of cinema again as alive in spirit.
Such moments give motion to icons. The crucifix weeps with the blood of Jesus. Gibson’s take on such cliched imagery receives pardon because it invigorates it. This pieta — when Mary holds the dead body of her son — owes its much emotive strength to its long lineage of pietas. Perhaps the most beautiful belongs to Michelangelo: he gives grace to white marble, Mary’s hands, and delicacy to limpness, Jesus’ limbs. Gibson’s — far bloodier, and thus in the tradition of the most gruesome German iconography — does no injustice to this legacy.
It feels exciting to experience a contingency with a long history of religious thought and art. This moment does not belong exclusively to Christianity either. It belongs to the inheritors of the Western cannon, to cinema too. To sit among hundreds of people and have a common sense of begotten meaning, that experience brings beauty to film. Such mass experiences border upon the Pavlovian, and thus may inspire suspicion. Gibson does not shy away from jerking the audience’s emotions. But this film’s message, bespeaking Jesus’ sermons, ultimately requests compassion.
Not since 1988 and Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, have the theaters seen such a big Biblical film. The Passion of Christ belongs to a long line of these films — The Ten Commandments ’56 — each seeking new ways of communicating with its audience: Scorsese had his actors speak in colloquial English, hoping to break down barriers imposed by stiff, English accents, typical of older passion films. Gibson, however, seems to have taken this trend and inverted it: his version bears subtitles. The Passion speaks in the Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin languages. Yet this move endows the film with greater authenticity and charm. The subtitles carry the weight of an important text. To read the word along with foreign enunciation allows the mind a greater lyrical exercise. To hear route commandments spoken in another tongue brings possibility back to the words.
The fact that The Passion raises any thoughts from the dead — America’s social consciousness — testifies to its influence as a power worth something. No other movie in recent memory has inspired such a maelstrom of criticism, protest, acclaim, and controversy. Some see the film as a reinvigoration of religious fervor. Some see it as a bitter condemnation of Jewish people. Some see it as the ultimate story of one man’s sacrifice for his beliefs. No matter the impression, no one leaves the theater unaffected.
By professional Hollywood standards, The Passion bears the look of marvelous craftsmanship. Each scene from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has vigor. Each set and costume beckons touch. The mise en scene throws its physical shoulder into Jesus’ last spiritual burden. Jim Caviezel about effaces himself in his role, taking up the face of Jesus. John Debney’s score also contributes: it pushes the film up to the sublime plane of expression its story seeks. If Gibson stumbles in his heavy-handed cutting between the passion and flashbacks — tripping nearly as many times as Jesus on his way through Jerusalem — those mistakes seem forgivable for their brevity and earnestness. Even overwrought use of computer graphic imagery and slow motion does not suspend the film’s obsessed momentum. As a whole The Passion transcends the sum of its parts.
Let he who is without sin cast the first thumbs down.