Monday, February 23, 2004

Unassembled thoughts on The Passion

In an effort to get these thoughts down, I'm putting them here as notes rather than a cohesive review. I'm too tired to write a proper review, which I expect will follow eventually, so this at least lets me get fresh impressions recorded.

-Jesus as action movie hero, albeit a passive one. Perhaps more apropos, Jesus as professional wrestler. Gets clobbered within an inch of his life several times--no folding chair, though--until he's finally killed, but he has the ultimate resurrection and victory. The pro wrestler comparison may sound glib, but the over the top elements--the exaggerated villains, the hammy acting--are to the film's detriment, mostly in the lesser first half. The bad guys have comically awful teeth and hygiene--historically accurate, to be sure--but coupled with their cackling at Jesus' suffering, it makes for cartoonish distinctions. And don't get me started on the Barrabas stuff which could be straight out of Vince McMahon's scripting for the WWE.

-Other corniness...the pale (hairless?) devil character and the devilish kids, the buffoonish portrayl of Herod, the jump moment with the demon, the joke about the table that sits high will never catch on. Hey Mel, why not have them say, "Leavened bread? No one will eat that!" It's a rare moment of levity, but talk about a joke as creaky as a hinge in need of oil.

-The fears of anti-Semitism are unfounded, although if you go in looking for it, you'll probably find it. Easy for me to say as a Protestant, I suppose. People have selectively interpreted the Bible to serve their own purposes for ages. Some may do that with THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST in regard to stirring up hatred for Jewish people. These people are idiots.

-The fixation with Christ's suffering, leaving his teachings mostly as flashback asides, focuses the emphasis on the wrong thing. THE GOSPEL OF JOHN may have been ploddingly literal, but it does a much better job of fleshing out Jesus as a human, as a revolutionary, and as a philosopher. I realize that Gibson wanted us to understand deeply the sacrifice that Jesus made, but isn't the thought of crucifixion or knowing that he gave his life sufficient? Do we really need a nine-minute flogging scene and other slow motion violence done to him to figure out that Jesus paid the ultimate price?

-Many of the best moments are when we get flashbacks of Jesus' teachings crosscut with his suffering. It puts his pain and anguish into context even if it doesn't reveal why his words made him a subversive. The moments at the cross when he says, "Forgive them for they know not what they do" are pretty powerful when seeing his body covered in open wounds and bathed in blood.

-The crosscutting of Palm Sunday and Jesus carrying the cross through the streets provides an effective contrast. The moment that turned my opinion of the film from mixed to mildly positive cuts between a bloodied Jesus falling in the street and Jesus falling as a child. Mary rushes to his side in both instances. You can really feel the horror that she must have felt as a mother in not being able to protect her child.

-It was also at that point that I thought a more interesting way of telling Jesus' story, or parts of it, would be through Mary's perspective. A fascinating film could be made in following her learning she would give birth to the son of God through the his resurrection and the aftermath. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is called "the greatest story ever told". It's also one of the most repeated stories. The Bible even gives multiple accounts. I don't know that Gibson does enough in the narrative to make the story fresh. Plus, there are times when shots look like direct quotes from somewhere, whether other films or iconic images.

-As Mary, Maia Morgenstern gives the most notable performance. Her face says all that needs to be said about a mother seeing her son beaten, tortured, and killed.

-Jim Caviezel plays Christ with passive strength. His Jesus is no victim but one who accepts his fate fully aware of what awaits.

-Monica Bellucci's Mary Magdalene doesn't have much to do except to stand beside Mary during the ordeal, but there's a wonderful flashback when Jesus draws a line in the sand to stop her stoning. Brief but moving.

-Gibson originally intended for the film not to have subtitles for the spoken Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. Rather, he hoped that he could convey his vision through the images and performances. I think some of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST would play better without subtitles. The exaggeration in the broad acting styles would likely be minimized.

-The most unique moment that sets Gibson's film apart from other cinematic Christ stories comes near the end. Considering that almost nothing in the film except for this can be spoiled, I won't reveal what it is. Suffice it to say that it's one of the most memorable parts of the film and a very nice artistic touch.

-In reflection, much of what I've written probably seems negative. I wasn't exactly crazy about it, but it clicked for me around the halfway point, enough to give it a marginal recommendation. That first hour or so could use a lot of work. The second hour still has some Roman caricatures, but they're not as distracting as those in the first half. If my memory is correct, the second half is less reliant on dialogue too.

-In the end, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a flawed, intermittently powerful telling of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. Like THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, I think it will appeal most to the faithful. I'm not exactly sure that non-believers are going to take much from it, in large part because the film isn't about Jesus' life.

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