Bucket List Movie #450: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Why did it take me 10 years to see The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial labor of love that is one of the most violent, divisive films to come along in this still fairly young millennium?
Because I'm a wuss, that's why.
For years, Roger Ebert's word was God to me (too on the nose?), and when he called this "the most violent movie [he'd] ever seen", I naturally stayed away. Excessive violence was a turnoff for me, and a two hour movie of our lord and savior Jesus Christ getting the living crap beaten out of him by monstrous goons wasn't exactly a scintillating prospect. Besides, like The Matrix before it, The Passion of the Christ was so widely discussed, referenced, and parodied that, combined with the fact that I was raised Catholic, I felt as though I'd seen it. Ten years, numerous Tarantino films, and one Hub and personal project later, I finally viewed The Passion of the Christ.
Let me be frank: this is the hardest review I've ever written, or will ever write. I don't believe for a second that it will be good, and I don't expect anyone else to. I only cared about getting it done.
But before I begin my review, I must say at least one thing about Mel Gibson. I try my best to reserve my judgments about people in the public eye, separate their work from their personal life and so on and so on, but this must be said: I personally think Mel Gibson is a crazy anti-Semite and all-around jerk. Now, I'm not that naïve, I'm fully aware that Hollywood is densely populated with jerks. It's just that I take issue with certain levels of jerkiness. Gwyneth Paltrow is a deluded, self-impressed snob? Who cares, I say. Benedict Cumberbatch is snide and has no filter? As long as he's not hurting anyone, I can ignore it. Anne Hathaway is too eager to please? Beats the hell out of being jaded and lazy. But when you denounce an entire race of people, and deny a crucial part of history in which millions suffered or were killed by the orders of a psychotic tyrant, you take permanent residence on my shit list. I don't care if Gibson's dad is a Holocaust denier; just because Daddy thinks it, that doesn't make it true. But words alone aren't enough; it's Gibson's actions, his repugnant, self-indulgent behavior, that sealed the deal for me. Yes, I viewed this film, and, yes, I grudgingly admit it is well made and (for the most part) well told. But this alters my opinion of Gibson not a whit, and it will take much persuasion to make me watch another of his films, even the good ones from his glorious past (that's right, I've never seen a single Lethal Weapon movie).
Tiresome Disclaimer of the Day: Since everything in this review is going to be tinged with controversy no matter how I dance around it, I may as well state, here and now, that there are inclusions from the book The 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die that I will never watch on principle: Triumph of the Will, and anything directed by Roman Polanski just a few examples. Gibson may be a creep, but I don't think he's nearly as repugnant as Polanski, and he won't leave the destructive legacy that Leni Riefenstahl has.
So, The Passion of the Christ. It's kind of pointless to summarize, isn't it? You don't have to be raised Catholic to know the story. But because I'm a sport, here's the simplest version: Jesus is betrayed by his disciple Judas to the authorities as a blasphemer, and he is sentenced to death. It's not as simple as killing him: Jesus is whipped, kicked, has a crown of thorns jabbed into his head, forced to carry a cross as tall as he is up a hill, all the while a heartless mob jeers at him and his mother Mary helplessly watches. He is nailed to the cross, ascends to Heaven, only to be resurrected.
These events are stretched to two hours and seven minutes, and I question why the crucifixion had to go on for so long, because it felt like torture porn. Jesus is whipped within an inch of his life, until you have to wonder how he is still conscious or even has any flesh left. Yes, I'm in the camp of people who wonder why Gibson felt the need to tell this story of Jesus. As my favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, pointed out, why not a movie about the miracles he performed? His days as a carpenter? Talking to his disciples? Yes, we see these events as flashbacks, but they're so brief, they don't serve as any kind of reprieve. How come no one is interested in telling the story of Jesus's resurrection? Surely there's an incredible film potential in that!
What I'd like to know is, why not a film about the fact that a great number of Jesus's followers were women? It's been said that the Bible heavily edited out passages regarding Jesus's female disciples, many of whom are featured in the play The Lower Room. Why not a movie about that?
Instead, not five minutes into the film, we get the famous segment of Jesus being tempted by the Devil, who is played by an androgynous-looking woman (despite the fact that the Devil is always portrayed as male). Yes, this is just one of many, not unjustified criticisms Gibson received on The Passion of the Christ; that women mainly exist as either as helpless bystanders, or are literally the Devil incarnate. Aside from the female-ish devil I mentioned, King Herod is portrayed as a bumbling, effeminate caricature, complete with eyeliner and a foppish wig. That deviancy from the sexual norm is framed as untrustworthy and evil left a foul taste in my mouth.
The most common complaint about The Passion is antisemitism. Understandable, considering many bigots, even today, like to use the "Jews killed Jesus" in an attempt to win an argument, and do we need to bring up Gibson's drunken rantings again? Much of the backlash was spurned by the court members in movie looking like Jewish caricatures. While I admit they weren't as bad as I thought they'd be, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't noticeable. Meanwhile, the Roman centurions are portrayed as thugs, while the Roman leaders are painted as fair and just, if ineffectual. Um, that's not what history tells us, Mel. Try again.
Yet it wouldn't be right if I just waxed hyperbolic on the bad press of this film. A full-length movie about the death of Jesus Christ is by its very nature controversial. America has, for centuries, been understood to be a Christian nation, but in recent years, we've had to acknowledge other religions and realize that the status quo wasn't as simple as we believed. Christians can no longer take it for granted that they're the ones in charge.
I now consider myself a lapsed Catholic (I wasn't a very good one to begin with), so this made it easier to watch The Passion of the Christ as objectively as possible. Once I looked past the numerous flaws, the nightmarishly prolonged crucifixion, and, yes, the controversy, I found The Passion of the Christ an effectively told parable about every element of human nature. You need only read the news to know that we human beings are capable of utterly horrifying acts, and Jesus's death sentence is a justly famous example. How many times have we read news articles about the strong tormenting the weak with nauseating glee? How many times have we felt afflicted with Genovese Syndrome, because we felt there was nothing we could do about the misery created by bullies in power? It doesn't matter if one even believes in God or not, because The Passion of the Christ taps into those feelings of helplessness and despair, leaving us no choice but to sadly relate.
But there are also displays of the good human beings are capable of. In spite of the sexist undertones, I was greatly relieved that Gibson took the time to include a scene with Saint Veronica, the woman who risked a harsh punishment of her own by wiping the blood off Jesus's face with her veil (she is actually credited as "Seraphia" in the movie). True, it's extremely brief (and it's debatable whether she existed or was named "Veronica"), but it is the station of the Passion that always made an impact on me. Doing the right thing is simple and unplanned, and never affected by politics or even religion. It is acting by your better impulses, which isn't always easy. The interesting and complex history of Saint Veronica can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Veronica. Likewise, Simon of Cyrene is included, who overcame his reluctance to aid a convict and helped Jesus carry the cross.
Gibson does have a knack for creating the right atmosphere, whether it is the creepy scene involving the Devil (who can forget the maggot crawling out of his nose?), or the sickening suspense of Jesus's trial. I always welcome unpredictability in films, since it seems to be harder and harder to come by these days, but sometimes knowing what's going to happen can be just as effective. We know what the outcome will be, we know what's going to happen to Jesus, and we certainly know it's going to be awful, but we are powerless to stop it, which only builds our increasing sense of dread.
Overall, the movie did achieve the desired emotions, at least from me: I did tear up at Jesus's pain, was furious that no one could help him, and couldn't help but grin in triumph at the end, when Jesus rises from the dead.
MINOR SPOILER AHEAD:
I admit, the tone falters at the end, for there is a bit too much "badass" synth on the soundtrack, which might lead to unintentional laughter. It felt like a trailer for the sequel, and could imagine the late Don LaFontaine intoning, "Jesus has risen. And this time, it's personal!"
END OF MINOR SPOILER.
I lack the wherewithal to go round and round with either defending or denouncing The Passion of the Christ. It is worth seeing as a fine piece of filmmaking, and it is nothing if not thought-provoking. You question the criticisms, you judge for yourself how important this story is to the world, and what it means to you as an individual. I don't regret seeing it, because, in spite of my own personal objections, it does tell the story of an inspirational figure and what he endured out of love for his people and his duty to the world.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: I could bring up how strange it was that Gibson cast Italian American Jim Caviezel as Jesus, and how distracting it was that Caviezel's natural blue eyes are digitally altered (or possibly he's wearing colored contacts, I couldn't find any sources that could tell me), making them an odd, reddish brown. But that's opening yet another can of worms. Besides, if people can overlook casting Charlton Heston as Moses, I guess I can forgive Caviezel (who, for the record, is quite good) as Jesus. Besides, given all the other problems of The Passion of the Christ, this is fairly inoffensive by comparison.