Friday, August 11, 2006

The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004)

Watching The Passion of the Christ on DVD now, over two years after the initial release, it’s hard to see why we all got so worked up. Was it because it was an election year and George Bush seemed determined to continue to blur the line between church and state until we were living in a full-fledged theocracy? Whatever the cause, Mel Gibson’s take on the Jesus legend is neither inspirational nor threatening. It is worthy of neither enthusiasm nor vitriol, because … well … it’s mostly just kind of silly. One of Gibson’s wisest moves is to employ ancient languages for his screenplay, for it is the only thing apart from the copious amounts of blood that give the film any sense of seriousness or gravity. Surely it is not Gibson’s ideas that give the film any weight, because he has none. He has made a film that, for all its grandiose posturing, is essentially as airheaded as Legally Blonde. Nowhere in the film does Gibson seek to explore, illuminate, question or clarify. Instead, he continually aspires to nothing more than cheap effect, operating in a perpetual state of “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?”

Wouldn’t it be cool if the coins flung to Judas moved in slow motion? Wouldn’t it be cool Satan had this really freaky looking baby? Wouldn’t it be cool if Mary rushed to help Jesus when he fell just like when he was a kid she rushed to help him when he fell? That would be, like, ironic and shit.

Gibson’s film is all cheap effect and posturing. It fails to utilize the greatest gift humans ever received: the capacity for thought. Instead, it dutifully creates reenactments of a simple tale created by people thousands of years ago who were more scientifically ignorant than a moderately sharp first grader in the 21st century. We are far from unlocking all of the secrets of the universe, but we know a hell of a lot more than the people whose mythologies and petty politics continue to have tremendous impact on our lives. We fight their wars with modern technology. Shouldn’t we, at the very least, temper their myths with modern philosophy? For all of the talk of Gibson’s dedication, his film lacks the sincere spiritual yearning of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. For all of the talk of Gibson’s historical accuracy, his film lacks the deep academic understanding of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. For all of the talk of Gibson’s ability to elicit emotional reaction, he falls short of even the pathos generated by Jesus Christ Superstar. At least in that film, we get an idea of how Jesus inspired so many humans and how his teachings must have seem like welcome light in a dark world.

However, unlike others, I am not bothered by Gibson’s decision to focus his film on the final hours leading up to Jesus’ death. I am bothered by his decision not to stay focused. The flashbacks he inserts to break up Jesus’ trial and torture come at awkward times, making it seem like Jesus is distracted more than anything else. The content of the flashbacks adds little to no insight into Jesus’ situation or character. Obviously, they also don’t add anything to the film thematically because – well – Gibson doesn’t really have themes to begin with. It just feels like Jesus’ mind is sort of wandering. The flashbacks also prevent Gibson from effectively building the momentum of his much desired visceral effect. We are given too many interruptions -- too many opportunities to relax and not enough to ponder in the downtime. Setting aside any ethical question of presenting the torture of Jesus as a thrill ride, Gibson’s film fails at even that shallow artistic goal.

In the hands of a more capable and intellectually curious director, the hours leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus could have made for a worthwhile film. Defenders rightly point to Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc as an example that shows that the structure is not inherently flawed. However, they miss a few things that Dreyer has and Gibson does not – focus, restraint and legitimate artistic purpose being chief among them. If Gibson was an introspective man, perhaps he could have asked why, thousands of years later, we are still captivated by a tale of childlike simplicity centering on grotesque physical torture. Perhaps he could have explored whether it has something to do with human spirit - whatever it is that animates us - being hopelessly at odds with the human form. Do we obliterate the body of Christ as a kind of ritual self-loathing in order to demonstrate that our souls are held back and weighed down by the ordinariness of our clumsy bodies? Now that is a question that might have led to a better understanding of ourselves and our interaction with others. Instead, Gibson is content to spin his wheels like a monster truck caught in a vast pit of mud. It doesn’t matter if he’s making progress. It only matters that he’s making noise.



Blogger RC said...

interesting thoughts was interesting to read your perceptions...especially in 2006.

--RC of

10:20 PM  

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