Moriarty Reviews Mel Gibson's Holy Hand Grenade, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST!!
Published at: Sept. 8, 2007, 5:19 p.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I’ve put it off. I’ve stalled.
First of all, to those of you who scoffed and mocked when I said I’d try to make this a weekly column... you were absolutely right. Point taken.
It’s not that I mean to drag ass. I don’t. I get distracted. I get sidetracked. And it frustrates me that I’ve put off one thing in particular. There was a reason, though, and I’ll do my best to explain myself.
Let me fess up. I’ve dreaded writing this piece since I saw the film back in December. I’ve had writer’s block about it. I’ve started this review five different times. And, truth be told, I’ve been gutless about it. It’s never fun to write a negative review, and it’s even less fun when you’re writing about a film that has viewers divided before they’ve even seen it.
But I don’t like this movie. In fact, in those moments where I’ve been most unguarded about my reactions, the film makes me angry. I’ve got problems with many of the key creative choices that Mel Gibson made, and after observing the entire build-up to the release, I respect him a lot more than I can claim to like him. He’s shrewd, and he made all the right moves in terms of turning this into a cultural event. It’s all smoke and mirrors, though. In creating a buzz that can’t be stopped, he forgot to make a movie that’s worth all the fuss.
Don’t get me wrong. I think THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a striking work of visual art, accomplished in many ways, and there are several powerful performances in the film including Jim Caviezel’s magnificent star turn.
But I also think it’s sloppy, obvious, confused about its own motives. It will upset many viewers, and not for the reasons Gibson intended. What you will take from the film depends largely upon what you bring to it. It’s an act of devotion, no doubt about it. It’s hardly the first misguided thing done in the name of Jesus Christ, and it certainly won’t be the last.
How can you reconcile such conflicted reactions to a film? It’s this quandary that tied me in such persuasive knots as I tried to write about the film. I can’t ignore the things I like, the things that linger. There are several points in the film where Gibson flashes back to earlier points in Christ’s life. These are beautiful, tender moments of humanity, and they surprised me with their quiet resonance. The work by Maia Morgenstern as Mary, Christ’s mother, is luminous. She is the heart of the film as much as Caviezel is the soul. Their work, along with that of Jarreth Merz as Simon, deserves special praise.
I also can’t ignore the things that pull me completely out of the movie, the things that make Gibson’s picture seem indefensible to me. I can’t get past the almost comical approach to the supernatural. I can’t get over the horrific narrative choices regarding Pilate and the Pharisees. I can’t deny my powerfully negative reaction to certain violent sequences, such as the scourging, one of the most cartoonish sequences I’ve ever seen in a “serious” movie.
The only way to be fair is to try and separate the value of the film from the emotional response inherent to seeing any visual representation of suffering on this scale. I don’t know how anyone could watch some of these sequences without feeling a profound sense of horror and empathy. But to what effect? What does Gibson think he’s illuminating with his film? By bringing these particular events to the screen and by showing these particular details, what message does Gibson think he’s trying to convey?
Passion plays have always been controversial since their creation circa 14th century, and for good reason. They’re typically emotionally intense affairs, and for the participants, they can be deeply spiritual experiences. However, because of their particularly specific focus, they rely on broad charicature to make their dramatic points, and they certainly aren’t meant to speak to anyone besides the faithful. Gibson spoke at BNAT about all the research he did for this, but none of it shows up onscreen. He’s done nothing to innovate or elucidate, instead falling back on the conventions of the genre. Yes, he hired Caleb Deschanel, one of the best working cinematographers, and the two of them have summoned some real visual thunder. Gibson obviously drew on a wide range of influences from Western religious art, and the film feels at times like a Caravaggio come to life. Unfortunately, the film’s got all the depth of a painting in terms of character and subtext.
Time for another confession: I think Gibson’s a fairly pedestrian filmmaker overall. He’s good at watching the work of others (Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa practically deserved a shared directing credit on BRAVEHEART) and emulating things that work. But there’s an ego that taints everything he makes, a smarmy self-satisfied persecution complex that runs through all his movies. The Teacher in THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE, William Wallace in BRAVEHEART, and Caviezel’s Jesus are all men who are punished simply for being who they are. It almost seems inevitable that he would finally get around to making this film, like he’s been revving up to it, dealing with it as allegory up until now. Not since Charlton Heston in the ‘70s has one actor struck quite so many Christ poses. The one thing that keeps this from being the most insufferable vanity project in recent memory is Mel’s decision not to star in it.
As with any spiritual story told with real fervor and fuelled by belief, there is value here. No matter what you believe about the divine nature of Jesus Christ, he was definitely martyred, and since all we see in this film is that moment – his torture and eventual death – whatever message the film carries must be taken from only what’s shown to us. The notion of accepting such brutal punishment in order to pass grace on to the rest of the world seems impossible to understand for many of us, and this film makes it abundantly clear that this was no easy choice for Jesus to make. If viewed as part of a larger context, this could make an important point.
That one word is central, I think, to understanding why THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST ultimately fails as great cinema: context. There is none. I’ve read some very smart, well-written reviews of this film so far, like Roger Ebert’s, David Poland’s, or A.O. Scott’s. All of them exhibit varying degrees of expertise about scripture and history, and no one should be faulted or dismissed based on how much or how little they know. I’m no expert, but I do profess a lifelong curiousity about the world’s religions. In my life, I’ve considered myself a Catholic, an Episopalian, a Buddhist, and now, simply, spiritual. I find great comforts in writings from many cultures and faiths, and I believe that there are important moral lessons in most of the sacred texts from the world’s faiths. It is impossible for me to watch this film and not compare it with my own feelings about faith and my own understanding of history. For someone walking into this film with no special knowledge of the Gospels or history or the way the Bible was written and why, this film offers no context, no greater explanation of what it’s all supposed to be about. From the opening scenes in Gethsemene, Gibson immerses you in an experience, but he seems unsure about his point-of-view in the movie. He makes odd digressions, obsesses over the strangest details. I think his visions of evil are laughable, frankly, and there’s a scene where Judas is chased down by demon kids that plays like a weak lift from Chris Cunningham’s “Come To Daddy,” just one bizarre moment in a film that has many.
People who act shocked at the charge that the film is anti-Semetic are either so completely innocent of hatred that they just don’t recognize it, or they’re intentionally turning a blind eye. The film is based on very specific material from the Gospels, some of which flies directly in the face of what historians have learned. In adapting this film, Gibson and his co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald had to decide what to include and, perhaps even more importantly, what to exclude. Every choice reflects the agenda with which they approached the film, and one of the things that troubles me most is the way Pilate is portrayed. The historical Pilate was a cruel man, by all accounts, who used sadistic punishments to send messages to the pilgrims that were flooding Jerusalem in those days. One of his favorite methods was crucifixion. It’s likely that he not only ordered the death of Jesus himself, but he also chose the exact spot where it took place as a warning to those just arriving at the city. When the Gospels were written, the Romans were still an occupying force, and the portrayal of Pilate was softened in the text so that early Christians didn’t draw undue wrath down upon themselves. It was a matter of self-preservation. So what’s Gibson’s excuse? Why cling to this version of things? And, no, the answer’s not as simple as, “It’s in the book.” Each of the Gospels offers up a different version of events. In the book of John, there’s no Jewish trial at all. There’s one quick conversation with a single high priest, and then Jesus is condemned. Gibson chose to use the interpretation that Pilate is a good man in a hard spot. In doing so, Gibson shuffles the real blame back to the Jewish Council and the crowd they’ve got with them. They are the ones who make the call, which simply wasn’t the case.
I don’t know... maybe it just disturbs me that MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN offers a better, more complete and accurate view of the political and social structures against which the Christ story played out. I commend Gibson for having the personal and artistic courage to put his own money and reputation on the line for such a difficult piece of material. He made this film because it was important to him. You can feel it in every frame. But earnest good intentions do not great art make. If they did, Paul “No Talent” Anderson would be Stanley Kubrick, and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST would be a transcendent work of religious art that would endure beyond the moment the hype dies down. I plan to see the finished version in theaters since I did see a working rough cut, but I can’t imagine the film has changed much. Give me Scorsese’s LAST TEMPTATION. Give me Pasolini’s ST. MATTHEW. Give me a Jesus I recognize, a Jesus who did more than suffer. There is a whole world of human experience Gibson’s movie misses, and that tunnel vision keeps the movie from reaching the heaven it so desperate strives for.
On that note, I’ll hit the sack and try to catch a few hours sleep. Today’s the day everybody gets their peek at this film, and, of course, I expect nothing less than youre your full and uncensored feedback below. Until then...