Published at: March 9, 2004, 9:40 a.m. CST by headgeek
It feels so weird to finally be writing about THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. I first saw the infamous film at Butt-Numb-A-Thon after the Australian Zombie film, UNDEAD – a sick joke on my part? Perhaps, but then I’m the sort that watches a Romero Triple Feature every Easter Sunday before the annual showing of BEN-HUR.
I grew up watching Victor Mature plucked blind and pulling a temple down around him in SAMSON & DELILAH. I eagerly watched every time Heston parted the Red Sea by forcefully crying out… “BEHOLD, THE HAND OF GOD!” in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I came to know Jesus as Ming the Merciless played him in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD… and I also knew that the original captain of the Enterprise played a good Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s KING OF KINGS. However, my favorite Jesus was played by Ted Neeley and he could sure as heck belt a toon in Norman Jewison’s theatrical telling of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.
Meanwhile, as a kid my parents took me all over Mexico and I saw the whipped to the bone sculptures of Jesus in cathedrals. Where the crown of thorns looked brutal. In their portraying of Jesus, they highlight the brutality of his suffering. As a kid brought up on horror movies, I was intrigued at the sculptures… a stark distance from the sanitary whitewashed version of Jesus in the states. Most of the churches I’ve gone to in this country tend to not focus much upon that side of things. Many have a cross, but not his body upon it. The illustrations in their bibles a fairly passive and calm passing. In many ways a bit like Tyler Durden’s pointing out about the passive peaceful faces of those in the emergency brochures on Airplanes… calmly and pleasantly putting on the mask.
Growing up, I always found this odd. I never saw that brutal telling of the Christ’s final moments – something that apparently many of the folks that teach about his life and death seemingly de-emphasizing. For me, it was always that final message of Forgiveness that made Jesus’ story so worth telling and spreading. Not only that but the sheer amount of torture he suffered without ever waffling on that. Ok, sure, I was raised by peacenik hippies and taught pacifism and looked for affirmation of that policy. But always conflicted by the mixed message of forgiveness and the embracing of one’s enemies… instead watching many, not all, Christians that rather than remember that, seeking to spread “His Word” by reacting violently to those that oppose their way of thinking. I always believed that a “good Christian” was someone that prayed for their enemies as well as their loved ones. That was someone that didn’t seek revenge, but fellowship and understanding. And that when they were threatened or harmed, understood peacefully that if that was their fate so be it, but not seek revenge, because… well revenge is decidedly non-Christian… at least to my way of thinking.
SO – when Mel Gibson said he wanted to make a movie about the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in Aramaic and Latin. That he wanted to make it graphic and brutal. Well, I was supportive. One, it was an impressive artistic decision. Two, it was completely different than any telling of the Christ tale as I’ve seen it told. When I got my first look at the meaty tormented Jesus pictures I was taken aback. This was something I’d never seen before. When we debuted that trailer on the site back months ago, I was blown away by what I was seeing. Caleb’s cinematography looked gorgeous. The film was being shot as to convey all the messages visually, as opposed to through clunky dialogue. This was, essentially a silent film, even if it was going to have music and sound effects and dialogue… simply because Mel wanted to release the film with no subtitles. I was captivated, I hadn’t seen this sort of broad expressionism in terms of performances or cinematic devices since many of the “end of the silent era” films. As a film lover, I was desperate to see the film.
When I finally did at BNAT, I was utterly entranced. I loved the film. I saw the movie as a beautifully told story about the grace and strength of a man resolute in his fate. When I saw the film all the comments about the film being a “Jew Bashing” spectacle went away for me, because the message I saw being conveyed could not have been further from the mark. TO ME – “THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST” is an astonishingly powerful work of cinema that’s overwhelming purpose is to show the lengths of personal hell one could endure without losing one’s purpose or love for one’s fellow human beings. I found in the film that Jesus wasn’t in the end asking for violent retribution, he wasn’t “pissed” at the Romans for whipping the flesh from his body, nor was he not wanting retribution visited upon those that set Anthony Quinn free instead of him. It was his fate. It was what he was “sent” here to do. From the moment he steps on that serpent’s head, through the end credits… Jesus is accepting his fate. It will not be a pretty one, but he does accept it. In fact, I’d even say that he does things to ensure that it will be his fate. He doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses. After he’s “caned” badly by the Romans, he rises in defiance to press them into further action. This was HIS decision, because he needed to be a martyr. That was his purpose.
This wasn’t supposed to be a happy story. What possible message was Mel Gibson trying to convey? I’m not positive, but the message I found in the film. The reason for showing all that horrible violence and personal atrocity… it wasn’t for exploitation or out of his own perverse sense of bloodlust. To me, that violence was to illustrate in excruciating detail the lengths one could go through and suffer through without raising a hand to defend ones’ self, to not cry for revenge, to not curse those that torment you. That in your dying moments you pray for those that would see you dead, not hurl a curse upon them. Not inspire your believes to save you, but to go knowing one’s place and embrace the inevitable end.
I find the film an amazing tribute to pacifism.
The reason my review is late is that I was wanting to see the final version to make sure that the message somehow didn’t change. To see how the “FX” shots that Mel had talked about were portrayed and to hear Debney’s score.
In the end, I found the film less violent than the one I saw at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and a few scenes were added that further underlined the message of loving one’s enemies and praying for them. Which seemed to really strongly underline the message that I saw in the film originally.
Meanwhile, as I’ve watched this film become a phenomenal success at the box office, I’m glad. Here, a filmmaker had a vision for a film that nobody in Hollywood would accept. Shooting in dead languages. A stomach-turning violent gore film that pushed the limits of an R-rating further than I ever imagined would be allowed. Subtitles. And lastly caring enough to promote the film personally for over 6 months, knowing how difficult it would be, but having resolute faith in the message and the art. To see that work rewarded is so satisfying. That Mel has created a film that has stirred up so much discussion and heated exchanges… well that’s art folks. This isn’t some postcard of the crucifixion, this is horribly brutal. That it became commercial, that is the reward for sticking to one’s independent vision, no matter who says you’re crazy.
The folks shocked by its financial success are the ones that amaze me. Who are these people? The same ones that said Pirate movies are dead. That though Cameron was crazy for the detail and money he was spending on a story “we all know how ends,” as if the ending is the only thing we care to see. If you look at the All Time Box Office Successes in Adjusted Dollars – I think you can see evidence for religious cinema. You’ll find at number 5, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, at number 9 you’ll find the shockingly R-rated THE EXORCIST which had the full support of the Catholic Church… and at number 13 you find BEN HUR. They’re collective total box office? Somewhere in excess of $2 Billion domestic. Those that thought the genre dead, like so many others mistook BAD FILMS as evidence of a Genre’s worth. As always, they will continually be proven wrong.
Now – let’s see the insanely graphic R-rated telling of REVELATIONS by Guillermo Del Toro… heh… I can’t wait to see what Hollywood does to react to this film’s success, you know they will. A Paul Verhoeven SAMSON movie is probably too much to hope for though. Heh.