So Mel Gibson has been persecuted all the way to the bank. The Passion of the Christ–undertaken by him as a work of faith, and promoted to the faithful as if he, too, were about to be killed by unbelievers–is a box-office smash, to which I have contributed my own $10.25. Yes, I have now watched the movie (a day after deadline pressure and an absence of press screenings forced me to write about it unseen, for our March 15 issue), and I have found it to be worse than expected.
It’s worse, first of all, as filmmaking. From the opening scene of Jesus’s agony in the garden, with its silent-movie head-tossing and chest-heaving, its slithering snake (evil is afoot!) and $2.98 clump of trees backlit in a dry-ice fog, Gibson directs down to the audience, as if presuming us to be bumpkins used to a diet of corn.
When Gibson wants to impress us with the decadence of Herod’s court, he whips up a scene that poor, saintly Jack Smith might have titled “Sodomite Fleshpots of the Orient” (only Smith would have done it better and wouldn’t have been serious). When Gibson wants to illustrate maternal love, he shows Mary running in slo-mo through the bosky light of a flashback, hurrying to comfort a toddler Jesus who has scraped his knee. (This greeting-card image pops into her head when her adult son, flayed raw, tumbles beneath the massive beams of the cross–a conjunction of events that proves the flashback to be not just trivial but superfluous. Doesn’t Mary have enough on her mind already?) And when Gibson wants you to understand that certain characters are evil, he makes sure they’re double ugly. In fact everything has to be doubled before Gibson will trust you to get the message. By my count, Jesus falls not three times but six on the way to Calvary. At the moment of his death, it’s not enough for the veil in the Temple to be rent, as in the Bible; an earthquake has to rip a chasm right up to the altar.
Gibson practices the aesthetic of the lapel-puller, who congratulates you, in an ear-splitting bawl, for entering the sideshow he won’t let you pass by. Perhaps you’ll excuse this directorial style as an artistic sin and therefore (in American eyes) venial. Perhaps you’ll be willing to excuse Gibson’s sins against language, too. (The Aramaic that his characters speak was clearly learned by the actors by rote, so that it comes out as gibble-gabble. The actors’ Latin, by contrast, is pretty good, apart from its being utterly un-Roman. What you hear is the Church Latin of Gibson’s youth.) The aspect of the film that you might not excuse is Gibson’s interpretation of the Gospels, an interpretation he has sought to talk out of existence (as I argued in a previous column) by insisting that he’s been true to the Bible.
True to which parts of the Bible, selected according to what principle? To begin formulating the inconvenient answer, I note that Gibson has taken as his principal source the Gospel of John–by common consent the most philosophically elevated of the four, but also (there’s no delicate way to put this) the one that’s explicitly anti-Jewish. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke write about a conspiracy of the “priests” and the “council,” John writes about “the Jews,” as if Jesus and the apostles had not belonged to this people. (Gibson reproduces the effect of John’s rhetoric by a ready-to-hand visual device: He uses fine-featured actors, Mediterranean at most, as his good guys, while casting ostentatiously hook-nosed types as the heavies.) Gibson also makes the most of a statement in John that is not found in the synoptic Gospels, mitigating Pilate’s guilt while emphasizing that of the High Priest: “He that delivered me unto thee,” Jesus says to Pilate, “hath the greater sin.”
No doubt Gibson would have made some people queasy simply by following this text; but he also would have been on relatively firm artistic ground. Let there be a cinematic Passion According to St. John. But Gibson went further. He introduced material from the synoptic Gospels into his main source–and these interpolations consistently exonerate Pilate and damn “the Jews.” From Luke, Gibson takes the story of how Pilate hoped to let Jesus off with a flogging but then found this punishment would not satisfy the crowd. From Matthew comes a favorable mention of Pilate’s wife, who calls Jesus a “just man” and urges her husband to avoid passing judgment. Gibson expands on both these elements, inventing for the first a concerned Roman soldier (who angrily orders an end to the flogging) and for the second providing a scene in which Pilate’s wife befriends Mary and the Magdalene. Of course, the most widely discussed of the passages that Gibson has stitched into his narrative also comes from Matthew; it’s the one in which “all the people” say, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” Although this line goes untranslated in the current release print, it is howled on the soundtrack and can be subtitled at any time into the modern languages of Gibson’s choice.
Admitting, though, that the film’s pattern of selection is suspect, why shouldn’t we respect Gibson’s beliefs and just shut up about it? He has told everyone that The Passion of the Christ is about God’s love; and he has in fact incorporated several key scriptural passages about forgiveness of sin and love for one’s enemy. It might be reasonable for viewers to believe Gibson–except that the film’s action speaks louder than its words.
The most telling event, for me, comes just after Jesus on the cross has asked God to forgive the High Priest. “He’s praying for you!” cries the amazed criminal at Jesus’s left hand, who requests and receives absolution. Not so the criminal to Jesus’s right. He mocks the act of grace he’s just witnessed and is immediately set upon by a raven, which plucks out both his eyes. Instant, bloody retribution! It’s not scriptural, but it’s what Gibson wants, and what he expects the audience to want, too.
Gibson and his apologists will retort that the divine sacrifice of the crucifixion makes the issue of blame irrelevant. This rebuttal may be theologically sound, but it ignores the historical record and (when applied to this film) denies the evidence on screen. In structure, style and dramatic import, The Passion of the Christ is all about identifying and punishing unbelievers, a category that is defined, by today’s absolutists, to include many, many people beyond “the Jews.”
Now for the good news. Quite a few Christians have understood Gibson’s project and are deeply troubled by it. They have not been silent; whereas I, having fulfilled my obligation to address the movie of the year, will say no more–except to thank the people of good will, of many denominations, who have recognized this picture for what it is: a blunt instrument in an angry hand.
Short Takes: What a relief it is to withdraw from the culture wars and return to a life of normal movies, like Starsky & Hutch! Heaven knows, this latest recycling of 1970s TV is no masterpiece. (Movies seldom are, when they credit four writers.) The plot meanders, the jokes wheeze and Todd Phillips’s direction–let’s be positive–keeps most of the picture in focus, most of the time. On the other hand, Ben Stiller is fun, as usual, playing Starsky, a cop who is bristly even before the scene where he inadvertently swallows cocaine; Owen Wilson is charming, as usual, playing Hutch, another of the underachieving buddy-pic roles that Wilson redeems by underachieving in them; and Snoop Dogg is his own sly self as Huggy Bear, the sidekick-informant who helps contribute to the PG-13 rating (for “drug content, sexual situations, partial nudity, language and some violence,” thank you very much). I smiled frequently; I laughed out loud two or three times; and I marveled to see that Starsky & Hutch is more faithful to its source than is The Passion of the Christ. You could find worse occasions for eating popcorn.
As for films that can be praised with no faintness: I’ve been savoring a tartly funny fable by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, James’s Journey to Jerusalem, which is beginning its US theatrical run with a showing at Film Forum in New York. A parable of sorts, which contrasts people’s dreams of the Holy Land with the realities of the State of Israel, James is the story of a young Zulu farmer (the wonderfully open-faced Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) who is in training to be his village’s next pastor and undertakes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He gets as far as Ben Gurion airport. An immigration officer decides he’s come as an undocumented worker and has him thrown in jail, from which he emerges only because a labor contractor (Salim Daw) plucks him out as fresh manpower. Now James really is an undocumented worker, living among other passport-free Africans in a Tel Aviv flophouse and doing grunt work for a succession of Israelis, so he can pay off a large nonexistent debt. Why did I enjoy this film so much? Because it shows a side of Israel that is rarely filmed; because James maintains his innocent faith, even after he is no longer so innocent; and because the line between catastrophe and opportunity turns out to be fuzzier than James might have imagined.
Since we’re in the region, let me also recommend Nir Bergman’s Broken Wings: a beautifully acted family drama set in Haifa, about people who either can’t pick themselves up to do anything or else want to jump from high places. At the heart of the group is Maya (Maya Maron), a sharp-eyed and stringy 17-year-old with a talent for songwriting and an impossible burden of guilt. I think of her as an Israeli counterpart to the teenage heroine of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi; and though Broken Wings (like just about everything else) lacks the exquisite mastery of Yang’s film, its endless ability to create wonder within a kitchen-sink genre, I found the heroine and story of Broken Wings unexpectedly touching. A fine debut, for both Bergman and Maya Maron.
Screening Schedule: Last year I had the honor of being a guest at the sixth annual Green Mountain Film Festival, held on all two blocks of downtown Montpelier, Vermont. There I discovered a cinephile’s utopia: a festival organized and supported by an entire community of local moviegoers. My hosts proved to me that the era of shared enjoyment and discussion is not over–and so, in gratitude, I join them in announcing that the seventh Green Mountain Film Festival will take place March 19-28. For information, go to www.savoytheater.com.