From the moment when Mel Gibson began promoting The Passion of the Christ–was it only ten years ago?–he has insisted that his goal was to be true to the Gospel text. Words are crucial to his project, so crucial that the film’s dialogue is spoken principally in Aramaic and Latin; and words have consistently tripped him up.
Remember that for his initial, highly publicized attack against his critics, Gibson seized on the actions of an ecumenical group, which had obtained a bootleg copy of his script and expressed strong misgivings. It’s unfair to judge a film by its screenplay, Gibson said, and he was right–assuming, of course, that in shooting The Passion, he had behaved as filmmakers ordinarily do and departed from the written word. If, on the other hand, he really had translated the Gospels to film, then the gap had presumably been closed between source and screenplay, screenplay and image. In that case, the ecumenists could easily have judged the picture by its shooting script, or (even more efficiently) by the Bible.
Gibson fell over his words for the second time when he circulated an endorsement from the Pope, reportedly obtained at a preview screening. “It is as it was,” said the Pontiff, confirming the film’s fidelity to Scripture; but then authorities in the Vatican disowned the remark, leaving the filmmaker with an embarrassing lacuna in his text. Is the incident as Gibson said it was? Or had John Paul never uttered the papal blurb?
Now, as the film is about to open, Gibson falls for the third time. While maintaining that The Passion of the Christ must be seen to be discussed, and seen in its integrity as a work of art, he has declined to let film critics watch the picture in advance. I make no special claims for reviewers. We may do our jobs well, or we may do them poorly; but all of us, however foolish or fallible, are dedicated to the very task that Gibson claims to want performed, although he’d rather not help us carry it out. I can assure you, we have had many more opportunities to preview Eurotrip than to see The Passion of the Christ, which has remained unavailable to every critic of my acquaintance until immediately before the public opening.
As a marketing tactic, Gibson’s decision makes good sense. Enormous advance publicity and a wide release have given him the classic critic-proof opening, with crowds of the curious guaranteed for the first week. More important, he can sustain the box office he generates, having pre-sold The Passion of the Christ to a multitude of churchgoers who don’t ordinarily hang out at the movies and certainly don’t pay attention to reviews. (By now, quite a few members of this target audience will have seen a tract titled “Who Killed Jesus?” which is adorned on the cover with a photo of Gibson and on the inside with a strong recommendation for The Passion of the Christ. I picked up my copy on Broadway, from a Brooklyn-based evangelist.) Under these circumstances, Gibson correctly calculates that he should dismiss the reviewers, having nothing to gain from them.
But then, speaking as one who has been dismissed, I must complain of my unfortunate set of choices. Either I can catch Gibson’s movie on opening day, February 25, and write about it then (in which case the article won’t appear until mid-March); or else I can review The Passion now, unseen.
For the greater glory of cinema…
The Passion of the Christ is an intensely brutal movie, whose spiritual center is located firmly behind the camera. As director and co-screenwriter, Mel Gibson is all but ecstatic before the agonies he has so painstakingly staged, and with which he so completely identifies. His surges of emotion carry you through the picture–which puts the purported central character at a disadvantage.
James Caviezel, who plays Jesus, brings to the part an El Grecoish face and mournful demeanor that have served him well in somewhat similar roles: the saintly GI in The Thin Red Line, the buried and resurrected hero of The Count of Monte Cristo, the participant in a miraculous (if not altogether spooky) father-and-son relationship in Frequency. So lean that he looks tortured from the outset, as if his muscles couldn’t quite stretch from one end of his long bones to the other, Caviezel takes naturally to the athletic round of sufferings imposed on him in The Passion; and yet his inherent otherworldliness, which you might have thought would infuse the creatural side of his Jesus with a suggestion of the divine, makes him opaque as an actor. Good film actors (such as Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, or for that matter Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary in The Passion) have a knack for pulling in your attention and then directing it elsewhere, into the cinematic world around them. Caviezel, though, is always an object for the camera to study, never a consciousness that opens up its own viewpoint within the screen. (You might say the same for the beautiful yet perpetually blocklike Monica Bellucci, who is the film’s Magdalene.) The casting of Caviezel is the telltale problem of The Passion; it betrays Gibson’s desire as author, perpetrator, rapt witness and vicarious Christ to see for a Jesus he has himself made blind, to think for a Christ he’s made thoughtless.
The decision to have the actors mouth Aramaic and Latin only worsens the problem. Although some viewers will be able to follow the dialogue unassisted (I know a handful of such people, all of whom teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary), the great majority of us will need to read the subtitles, so that our eyes must focus not on Caviezel’s face but on the blocks of letters at the bottom of the screen. In this way, too, Gibson diminishes the performances while magnifying the importance of the text. Toward what end, I wonder?
In one sense, he is merely the latest in an odd but influential line of filmmakers who have aspired to make literal transcriptions of a text, or at least are said to have done so. The earliest was Erich von Stroheim, whose Greed (1924) became legendary as an exhaustive, paragraph-by-paragraph realization of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague. The legend is nonsense, of course, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has demonstrated; but it’s persistent nonsense, which helped establish Stroheim’s reputation as an artist implacably at odds with venal Hollywood.
Next in line comes a great Catholic filmmaker, Robert Bresson, whose version of Bernanos’s novel Journal d’un curé de campagne is central to one of the most important polemics in film history: François Truffaut’s 1954 essay “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” the founding document of auteurism. In an astonishingly slippery maneuver, Truffaut used the alleged faithfulness of Bresson’s film (faithfulness to the spirit, not the letter) in order to deride a competing adaptation by the screenwriters Aurenche and Bost. Truffaut sank these old-guard figures by exposing the liberties they had taken with the Bernanos text, and did so with such vehemence that you might have thought their unrealized project had actually been filmed. Talk about judging a movie by its screenplay!
The next text on the list, curiously enough, concerns the death of Jesus. In 1963, Manoel de Oliveira brought out his Acto da Primavera: a picture that faithfully and patiently records a passion play done in rural Portugal. The trick here is that Oliveira for the most part does not present Acto da Primavera as a documentary. Instead, after providing a brief frame, he lets the story take over, so that you soon feel you’re watching a fiction film, performed by stiff but fascinatingly unselfconscious actors.
Then in 1978, in what was arguably his greatest achievement, this same Oliveira did for the classic Portuguese novel Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love) what Stroheim was only said to have done for McTeague. Over the course of a four-and-a-half-hour film, Oliveira has his performers act out the entire text–an exercise that sometimes requires them to pause in their tracks, while a voiceover narrator catches up with a lengthy patch of narration.
What do we learn from this brief history? That textual literalism in film has primarily been a matter of false claims, misdirection, illusionism and irony. Mel Gibson distinguishes himself in this tradition in two ways. First, he’s dead serious, as if textual literalism could in fact be achieved. Second, he bases his work not on a novel or even a passion play but on a text that he takes to be inerrant–and by this move he doubles the stakes.
This doubling is what most troubles me. Yes, I’m also troubled by the encouragement that The Passion of the Christ may give to Jew-haters. A worry isn’t necessarily baseless, just because the preposterous Abe Foxman voices it. (Nor is every reassurance to be swallowed, just because it comes from as smooth an actor as Mel Gibson. It’s unthinkable that he would be an anti-Semite, Gibson explained on TV to Diane Sawyer; to be anti-Semitic would be un-Christian. To which I counterpose this statement by Godfrey de Bouillon, recorded after his Crusaders had slaughtered the entire population of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter in July 1099: “And then, when we thought that the Savior had been sufficiently revenged by the death of the Jews and other infidels, we went with tears to worship at the Holy Sepulcher.” The teachings that inspired de Bouillon were repudiated by the Vatican when I was just entering high school.) But, beyond my parochial squeamishness over this movie, I’m concerned at how Gibson forecloses any interpretation. “It is as it was.” Disagree with the film in any way–even to point out how the Gospels are at variance with history–and you disagree with revealed truth.
However much you might play at seeing his work as just another movie, Gibson has gone outside the normal bounds of show business and into the territory of America’s religious absolutists: John Ashcroft having himself anointed with oil, gay-hating lawmakers attempting to write Leviticus into the Constitution, antiabortionists shooting to kill, generals declaring holy war against the Muslim infidel. Our country has a great, great many such people who do not consider their convictions to be open to discussion. They maintain a significant hold on political power; and since a lot of them have an antinomian streak, I doubt the rule of law would stand in their way, should we manage to loosen their grip. The ever-boyish and ingenuous Gibson, with his simple faith, has made The Passion of the Christ as a gift for these people.