In this week’s 10YA, EJ Legaspi does what no Catholic should have to do twice: watch Mel Gibson’s paschal epic The Passion of the Christ. Here, EJ re-views the film in light of Gibson’s own tormented passions, and questions his faith in Gibson’s project.
10YA: The Passion of the Christ
By EJ Legaspi
If there is one movie that challenges me to be absolutely objective as a film viewer, it’s Mel Gibson’s religious opus, The Passion of the Christ. I mean, as a Catholic, how could I not be moved by the sheer brutality that flickered before me as I sat slack-jawed in the darkness of that movie theater ten years ago? Good thing it was dark because I had never cried so consistently and so profusely while watching a film. Pixar’s Up is the only film that comes close, but that is another story altogether.
I grew up extremely Catholic, maybe excessively so. I devoured books on saints and pored over paintings and drawings of the suffering and death of Jesus. When our house was being rebuilt, I’d go to our carpenter, ask for some spare wood, and hammer together my own crosses. I’d take some paper, draw out Jesus, the best as a kid could, spread-eagled, in pencil. I’d make sure that the crown of thorns was amply sharp and I wondered which placement of the nails would be most historically accurate. Perhaps I thought it would bring me closer to heaven, maybe I was being thoughtlessly reflective, but needless to say Catholic iconography was deeply ingrained in me.
Without a doubt, therefore, I was the perfect audience to view this film. And after I came out of the theater that warm Lenten evening, I was spent and relieved from all that cathartic crying. Mel Gibson had crafted a masterpiece. I loved the imagery, the grit, and the passion displayed in the film. I was not entirely happy with it, but it was everything that it could have been.
Ten years later, I approached this film with slight trepidation. I know of many friends who could not sit through it the first time, much less a second time. I have come to realize that I have not seen it all the way through as well. I knew this was going to be a challenge to sit through. Besides, times have changed ever since this was released. Mel Gibson is essentially a Hollywood pariah now, and if there was movie that demanded to be seen sans the author’s intent, this was it. So it was with this in mind that tried I to re-view The Passion of the Christ.
Very quickly, I realized that I was not going to be successful at accomplishing this goal. The accusations of “torture porn” and anti-Semitism echoed in my head even before I hit the play button. By avoiding that issue, I would fail to honestly look at the film from where we stand now. Context is king, and this film is prime evidence that serves as a window into Mel Gibson’s mind, prior to his scandalous drunken arrests and recorded phone calls.
I decided that the best way to view this is how Mel Gibson intended to initially release it: without subtitles. The entirety of the film is spoken in either Aramaic or Latin, and Gibson posited that the visuals should speak for themselves since the story is well-known enough.
To an extent, he was right. The visuals are indeed striking still, with Jim Caviezel’s contorted face and mutilated body carrying much of the pain of Jesus’ torture and Maia Morgenstern’s pained tears bearing the emotional weight of Mary’s grief. However, the loss of the nuance of the dialogue and knowing the specific words, whether lifted directly from Catholic scripture and tradition or placed primarily due to artistic license, fails to establish the context for the visceral imagery. The result: I was not able to tear up this time around.
Don’t get me wrong, the protracted scourging at the pillar still got to me. There was a definite buildup of moisture in my tear ducts, but for one reason or another, the swelling of emotion failed to burst forth.
Part of the reason is that I found myself questioning what now seem to me many paradoxical choices that Gibson has made in this film. Was he trying to make a more historically accurate Jesus movie? If so, that should explain his obsession with recording the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. However, his constant reliance on extra-Biblical information suggests that this is meant to be a largely spiritual experience.
I have to admit that ten years ago I was more than willing to accept the non-English speaking, non-subtitled film, but now as I trudge through the film without a clue as to what was being said, I found myself focused on how the actors delivered their lines. I am naturally suspicious of movies where actors do not speak in their native tongues. There’s usually a strange disconnect between the words and the actor that seems to stem from trying not flub the strange lines they have to say. It’s hard enough to act, but in another language one does not speak must increase the challenge exponentially. So many lines seemed to be delivered in a distractingly declamatory style usually reserved for high school Shakespeare performances or for spell-casting in high fantasy shows. Then again, maybe it’s just me. Either way, it would probably not have been a problem had I watched it with the subtitles on.
Historical accuracy, I concluded, was something that Gibson tried to approach, but was not his primary objective. At worst, it was not as bad as the blonde blue-eyed Jesuses of other Jesus movies or passion and death pageants, and at best, he was able to create an image of Jesus that almost looked like a Middle-Eastern man, but at the same time still look good (read: handsome) enough to be a Hollywood leading man. Jim Caviezel is a fine actor, and it’s a shame that Gibson’s prediction of him never working in Hollywood again after this film has essentially come true, but by gum his teeth, his beautiful perfect teeth certainly stood out amidst all the blood and gore. Was he really smiling while he was being scourged? I had to take a second look. He wasn’t, but it was almost certainly as if his pearly whites where the keys that unlocked the pearly gates.
While I can’t really fault Caviezel for good dental hygiene, I do question Gibson’s insistence on heavy-handed symbolism and imagery. He doesn’t dwell too much on perspectives and representations that could potentially complicate the emotional impact of the scenes. Although this could be read as effective filmmaking, this is the root from which the anti-Semitism accusations spring forth from. The Pharisees and scribes were not portrayed under the most flattering light. They were all blinged-out in stark contrast to the generally blood and tunic work by Jesus and his followers. It would be unfair to lay all of the blame on Gibson, as traditional passion plays do go this route. Mel Gibson didn’t write the book on prejudice, he simply made a very famous movie that may allowed us to peek into his personal prejudices.
Christ’s torturers didn’t fare much better, save for the repentant half-blind centurion Longinus, as most were repugnant heartless caricatures. I found it a little easier this time around to dissociate myself from the scene and imagine the Roman soldiers to be twirling their imaginary bad-guy mustachios or licking their hypothetical Freddy Kruger claws. It’s possible that they really were that cruel and ignorant, and maybe it speaks more of who I am now and my personal worldview that I insist that not everyone is an absolutely terrible person, and that this time around, the abject cruelty feels like it diminishes the poignancy of the scene.
Gibson extends the use of this shorthand for good and evil by casting very sympathetic and attractive women. From the gorgeous Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene to Rosalinda Celentano as the wife of Pontius Pilate, and the aforementioned Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, the pious and the faithful as synonymous with the beautiful. And how could he not? Traditionally, from religious icons to Disney heroes and heroines, beauty and good have been used interchangeable as values and virtues that well aspire to have. Have you ever seen an ugly, or even a plain Jane, Mary? Perhaps it was not Gibson’s place to change or challenge this, but once they pull out Barabbas, you just know this is not the guy you’d want to let loose in Judea.
One good thing that Gibson does is the androgynous Satan who frequently taunts Jesus throughout the film. The oddly beautiful whilst simultaneously disturbing demon famously mocks Jesus during the scourging scene, which at this point should be clear to all is the scene I am most fixated with, in guise of a corrupted Madonna and Child. This reference is more of a direct taunt to the audience and should be perfect if not for one of Gibson’s mortal sins, his excessive use of slow motion.
Slow motion, one of filmdom’s most abused tools for emphasis, is used ad nauseam in many key moments that Gibson intends to highlight whether its coins tumbling away from Judas to implements hammering away at Jesus. If he really believes that the story is familiar enough and that he intended to show things for what they are, Gibson should have just let these scenes played out as they would. They ruined perfectly good shots by letting them overstay their welcome and ending up almost becoming hokey.
What did work were the flashbacks between Mary and Jesus. These moments of everyday stillness between mother and son formed the emotional core of the film. It is one thing to see a great man tortured, but to see it from the perspective of how a mother sees her child was a much appreciated layer of humanity. In addition to this, it was distinct pleasure to see Jesus working as a carpenter who took pride in his work, a scene not too often portrayed in Jesus films, and this one worked beautifully. The humanity of Jesus is often lost under the veneer of divinity and arguably a greater achievement than the torture and suffering depicted in the passion itself.
If there’s one major beef that the Catholic in me has with the film, it’s the afterthought that was the resurrection. I understand that Gibson comes from a specific tradition that dwells in the guilt of the suffering of Jesus, but the central belief in the paschal mystery is in the passion, death, and resurrection. It felt uncomfortably odd that the film, after all that intense drama, chose to raise Jesus from the dead as if he just woke up from a bad dream.
As a work of faith, The Passion of the Christ almost dangerously distills the faith experience as an emotional experience of suffering. I’m sure many of the faithful, Catholic or otherwise, felt immense guilt after watching this. Some would have also gone on to be appreciative of their faith. Good for them. However I wonder if how many actually became more thoughtful and reflective because of this film. I am a firm believer that belief in one’s religion requires both faith and reason, and I thank my Jesuit education for this, but Mel Gibson probably thinks otherwise.
Viewing The Passion of the Christ as a film, it can be quite impenetrable and almost exclusive in its attitude with its subject matter. It’s certainly a far superior film to many cheesy Sunday school movies on Jesus, but its brutality will not suit everyone. On that note, it is hardly the “torture porn” that some people purport it to be. Yes, it is violent, but only those who are truly sadistic or those detached from their humanity would insist on this argument.
Yes, Mel Gibson may be a bigot. And yes, this film may hint at some parts of his personal flaws, but this man believed in what he believed in, and this film has certainly affected many different people , and in many of them, good ways. This is an unforgettable film and everyone should see it. Maybe just once though. And certainly not without the subtitles.