Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bloody passion

I'm laid up with a flu or something right now, which gives me the rare opportunity to catch up on some films. I watched "Donnie Darko" (2001) yesterday, which has come well recommended to me by many people. It's really quite good, but very weird. Awesome cast, involving Patrick Swayze, Catherine Ross, and the Gyllenhaal siblings. See it if you can. I also watched most of "Dark Knight" (2008), which I've seen before, but it's still amazing.

But what I wanted to focus on was "Passion of the Christ" (2004). I found this rather disappointing. Not from a filmmaking perspective, of course -- technically, it was quite well done. Mel Gibson's use of scenery, costume, and music, and especially his the decision to have the cast speak entirely in Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew, really gave the film a sense of time and place and realism that even "Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) didn't achieve, and that's one of my favorite films. So kudos to Mel on that score.

That said, the film was little more than a medieval passion play. With the exception of a few very brief flashbacks (the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, Jesus building a table), the entire film spans the last few hours of Christ's life, during which he was almost constantly getting the crap kicked out of him. The film has an almost pornographic fixation with the violence being visited upon Jesus -- the soldiers punching him, whipping him, beating him with rods, tearing his flesh with hooks, etc. Blood is everywhere. It's actually hard to say whether actor Jim Caviezel does a good job portraying Jesus, since most of what he does is moan, wince, and fall down. The few breaks we get from the beatings are quasi-political moments when we see Pontius Pilate pleading with the Pharisees to let Jesus go, only to end up being bullied by the high priests into condemning him. Pretty much the only merciful people we see in the film are high-ranking Roman officers -- the rest of the cast consists of sadistic Roman soldiers being cheered on by crazed Jews. If Mel Gibson is trying to prove that he's not an anti-Semite, he probably shouldn't offer this film as evidence.

I guess I'm missing the point, but I have a hard time understanding the religious tradition of portraying one's deity being beaten to death. I suppose I'm not the film's target audience. Still, most artistic portrayals of religious figures are designed to at least sell the faith a bit. "Last Temptation" provided a very sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Jesus. It had a profoundly emotional crucifixion scene, but it also showed the evolution of Jesus' philosophy and his own personal struggle to reconcile his human and divine sides. "The Ten Commandments" (1955) was pretty cheesy, but at least tried to demonstrate God's greatness. I can't imagine a non-Christian watching "Passion" and feeling like she wanted to learn more about Christianity.