Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Unwise Blood – The Passion of The Christ

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

UNWISE BLOOD

Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ

When The Passion of the Christ was shown at the Vatican, the Pope was reported as having commented It is as it was. Within a couple of days, the quote which had already become the most famous film review in history was abruptly denied. What his Holiness probably meant to say was It is what it is. Because, although the Passion phenomenon has divided most viewers and critics into polarised camps of believers and heathens, a middle-of-the-road, objective, agnostic view is perhaps the most sensible reaction to what has become a tiresomely overheated debate.

Gibsons Passion is a take-it-or-leave-it movie that does pretty much what it says on the tin: using the cinematic language of the 20th century blockbuster, it retells the last twelve hours in the earthly life of Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel, saintly fool Pvt Witt from The Thin Red Line). Thats the 20thcentury, not the 21st this is essentially an old-school bible-movie that adheres fairly closely to the genres previous examples. Its two major divergences are (1) an unstinting approach to Christs physical suffering which means lashings of gore when he’s scourged and crucified and (2) the use of ancient languages (mainly Aramaic and Latin) instead of English.

These two elements were reckoned to spell doom at the box-office, and the project languished in distribution limbo for several months before being picked up by Newmarket Pictures. Their gamble paid off more lucratively than anyone could have predicted: at the time of writing (Easter week, 2004) The Passion of the Christ has taken more than $300m in North America, where its predicted to end up with a total very close to the $380m for The Return of the King. All this on a budget, stumped up by Gibson himself, of a relatively paltry $25m (most of the filming took place in Italy, with the crew paid Italian scale rates.)

These startling figures say much more about the current state of the USA the most religiose of countries, if not the most religious than about The Passion of the Christ. Likewise the film itself much more about the man who made it than about its ostensible subject. The film is a self-portrait in blood, a guided tour around the inside Gibsons head: not an especially pleasant place to visit, and God only knows what it must be like to live there permanently.

This inadvertent self-portrait phenomenon isn’t new in cinema, of course: as David Thomson persuasively argues in his book Rosebud, Citizen Kane is really much more about Orson Welles than it is about William Randolph Hearst. And this isn’t the only connection between the two films: both were made by men with outsize egos and generous budgets, operating beyond the control of Hollywood studios. Welles carte-blanche was the result of his awe-inspiring boy-genius reputation. Gibsons freedom was of a rather different origin: if he wanted to sink his money into a hairbrained project based on his own religious beliefs, the consensus went, let him do so look what happened to Travolta and Battlefield Earth.

Travolta didn’t actually direct or write Battlefield Earth, of course. But Gibson performed both duties on The Passion he shares the screenplay credit with Benedict Fitzgerald. Another Kane parallel: the thorny question of authorship. The controversy over the input of Welles co-scriptwriter Herman J Mankiewicz has raged for decades Pauline Kael once wrote a whole book on the subject. The role of Fitzgerald has, however, so far been overlooked by critics writing on The Passion.

This is an unfortunate omission because Fitzgerald has only one other feature-film credit to his name: John Hustons acclaimed 1979 filming of Flannery OConnors novel Wise Blood. Which ends, in the words of Time Outs Chris Auty, with its protagonist Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) being driven into a real-life imitation of the martyrdom of Christ. In the book, Motes obeys his instinct: his wise blood that tells him what to do. Until he achieves, against all odds, a state of grace which is only conveyed in the final words of the final paragraph of the novels 226 pages. Likewise, in The Passion a mere thirty-odd seconds are devoted to the Resurrection (this sequence seems to beg out to be followed by a title-card reading To Be Continued) after two hours during which Christ is, in effect, brutally tortured to death.

The scourging and crucifixion have, unsurprisingly, proved too much for many people Christs flagellation seems interminably protracted, with the Roman superintendent unwilling or unable to call satis (enough). Though the resulting gore-fest is not, it seems, too much for Americas Christian self-proclaimed Moral Majority, whove been remarkably accepting of the explicit bloodshed. Theyd have surely been noisily outraged if the individual suffering so spectacularly on screen had borne any other name than Jesus: Brian, for example. Then again, perhaps this time they have a point: if nothing else, Gibson reminds us about aspects of Christs death which are too often airbrushed out of artistic renderings: the extremities of pain and indignity he suffered in his final hours.

Gibson and Fitzgerald would point out (and have point out) that their script draws heavily on the Gospels some prior knowledge of Christs story is essential (newcomers would be mistaken for thinking that John [Hristo Jivkov] is Jesuss brother.) But they add a few grand guignol touches of their very own: the eye-pecking raven which messily punishes another of the Golgotha crucified for laughing at Jesuss plight; the demon/zombie children which provide a couple of cheap shocks and harrass Judas (Luca Lionello) towards suicide; a demonic/wizened baby-thing cradled by a hermaphroditic, ghostly figure we take to be Satan (Rosalinda Celentano); a briefly-glimpsed creepy-crawly inside Satans nostril which looks like a luminescent living snot.

Each of these additions pushes The Passion of the Christ closer and closer to the territory of the horror film but this doesn’t seem to be something that Gibson has thought through especially carefully. Like almost all of his directorial contributions, the horror effects are crudely applied barely a scene goes by without Gibson indulging his fondness for slow-motion, invariably accompanied by the standard-issue inspirational muzak of John Debneys score.

Gibson clearly believes passionately in what he’s doing, but while his faith is evident in every frame (unless one reckons he doth protest too much?), the matter of his talent behind the camera is much more open to question. Subtletly and ambiguity are very thin on the ground indeed Celentanos chilly calm; Hristo Naumov Shopovs conflicted, exasperated, compellingly charismatic Pilate; a brief, vertiginous Gods-eye shot (by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) of the Crucifixion.

In almost every other aspect, Gibsons film is naive, blunt, monotonous the tone is set before it even begins, when a scary lightning-bolt loudly splits the screen to introduce the logo of Gibsons production-company Icon. The spoken Aramaic and Latin has been questioned by many linguists, ridiculed by some. The presentation of Jewish high-priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) has been called anti-Semitic, though Gibsons denials convincingly suggest an absence of mens rea on this hyper-controversial point.

The well-chronicled issue of the shameful blood libel line (removed from the English subtitles, but present on the soundtrack) doesn’t reflect well on anyone concerned, however. And the Roman soldiers fare arguably even less well rolling-eyed (just like notorious murderer Barabbas [Pedro Sarubbi] and possessed by a seemingly-insatiable blood-lust they may be, but is this any justification for failing to provide translation for most of their dialogue during the scourging?

And all of those whove knocked the film certainly have plenty of justification among them Paul Schrader who, as a writer-director raised in an extremely strict religious household, is perhaps uniquely well-placed to comment:

I thought it was medieval. My guess is that Mel has a problem with the Enlightenment, because his film really does go back to the visceral cult origins of Christianity, and the fervour it has created is more akin to a gospel tent than a motion picture. Im just troubled by it. Its a kind of primitive religion I don’t want to return to. I reminds me more of Shiites than Episcopalians.
[The Guardian, 23rd March 2004]

Hes spot on. But whatever brickbats he and others hurl at Gibson, he has at least three get-outs, or rather defences. First: the extremity of Christs suffering demands no less than an extreme representation. Second: Gibsons version of the Passion is as subjective and as valid as anyone elses including those by the authors of the Gospels, from which he copiously draws. And the third defence is the most appropriate of all, given the fact that Mr Gibsons name is indeed Mel and not Melvin he was named after an Irish saint about whom very little is known. Apart from this tidbit:

According to an ancient tradition, Mel professed Saint Brigid as a nun. During the rite, he inadvertently read over her the episcopal consecration, and that Saint Macaille protested. The ever serene Mel, however, was convinced that it happened according to the will of God and insisted that the consecration should stand.

Enough said. Or rather, satis.

3rd April 2004

by Neil Young

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