You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Monday, March 15, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

I just went and saw this movie recently. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and while I think I had a pretty good idea of how it would end, and there were no real plot spoilers, I didn't more than one or two reviews before I went, although I did pay attention to the "buzz" surrounding the movie. Mostly this consisted of reading about people having various weeping / crying episodes at the conclusion of the film, falling onto their knees and praying, or else people being violently ill or walking out.

So, I thought, this is definitely a movie that I have got to see.

Was I disappointed. No weeping or vomiting for me. No walking out. Yes it was extremely violent,and it did in the end all seem rather pointless. I was initially impressed by the "sweat like drops of blood" on Jesus (Jim Cavaziel's) face at the start, but the Satan character was real distraction, and that snake coming out - what was that all about? When the people in the seat next to me went "Yes!" as Jesus stomped it with his heel, I thought I was sitting next to a pair of Evangelical hooligans who would variously cheer and jeer all through the film.

Next scene - guy with ear cut off. Fairly well done I thought, and this guard obviously is impressed when Jesus heals his ear - but later Mary provokes the same response in a Roman legionairre. This diminishes the effect of the first.

When Mary first shows up she is the Italian Mary - black robes, care-lined face, everyone calls her mother etc. No points for guessing which audience Mel is appealing to here. It took me a while to figure out the accompany woman was Mary Magdalene - but with the flashback about the woman caught in adultery, the penny dropped.

Some scenes were very well done - like Peter denying Christ three times (even thought no cock crowed) in the throng of the crowd when Jesus is first arrested. Even though this is outside the biblical sources I thought it fitted quite nicely - after all, this is a movie. And Judas' presence there was also a bit of an eye-opener, although it did seem plausible. But the way Judas tops himself - so overplayed as to be beyond credibility. I don't know how you would effectively show the inner turmoils of a troubled mind - perhaps Mel could go and ask Shakespeare's Hamlet for advice. But some pesky devil kids and a dead donkey just don't cut it for me, I'm sorry. And what about the bit where Judas' guts spill open? Where's that eh? Come on, Mr Gibson, I want to see some action!

On to the Romans - Mel gives them a very sympathetic aspect. Pontius is shown pushed and pulled three ways - by Caesar, the Jewish mob and his own wife. A man cannot have two masters, Pontius. And yet he is supposed to be a governor of Judea! He may as well join the United Nations and try and sort the issue out there. More sympathetic Romans - it's a bit like a sympathetic Nazi - surely they can't have all been bad - these are the people that brought us civilization, right? At least they supplied the Roman Catholics with a location, because the marriage of Rome and Religion is affirmed when Pontius's wife hands Jesus' mum some cloths to sop us his blood. What is that all about? a) It would never happen and b) why bother soaking up the blood? Is this another obscure Catholic tradition of which I have no knowledge? Let us in to the narrative secret here Mel, I'm stumped.

Now for the gruesome bits. Jesus is punched and spit on, and cops a lurgy right in the eye at one stage. And he gets beaten with sticks by the local law enforcement agencies, Rodney King style. But the flagellation is something else. The actual cat-o-nine tails or whatever it is has huge metal shards on the ends - it looks like JC has gone a few rounds with a tiger! And the amount of lashes. I really think the poor guy would have bled to death, he had so many deep, deep cuts on him. And here's the Romans having a jolly old laughat it all -shades of Monty Python. It got so ridiculous that when they turned jesus over to beat up his front I had to laugh. Surely this guy should be dead. He's like a terminator - pump hundreds of rounds into him and he still gets up with a look of defiance on his face like payback is only a reel change away.

Just as an aside he gets a crown of thorns pushed over his noggin - a bit rough if you ask me, and they chuck a robe on him and go the biff one more time. Jesus looks like he'd rather be somewhere else at this point. He can't really suffer with any dignity here, so the scene is quite short compared with each stroke of the rod or the whip being counted out in long time on the big screen. But they take the robe of him. I wondred about this - weren't the soldiers supposed to gamble over a robe? Wasn't there a film made in the 1950's with that very title about a robe? But I read my New Testament and yes, the soldiers take it off him and give him back his original clothes.

Now for the show - in front of the crowd - more like a mob. I could almost imagine them starting to throw stones at the soldiers, although it was about 2000 years out of date, the place was thesame, and the mindset is stiill there. Pilate again looks compromised - prevaricating and wavering. Next to him the United Nations Security Council looks like a lion. And Jesus is up there dispensing advice with a composure that seems, well, supernatural, considering the beasting he received at the hands of legionairres. But here is where Mel has gotten sly and appeased those who has said his film is "Anti-Semitic". He has CUT OUT the staement but the Jews that said "We will bear responsibility - let his death fall on us and our chilren" etc or words to that effect. Obviously he has made concession to the masses and compromised the purity of his arty. No wonder Pontius Pilate receives such a sympathetic portrayal - this is the man whom Mel must have based himself on.

Ultimately Jesus get sentenced to death and is set to drag his whopping great cross up out of the city. In another concession to tradition, Jesus carries the whole cross, and the thieves just carry the crossbar. No wonder he keeps falling down on the way. And he is still being beaten. He ios being whacked so badly at one point that a Centurion says to the Other Ranks, "Give the guy an hand". I think it would be more like"Get this guy up and nailed quick smart - his sentence is crucifixion, not beating to death, and if you don't hurry up you''ll be nailed to the pole next to him". Remember, these are the very guys who would burn a soldier in his uniform if he slept on guard duty, and would kill one in ten if they had a bad day at the office and showed cowardice on the battlefield.

Enter Simon of Cyrene. Big guy, strong muscles, carries cross. Makes a speech "I am innocent - this other guy is guilty". Is he worried about a clerical error at the end of the line, perhaps, where the two are mixed up? Bloodied man, 95% beaten up, go free. Local citizen helper, dressed in smart casuals - lie down and get nailed. No chance - these Romans have just flogged one guy to death - why are they waiting while some other fella makes up his mind. Imagine what the Romans would have actually said, "That's defiance to the lawful occupiers of Palestine, sir. I'm afraid we are going to have to take you into custody and sort this out in the dungeon in between games of dominoes and betting on the cockroaches". And yet the soldiers put up with it again. Siom declares that they are beating up Jesus too much and he will NOT carry that cross A STEP FURTHER, thank you very much. The Romans back up, and the whole sorry cavalcade gets going again.

However, this does provide the opportunity for another Catholic tradition to make an appearance. Along comes Veronica with the obligatory white hand towel and takes a face print of JC's bloody face - a picture perfect imprint is taken, to be spirited away in the archives. The miraculous flannel only appears again in the Middle Ages in some obscure Monastery in a debt-ridden European backwater, on display at the back of the nave with a small fee for admission. Veronica offers Jesus a swig but this is knocled away by the evr vigilant Romans. The sight of he cup broughto mind the Holy Grail. With so many other traditions emerging from the woodwork, surely this "Holy Grail" of extra-biblical stories would make an appearance. Where was Joseph of Aramathea? When would he appear? What would be done with the blood of Christ caught in the cup? Sadly this was not to be - perhaps because any Jews of note were obviously baddies, and we can't go around confusing the audience with subleties and niceties like real life, can we Mel?

Just as an aside, poor old JC is flaking over about evry third camer a ngle cgane, and so he hits the dirt hard,, and oftem. Down for the count, I said to myslef in the cineman. Surely he is unconscious. But no, he drags himslef back up, time after time, like and old boxer intent on standing up to save his pride all the while knowing he is beaten. The funny thing about it is, just about every time he gets up, Jesus is not dirty! No dust or rocks anywhere! Strange! During these falls, the film neatly goes into flashback to tell a part of Jesus life like a sermon organised around the props of the cricifixtion rather than the heart of the message, like so:"Jesus fell, and saw a Roman sandle. This sandle reminds me of the time when Jesus was also wearing sandles etc etc." Oh yes, cutting to flashback also gives the filmakers time to reapply more gore so when we make the cut back to him, he's bloodier than ever. If that we me, I would definately make an effort to stop having those reveries.

Fianlly he's crucified - but the Romans have got it wrong. I snigger when Jesus says, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do", because those Romans are obviously incompetent! Like dodgy tradesmen, they just can't seem to get it right, and make at least two mistakes in the actual crucifxion. When they flip the cross over I almost laugh out loud. Now it is like Monty Python. How much punishment can this guy take? And don't say his divine nature is sustaining him until he chooses to shuffle off his mortal coil. Jesus agonies were inflicted on his very human body. To sustain a destroyed body with an inspiration of divine Spirit like a walking corpse or zombie is just not right.

And the crucifixion itself is another concession to tradition. What about Destot's space, where you get nailed through the wrists and you can actually hang there unaided by ropes? The Romans' got crucifixion from the Germans, and they are not going to nail anyone to a pine tree and have them fall down again. Test have done on corpses to prove that's how cricifixion was doen - bodies have been unearthed with marks in the right spot. But I suppose you have to nail Him through the hands, because that's what it says - even though it could mean his wrists. I'm no anatomist but when Jesus finally dies, and he gets poked with a spear, blood and water come SPRAYING out under PRESSURE is a big JET. Not "flowed from his side". This was weird. I definately didn't see that one coming, and neither did the Roanm soldier underneath, who seems to stand there with his mouth open and gets absolutely drenched.

OK Jesus is resurrected in the end, but how long did that scene take. What was the point of it all? I really couldn't see myseklf seeing this film again. Yes, it gets people thinking about abd speaking about Jesus and Christian issues, but the film seems to be more trouble than it's worth. I remeber hearing someone say - it's a film about some guys that beat some other guy up. And that about sums it up for me too. Divorced from any significant spiritual refernt, and with few sympathetic charaters, an over emphasis on gore to the point of the ridiculous, the film fails both as a beacon of religious insipration and as the story of a man's life / death. Like the death of Jesus as portrayed it the film, it seems to be a waste.

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