The Passion of the Christ (2004)

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*. I would make a crack about how even the title is slow-moving and pretentious, but in fairness it’s not the title Mel Gibson intended. He wanted to call it The Passion but there were legal problems. Hence the solemn mouthful that I think probably helped it commercially.
*. Blood and guts and religion make for an unbeatable mix. But who would have thought a movie with an R-rating and mostly unknown actors speaking in a pair of dead languages would do this kind of box office? And yet it became the highest grossing R-rated film in United States history, and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time.

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*. Dead languages. And originally Gibson wanted to do the film without subtitles, which would have made it effectively a “silent” film (not really, but one where there is no comprehensible dialogue). The familiarity of the story and the strength of the visuals would carry it. I haven’t tried watching it this way but think it would probably work. Whether any native speaker of Latin or Aramaic, if one could be found, would have been able to understand the back-drafted dialogue is another question. Probably only with difficulty.
*. The images are strong, and the photography nicely done. They were going for a Caravaggio look and in many scenes they got an approximation. But, visually, it’s not a very interesting or complicated movie. It’s not just pretty, but it does play like a series of postcards from the Passion. It has a beautiful but staged and conventional look.

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 *. I wonder what the point is in having Jesus blinded in one eye. It’s a motif throughout the movie, as Barabbas has one blind eye, one of the demonic kids has a similar affliction, one of the Jewish guards wears an eye patch, and a crow pecks out the eye of one of the thieves Jesus is crucified with. Is there some significance to this?
*. Jim Caviezel got a lot of love from the critics for his portrayal of Jesus. I’m not sure why. I guess he had to put up with a lot.

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*. I wouldn’t call this a sympathetic portrait of Pontius Pilate, because that doesn’t go far enough. The movie is in love with him. Played by Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov he is strong, sensitive, well-meaning, and trying to do a difficult job in a hard time. I think he’s the most likeable character in the film, which I probably tells you something about Gibson’s feelings toward manly, authority figures.

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*. Gibson’s later career has had its controversial moments, to be sure. His personality has not worn well. This film highlights several recurring themes that have been especially troubling: anti-Semitism, homophobia (the androgynous Satan, the effeminate Herod), and most of all a real thing for torture. What is it about people being cruelly punished and abused that he finds so fascinating? Riggs in Lethal Weapon, William Wallace in Braveheart, and then this.
*. Further to this point, it’s interesting to note that in the famous article on “torture porn” that brought us the term, this was one of the movies mentioned as representing the trend. Roger Ebert called it “the most violent movie I have ever seen.” But as with a lot of the torture movies typical of this period it wasn’t so much violent as cruel. And I would add that the fact that it is so slow-moving and repetitive dulls the effect, at least for me.

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*. Anti-Semitic? You could call it that. But is that unfaithful to the sources, or to early Christianity? It’s a direction the church was going in, as the movement went from being a Jewish sect to one rejected by the Jews, who were increasingly seen as the enemy and betrayers of Christ. That’s not the only way the story is presented in the New Testament, but it is how you can see the church evolving.
*. Are faster film speeds (slow motion) overused? They do give the movie a ponderous effect that the action doesn’t always rise above.
*. Gibson is a master mainstream manipulator, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a game popular filmmakers play, and when they’re on their game what they do works no matter how obvious they are about it. A good example here is intercutting Jesus falling while carrying his cross to a flashback of him falling as a child, with his mother watching both times and her memory drawing the link. It’s a scene that’s totally invented by Gibson as a way of humanizing Jesus, and for me it’s the most memorable moment in the film.

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*. I think the earthquake at the end is a mistake. It seems too much like the big Hollywood ending that was needed after all the sufferings of the previous two hours, and a way to give the temple Jews their comeuppance.
*. How many prostitutes in the ancient world looked like Monica Bellucci? Very few, I reckon.
*. I do find this a powerful and moving film, but I just don’t know how much of that derives from its explicit cruelty. I feel like a martyr (literally: witness) every time I see it. I’m curious if it will last, or if it will go the way of Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told. Will our further desensitization to violence allow it to eventually become holiday family viewing, or to its being forgotten? Is this a movie people will want to watch, or experience, again and again?
*. I don’t think so. I just don’t think it’s interesting enough. But it is worth seeing once.

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