The Passion of the Christ (2004)

For all the controversy and debate surrounding the film, I think it’s simpler and shallower than it seems, or as many cast it. Even for director Mel Gibson’s talk of its thematics, I don’t even think it’s particularly imbibed with any themes, message, philosophy, anything. It is just Gibson trying his best to depict the Passion as accurately as he saw he could. Filtered through Gibson’s mind, that meant baring all the blood and gore and suffering of Christ. I don’t believe the film makes any statement, except perhaps in the clunky, unnecessary final minute or two. It presents the Passion as Gibson sees it, take it or leave it. It’s a canvas to project one’s own readings onto.

At least, I feel like that’s the ideal film in here. As it actually came out, the ending tacking on elements of the resurrection colours the film needlessly, and there clearly are some elements of Gibson’s personal reading of the Passion present, whether he intended that or not. The violence is the easiest thing to fixate on, but there are a few interesting conflations and alterations made to the typically accepted Catholic view of the Passion, enough that one could construe some sort of, if not narrative, then ideology behind Gibson’s presentation.

I understand what was being attempted with the violence. I am not one for gore, but this is a rare occasion where it worked for me. Sanitising the Passion can obscure the magnitude of what exactly Christ was doing. If the film was just a very straight, literal retelling of the Passion as its generally accepted, I think it would be more cohesive and a stronger film, but the little changes and conflations add up, as do some of the stranger stylistic choices (the devil children are particularly grating).

There’s a very strong work of singular vision in here, but it’s obscured by some minor but notable choices divorced from the Passion in its most basic form, which displace the admirable intention behind the film. The ending alone breaks the fragile conceit that is the film’s greatest strength. The relentless savagery Christ is subject to gains meaning from the audience, from dramatic irony, from us projecting our own meaning onto it. Showing Christ risen breaks all of that. It prescribes meaning, and in doing so enables retroactive recontextualising of all the violence as gratuitous. If the film is prescriptive, what is the point of its existence? Why the focus on realism, if meaning is to be pushed at the audience at the last minute?

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The ending makes the whole experience just another movie, not a carefully constructed window through which we can gaze at the Passion and make our own judgements. Why plunge us so deeply into the time, if we’re going to just be abruptly pulled back out, and have those two thousand years of interpretation wash away the power of the film? In being so grounded and tangible, the film enabled the viewer to find divinity, but in depicting divinity, it pushes the viewer back into the two thousand years of cold reality, filled with so many other’s interpretations and readings of the Passion. Why make our own, in that case? The ending destroys any purpose of the realism Gibson was so focused on, and thus recontextualises the violence as gratuitous and vain on the behalf of the filmmakers. So much effort was poured into the verisimilitude here, the language especially, so casting that all away by bringing the weight of Christianity onto what was by necessity a pre-Christian act makes it seem useless.

My issues with the ending really apply to all the aspects of the film that don’t appear to be as accurate, widely-agreed upon aspects of the Passion – the conflation of certain figures, odd focus on particular groups, license taken with some of the Roman aspects, and so on. The film would work tremendously if was all a hyper-real presentation of the Passion as it’s taken to have happened, but every time some aspect of Gibson’s personal vision and opinions poke through, the illusion breaks, and as the realism is the whole focus of the film, everything is effectively undercut.

There’s peculiar strength here, and I admire the focus and vision behind much of the idiosyncrasies of the film. But it doesn’t carry through on what it promises, or purports to be. I give it three claims of realism, and plans for a sequel.

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