Thursday, February 27, 2014

Revisiting THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) - Mel Gibson's Cinematic Masterpiece

This Friday, Mark and Roma Downey, creators of the popular miniseries The Bible, decided to release a new movie entitled Son of God this Friday. It combines clips from the original miniseries with deleted footage to make for a suitable two-hours plus of movie to sit through.

So I decided to revisit Mel Gibson's controversial 2004 smash hit The Passion of the Christ (which I rewatched recently), that controversial movie dividing people and critics, leaving those who loved it (e.g. Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli, Steven Greydanus) and those who hated it (e.g. Jami Bernard, David Edelstein). Defenders compared it to Carl Dreyer's 1920s classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, while critics of the movie had an opinion that was aptly summed up in this one phrase: "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" (in loving reference to the infamous horror franchise Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Defenders praised the power of the film conveyed through the graphic violence and technical mastery while the critics attacked it for alleged anti-Semitism and graphic violence reminiscent of exploitation cinema.

As for me, I consider this to be one of the all-time best movies ever, albeit a very underappreciated film. While it does have many moments of brilliance, it is very powerful ultimately due to its exaltation of Christ as Savior and powerful evisceration of anti-Christian doctrine. If one is not a Christian, then one can appreciate the technical elements of the film, down from Caleb Deschandel's superb cinematography to Jim Caviezel's impassioned performance as the tortured Jesus Christ (not in the sense of the dark and moody movie superheroes of today, but rather physically tortured for about two hours) to Mel Gibson's raw direction.

So I will break down several reasons as to why I think that The Passion of the Christ still holds up after its much-hyped debut in 2004.

The Filmmaking

The Passion of the Christ ultimately works not only because it is a great Christian-themed display but because it is a great film.

The acting is phenomenal; Jim Caviezel empowers his role as the crucified and tortured Jesus Christ, starting from the very heartbreaking opening shots with Him praying to God down to the very violent scenes where he is tortured and crucified. His role adds a new layer of understanding to the much-quoted passage from Isaiah 53:5: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." (KJV)

The performance from Caviezel doesn't add to that but rather exemplifies that in a brutal and emotionally cathartic manner; and I would like to note that the intercuts of Jesus' previous moments before His crucifixion work effectively well, not only due to Caviezel's performance but also give us a glimmer of hope and triumph amidst all this justifiably R-rated violence.

Also, Mel Gibson's raw direction fits well for this film, not only working with the massive amounts of graphic violence in the film but also the raw and intense feel one gets when viewing this film. I don't feel it pornographic or exploitative; rather, I feel it fits well for a film of this type, setting it apart from the other Christ-related films in its rawness, seriousness, cathartic feel and graphic depiction of suffering.

The screenwriting is not very traditional in the sense that it adheres to the standard three-act structure and the standard character-development rules of movie-making; in fact, there is no character development that i know of. But the film does not need character development, in my view, for The Passion shows the sufferings of a perfect God at the hands of those He came to save. This is the basis of the film and it works very well, without being preachy like many a Christian-made movie that has come out. And the events in the film are well-integrated into the structure of the film, interchanging with the bloodied Christ and the Christ who preached messages of love.

And the use of dead languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin) fit well into the authentic, down-to-earth aura of the movie, with subtitltes to assist the viewer.

Overall, The Passion works because it is a very good film; otherwise, it would not be able to hold up.

The Graphic Violence

One of the reasons The Passion stands out among the other films related to the crucifixion is precisely due to the graphic violence that Mel Gibson paints into the film. Normally, such graphic violence would fit well into a midnight exploitation flick, but in this film, because of the emotional catharsis established in the beginning scenes, the graphic violence further serves that purpose, to feel sympathy for Christ and to feel disgusted at this level of brutality leveled at Christ (which was probably much more gory than what was displayed in the film).

Some critics of the film would deride the violence as exploitative, and I will confess that this is true to a degree (and I will confess that the violence can get tedious at times). In fact, Gibson exploits the graphic nature of the violence to grab us and display cathartic rawness. But unlike the average exploitation film, I hold that the "exploitation" in this film is for a noble purpose and doesn't get out of hand by displaying distateful scenes. In fact, even during the very first display of graphic blood, there are moments when it cuts away from the action to display emotions on those who watch, especially Mary the Mother of Jesus (played effectively by Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (played by Italian beauty Monica Belluci).

I guess that the emotional catharsis caused by the graphic imagery was also a reason many disliked the movie; they felt that the movie was being too distateful and exploitative in the violence in an attempt to gain an emotional reaction and that thus it made it a bad movie. But I hold that film is "manipulative" in that it uses images and emotions and technology to gain emotional reaction to it. If one could accuse The Passion of the Christ of doing this, then one could accuse some of the greatest movies of all time (Citizen Kane, Schindler's List, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.).

The Themes and Message

The final reason why I think The Passion of the Christ stands out is how forcefully it tells the message without always using words (not to say that words aren't used; in fact, during the many juxtapositions, they are). It displays the themes of salvation, love, forgiveness, and mercy even when we see people mercilessly taunt and torture the God of love, Jesus Christ. And it condemns those who reject the message (which I see is another reaosn why many people dislike this film) by contrasting them to the very goodness of Christ.

To those who condemn the film as anti-Semitic, I would say that the film is not anti-Semitic, not only because it did not cause anti-Semitic riots (as some feared), but because some of the very main characters are essentially Jewish, and the film is proud to display that Jewishness throughout the film, not shying away from it at all. Also, the villains of the film include Gentiles (Romans) along with the Jews, and many of the Jewish villains are not so much average Jews as they are hierarchical leaders that are threatened by Jesus and decide to act to crush Him. This is depicted as villanous, not the Semitism.

Also, the themes of love and forgiveness are effectively displayed, not only through the sufferings of Christ on the Cross but also through those sequences that were juxtaposed with the carrying of the Cross. The scenes with the final Passover, His preaching to crowds, and brief shots of people throwing down palm branches when He enters into Jerusalem, contrast so effectively to the hate that is spewed toward Him by the government and by regular folk who once celebrated Him. It utilizes one of the best methods of spreading a message (contrasting it to its opposite) and uses the power of film to effectively do this very well.

And that is why I hold that The Passion of the Christ is a very great film, especially years after its premiere.