Pontius Pilate: What is truth, Claudia? Do you hear it, recognize it when it is spoken?
Claudia Procles: Yes, I do. Don't you?
Pontius Pilate: How? Can you tell me?
Claudia Procles: If you will not hear the truth, no one can tell you.
I have in my lifetime, already born witness to two films which caused greater controversy before they even made it to the can, than Oliver Stone could ever hope to stir over the course of his entire career. Both films focused on the life of a Galilean from Nazareth; a man who is to some a prophet but to a great deal of people is the flesh incarnation of their living God. They call him Christ, Messiah, The Son. He is Jesus.
The first film, The Last Temptation of Christ, was released in 1988. Directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring a blond haired, blue-eyed Willem Dafoe as Jesus, the film was based upon a fantastic book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The book, which is a very moving treatise of the life of Jesus from his perspective is still regularly banned due to the Cretan author's humanizing portrayal of the man. Though it does not call into question or deny the widely consentient Divinity of Jesus, the treatment of him in such a human manner, showing him no less subject to the wants of the flesh and tempted toward sin is an uncomfortable distance from the perception of his unhindered holiness that many cling to.
Although I am not a Christian now, I was raised in this religion, and even now with my atheist beliefs I hold a great deal of respect for the man who was Jesus. I found that Kazantzakis' and Scorcese's portrayals of him actually elevated my respect merely by showing a deeper struggle to be righteous, one far more identifiable and familiar. The idea that Jesus had no difficulty leading a holy life rid of sin, as many believe, for me lessens the power of his ultimate sacrifice of his death.
While this film's main points of contention spurred outrage at the sight of a fully naked Jesus, again far too human an image, the indications of a sexual relationship between he and Mary Magdalene preceded the controversial claims of Dan Brown's DaVinci Code (2003). Kazantzakis' book came out in 1951, a full 52 years prior to the scandalous claim that Jesus and Mary wed and had children, as Brown's book indicated.
When the film was released I was only twelve years old, and forbidden to see it as it was rated-R; a ranking my mother disapproved. I read the book years later when I was in my late twenties and then saw the film. Not one known for my mild-mannered beliefs, I was not surprisingly unaffected finding nothing offensive in either context. So when Mel Gibson announced the filming of The Passion (Later changed to The Passion of the Christ), I merely shrugged and sighed, rolled my eyes and muttered 'here we go again.'
I was intrigued by all of the controversy and protests, mostly because they outrage was once again coming from people who had not seen the film - and refused to - informed people to be sure. After a while, and by the time the film was finally released, I was so tired of hearing about it, I didn't WANT to see it anymore. It did not help that at the time of its release I was living with Elliot in a borrowed room at his parents home. His Mother regularly points out her disapproval of my Buddhist beliefs, or more accurately- my lack of Christian ones. Elliot and were often solicited to attend church, which we had no interest in, and which only seemed to upset her further. So nearly every Sunday, she came home ranting over the outrage that was The Passion. Her opinion suddenly shifted 360 degrees when their church was GIVEN free tickets to the film. Suddenly their opinion was more favorable. I will point out, however, that while she currently owns the film (the copy that I just now viewed myself) she has - to this day - NEVER seen the movie.
Only recently, after a discussion with my father over Mel Gibson's directorial career and talents, did I decide that I should- for the sake of being able to say I did indeed see it- sit and watch this allegedly painfully difficult to watch portrayal of Jesus' last days. I had been repeatedly warned about its overwhelming emotional weight and the excessively bloody violence. So being the pioneer of self-punishment that I am...I watched it during a brief hiccup in my stabilizer meds...meaning, I wasn't on them. I fully prepared with a box of tissues, kept the remote close to pause or stop as needed. I found the 127min film to be overwhelmingly.....disappointing.
I had much the same reaction to seeing Silence of the Lambs a full 6 years after it came out. The controversy, publicity and continual hype built around the film a temple of ruin. It placed it on an impossibly high pedestal that suddenly seemed absurd once I settled in to appreciate the heralded film. My first viewing of the classic tale of Clarice and Hannibal left me feeling no less cheated than a virgin on her wedding night with Johnny Jackhammer. I, of course, watched the film again and have a far greater appreciation for it now that my mind has been swept clean of its preconceived notion of greatness. And just like Silence of the Lambs, The Passion of the Christ IS a great film...but not for the reasons that most claim.
Jim Caviezel, undoubtedly, offers a fine performance as Jesus. My only complaint is that Gibson does not offer up a meatier character to truly win the "inspired performance" title denoted to Caviezel. Between the extremely graphic scourging and crucification scenes, only the vaguest snippets of the inspiring moments that made this man so great are even offered for appreciation. I find this to be a major downfall for the film because it makes two assumptions, the first being that the audience already KNOWS who Jesus of Nazareth is. The second, and truly more irresponsible of the two assumptions, is that the audience has the same passionate adoration for Jesus that the writer and director Mel Gibson has. While I do not, in any way disparage his faith and adulation, I must point out that in doing this he alienates a great number of viewers- those who know nothing of Jesus or have no basic admiration to begin with. It is an ineffectual testimony of Christ from a religious stand point, and it is a major Achilles' Heel in the strength of the storytelling.
The focus of the tale was very much on the undue suffering of Jesus before his final hour. The film opens with no credits or title, only the hunched weeping figure of Jesus praying upward at the moon as if it were the face of God. His words are not translated from the Aramaic which he speaks, leaving the audience aware only of a physically gripping fear in the man. He addresses his apostles, waking them, and the subtitles begin as he warns them that the hour of his betrayal is at hand. He then returns to the woods to pray further at which point an androgynous corpse-like apparition of Satan appears to taunt and plague him. The scene shifts to Judas being paid his silver, seeming far more reluctant in his act than is usually portrayed, then returns to show the soldiers seizing Jesus. It is at this point that one of the only two miracles shown in the film is depicted in which Jesus heals the severed ear of one of the soldiers; an ear severed by the apostle Peter. The only book in which I recall reference to this minor miracle is in St. Luke, a passing reference summed in less than three verses. (Please correct me if I am mistaken). The other miracle is that of the 'floating cross' during the crucifixion, an event I have only ever heard the Catholics profess and have yet to see scriptural evidence of. Hints anyone?
While this scene strives to leave a deep impact of Jesus' compassion for even those who would deliver him to his death, it is filmed with a very dream-like quality which left me thinking more of a toned-down version of the cinematic stylings of 300, than the surreal and dramatic events that I think Gibson was aiming to portray. I was rather impressed with Caviezel's delivery of the line: "You would betray the Son of Man...with a kiss?"
The line, direct from scripture, is most often delivered with great sadness and a sense of betrayal- all of which is perfectly acceptable on the scope of human emotion, but Caviezel manages to add an undertone of anger and sarcasm that is so feather light that it is almost easy to miss. Gibson attempts to build some level of sympathy for Judas' betrayal and consequent suicide through a series of out-of-place demonic manifestations. In a film that is otherwise very gritty and focused upon realism, the demon faces upon the children and a snarling beast of darkness, stand out starkly as contrived. While the apparition of Satan moves about through the crowds and on the outer edges of the scenes in a silent strut with a surreal stare, the figure calls to mind Death from Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal. The character seems more symbolic than actually present, and this treatment is only further affected by an unexplained vision of Satan holding what appears to be a child but is revealed to be a creepy, fat little old man. while their posturing is reminiscent of the classic "Madonna and Child", its ultimate meaning is quite unclear and I fear may have more personal significance to Gibson than can be conveyed through the film. (Again, correct me if I am mistaken.)
Mel Gibson's personal beliefs, both religious and racial, were greatly called into question during the making and release of this film. He is, to this day, accused of having extremely Anti-Semitic views. The film makes a strong point that it was the Pharisees who ultimately condemned and martyred Jesus, that even the localized government representatives of Rome and King Herod of Galilee wanted no part in the crucifixion; portraying a very literal 'washing of the hands' by Pontius Pilate. the film does seem to ignore that according to more than one book of the bible, it was Pilate who in fact wrote the infamous plaque that was hung upon the cross, mockingly labeling Jesus as 'King of the Jews.' Though factually, Pontius Pilate wanted no part in the activity of killing Jesus, he could have released him after the scourging but determined that the pacifist followers of Jesus were less likely to cause bloodshed than the blood-thirsty Pharisees, who were in essence the self appointed government of the Jews at the time.
Though I felt that the portrayal of Pilate, and Claudia Procles were equally over-sympathetic and cowardly, I DO feel that Gibson included a fair mixture of sympathizers and aggressors on both the Roman and the Jewish sides. He was not without judgment, from what I could see, that it was ALL who were culpable for the sacrifice; some more so in certain ways than others. when all checks and balances are weighed, however, it seemed fairly even as to responsibility.
Benedict Fitzgerald, the co-writer of the script with Gibson, has a history of scribing heavy material. With the exception of Zelda, his 1993 tele-biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (relation unknown), Benedict's screen work has all been adaptation . Along with Moby Dick, In Cold Blood, and Heart of Darkness, Benedict was perhaps best known for the John Houston film Wise Blood. Given that these films (and novels) all focus heavily on character and the internal struggles of man, I am greatly disappointed in the lack of INNER TURMOIL presented in The Passion of the Christ. His physical pains are more than well presented. Caviezel, in fact, left this film with a 14 inch scar on his back from an accidental contact during the whipping scenes as well as having his shoulder separated by the weight of the cross falling on him AND having been struck by lightening TWICE during the filming of the sermon on the Mount. It almost makes one wonder if there was not a divine influence trying to tell them something.
Aside from an eerie proposition as to the natural divinity of women throughout the film, and the continually spacey and inspiring stare of Mother Mary, the films characters- Jesus especially- actually seem to lack a great deal of personality. John speaks only once, and that is to say "Mother." Mary Magdalene's role is limited to weeping. Peter is portrayed as a violent and later an unforgivably cowardly man. Simon shows more depth of character in his small role than was allowed for many of the others; first being opposed to bearing the cross then later giving Jesus heart felt encouragement and sympathy. While I understand the necessity of the violence- as obviously fromt he title it is proclaimed that is what the film is about- I do not feel that such a watery, paper-doll portrayal of the characters was necessary. In the end, it was this very shallow insight into the people involved which let me down.
Cinematically the film is beautiful. The use of the music and sound effects, coupled with the visual effects of slow motion tend to make it more visual poetry than prosaic. This, is not unappealing unto itself, save to continually remind us that this is a film built upon and proclaiming the Divinity of the man and the event. For those who do not believe, it can be accepted as merely a beautiful and sad tale infused with surrealism and symbolism.
I am glad that I watched the film, and I would not shy from seeing it again- especially since the coding for the subtitles was rather distorted making some lines hard for me to read- but I cannot say that this is one of Mel Gibson's better films. This film, while captivating, failed to move me on an emotional level save for one scene in which the two Marys mop up Jesus' blood from the scourging on hand and knee; Magdalene using her own head scarf to do so. A reputed weeper at films, this film, sadly, failed to dampen my eyes. I do feel that I was much more moved by Braveheart and Apocalypto, two films which seemed to strive harder to paint a full picture of their hero rather than just a surface level halo of greatness through sacrifice. Were all names changed and this story presented without the cultural history and knowledge of the man Jesus, I think most audiences would be left wondering why we should care so deeply for this man's suffering, outside of basic humanity.