Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Cathedral in Film

It's been ten years since the release of The Passion of the Christ, which in my opinion remains the most powerful depiction of the crucifixion ever filmed. This was my review at the time of the movie's release.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Passion of the Christ

Director – Mel Gibson
Production Company – Icon Productions and Marquis Film
Producers – Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey
Screenwriters – Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood, In Cold Blood, Heart of Darkness)
Cinematographer – Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural, The Patriot)
Credited Cast:
  • James Caviezel (Count of Monte Cristo, The Thin Red Line) – Jesus Christ
  • Maia Morgenstern – Mary

  • Monica Bellucci (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Matrix Reloaded) – Mary Magdalene
  • Francesco Cabras – Gesmas
  • Rosalinda Celentano – Satan
  • Claudia Gerini – Pilate’s Wife
  • Ivano Marescotti – Pontius Pilate
  • Sergio Rubini – Dismas
Release Date – February 25, 2004
Distributed by Newmarket Films
RATED “R” for extreme violence 

After first viewing a rough cut of The Passion of the Christ in January at Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago, an event that included a personal appearance by Mel Gibson, I saw the film in its final form on February 26.  This is an update of my earlier review.  My chance to preview the movie ahead of the professional critics was the result of Icon Production’s unconventional promotional strategy of taking news about the film directly to church leadership to solicit their support of the project.  This was apparently in response to the generally hostile attitude of the film industry toward Mr. Gibson’s project from its very inception.  Unable to find investors to share the cost of production (religious films are generally viewed as bad financial risks in the industry), Gibson put up the entire 25-30 million dollar budget himself.  Accusations that the film was anti-Semitic further complicated the enterprise, forcing Icon Productions to ultimately sign on with a small independent distribution company, Newmarket Films.  There was a real fear that, having finally made the film, nobody would see it.  That fear has proven to be misplaced.  The Ash Wednesday opening was the fifth largest in Hollywood history with receipts of over $26 million.  The Thursday evening showing that I attended, like most across the country, was sold out.  It now appears certain that Mr. Gibson will recoup his investment by the end of opening weekend.

The movie begins with a black screen that has the words of Isaiah 53:5 superimposed: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…”  It then jumps to Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The beginning seems abrupt, like you have just arrived at the start of Act Three—almost like starting the last installment of The Lord of the Rings without having read the book or seen the first two movies.  Viewers with no background understanding of the gospels may be a little confused at first.  Consequently the viewer enters into the chaos of the garden arrest that the disciples experienced.  Like them, you are trying to figure out what’s going on.  As the film continues, occasional flashbacks to earlier episodes in the life of Christ help to add a larger context to events described in the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life.  They also add much needed moments of emotional release from the incredible tension that envelops the viewer over the two-hour duration of the movie.

            The garden scenes were filmed in a foggy mist and with the use of a blue gel, lending a feel of isolation, mystery and imminent danger.  It is in the garden that we are introduced to one of the recurring figures in the film: a creepy and strangely sexless personification of Satan effectively played by Italian actress, Rosalinda Celentano.  There in the garden Satan whispers to Christ, as he agonizes about the trail before him, “No man can bear this.”  This proffered seed of doubt is accompanied by a snake slithering up to the figure of Jesus, who is on his knees in prayer.  Jesus’ response is to stand and crush the head of the serpent with his heel, a clear reference to the prophecy of Genesis 3:15.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel sought to create a strong contrast of light and dark in the film reminiscent of the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio.  In an earlier interview Gibson said of the painter’s work, “…I think his work is beautiful.  It's violent, it's dark, it's spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it.  And it's so real-looking.  I told Caleb I wanted my movie to look like that and he said, ‘Yeah, OK.’  Just like that.”  And like an old Renaissance painting, many of the scenes had something of a golden sheen to them that I found quite compelling.

This was certainly not the only direct allusion to classical art in the film.  The most explicit was the scene at the foot of the cross as the body of Jesus was being removed for burial.  Here Mary, played by Maia Morgenstern, a little-known Jewish Romanian actress, cradled the lifeless body of her son in exactly the same posture used by Michelangelo in his famous Pietà, one hand cradling his body and the other open toward the viewer.  But as Elizabeth Lev, Professor of Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University in Rome, points out, the depiction in The Passion is slightly altered: “The variation comes in that while Michelangelo's Mary gazes solemnly down at her Son, Gibson's Mary looks straight out at us. The movie draws to a close provoking a full and conscious acknowledgment of whom this suffering has been for.”

            The preponderance of the film’s two hours is a straightforward account of the events marking the last twelve hours of the life of Christ as recorded in the four gospels.  As a seminary-trained student of the New Testament, I give Mr. Gibson high marks for accuracy.  The few and slight artistic liberties that he takes are easily justifiable as he seeks to take the written word and translate it to film.  Gibson is a faithful adherent to a small sect of Catholicism that continues the use of the old Latin mass and rejects the liberalizations in church practice and dogma that came with Vatican II.  This is one of the sources of the claim that The Passion is anti-Semitic, since Vatican II specifically condemns anti-Semitism.  I could see nothing to support that claim.  It is true that the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin are portrayed in a most unsympathetic light.  But neither do they fare well in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The legionaries of the Roman army of occupation are the most sadistic and brutal figures in the movie.  The Pharisees and Sadducees come across as opportunistic and cynical politicians in league with the Romans.  To interpret The Passion of the Christ as anti-Semitic would require one to start with the outlandish premise that the gospel accounts and Christianity itself are themselves inherently anti-Semitic.  And there are a few fringe groups that hold to just such a radical position.  As far as this reviewer is concerned, The Italian Anti-defamation League has as much to complain about as its Jewish counterpart.  Any complaints of anti-Semitism should be lodged with the Evangelists, not with Mel Gibson.

            For any Protestant Christians that might be concerned about an overtly Catholic bias to the film, they too may rest easy.  Had a Protestant produced and directed the film, the only likely difference would have been a little less screen time for the character of Mary.  But once again, the portrayal of Mary is entirely consistent with the New Testament.  Gibson weaves her character throughout the film as something of a counterbalance to the recurring appearances of Satan.  Where one challenges the sufficiency of his humanity to rise to the challenge of dying for the human race, Mary embraces his humanity with the broken-hearted love of a mother.  One of the most poignant and moving scenes in the film involves a flashback by Mary of Jesus as a little boy, stumbling and falling—a memory triggered by the sight of the fully-grown Jesus stumbling and falling under the weight of the cross.

            Much attention has been given to Gibson’s decision to use only the languages of the First Century in making the film.  Most of the dialogue is in Aramaic, the language spoken by most Palestinian Jews of that day, and in the common or vulgar form of Latin that a soldier from the Italian peninsula would have used in daily speech.  Hebrew is used in scripture quotations.  Gibson’s original intention was to release the film without subtitles.  While this sounded like an absurd idea when I first encountered it, having seen the film I now realize that it could actually work.  (The film did ultimately have English subtitles added.)  As one who despises watching movies with subtitles, I am happy to report that these were not at all distracting.  In part this was simply because there is not that much dialogue in the movie.  The story is mostly told with images.  In fact, the use of the languages of that day adds a real sense of authenticity to the experience.  You feel like you have been transported back in time and are an actual eyewitness to history in the making.

            The casting could not have been better.  Pontius Pilate is marvelously portrayed by Italian actor Ivano Marescotti as a cynical and conflicted soldier-bureaucrat with a sense of duty that is at war with hard political realities.  He comes across as a somewhat sympathetic character that faced the opportunity to do something heroic in the name of justice but failed to rise to the occasion.  He ought to be considered for a best supporting actor Oscar.   Likewise, as already mentioned, Morgenstern is a tremendously effective Mary. 

            But the undisputed star of the film is James Caviezel.  His portrayal of Jesus is nothing short of sheer genius.  Like George C. Scott as Patton or Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, you must constantly remind yourself that the person on the screen is, after all, just an actor and not the actual figure from history.  In a role that cost him considerable physical pain (He suffered a dislocated shoulder during the filming of the scourging, was inadvertently actually lashed twice during that same sequence, nearly succumbed to hypothermia while being filmed on the cross during cold November weather in Italy and was literally struck by lightning – without any apparent lasting injury – during the filming of the crucifixion!) he vividly portrayed the lingering death of one who died for the sins of the world.  For most of the filming he spent seven hours a day in makeup prior to shooting.  In fact he actually slept in makeup at times.  His is not only the most authentic portrayal of Christ in cinematic history, but it may well be the most effective portrayal by any actor or actress of a historical character on film.

            The most disturbing aspect of this movie is its graphic violence.  I cannot overstate just how violent it is.  The violence is shocking.  It is brutal.  It is horrific.  The agonizing and painfully accurate portrayal of Jesus’ scourging at the hands of two Roman legionaries (it was not unusual for a condemned prisoner to die during scourging) was undoubtedly what earned the film an “R” rating, and rightly so.  It was so awful to watch that you are almost relieved when they get around to crucifying him.[i]  At least then the end of his suffering was in sight.  This is not a movie for children under the age of 12 or 13 under any circumstances.  Gibson was asked about the violence during the interview after last month’s preview.  He was quite matter-of-fact about it.  Yes, it is violent.  Yes, the violence is at times “over the top”.  This was deliberate.  He referenced the Old Testament insistence that blood be shed as the atonement for sin.  Too often, he suggested, we sanitize the gospel accounts until we forget what that really means.  It was his intent to remind us.  He succeeded.  One Christian leader, after viewing the film was quoted as saying, “I forgot.  I’m sorry.”

            At one point in the interview Gibson made reference to the art in great cathedrals of Europe.  Those cathedrals were built as teaching models for an illiterate oral culture.  In a day when even many priests were unable to read the word of God, the cathedrals, through their statuary, their stained glass, their symbolism and their Stations of the Cross attempted to teach the message of the gospel to the unlettered.  Today, in the midst of an increasingly visual society and culture, Mel Gibson has created a 21st Century cathedral in film.

            If I were to sum up in one word the experience of watching The Passion, that word would be “shattering”.  The film runs just over two hours.  The January preview screening was in a room filled to capacity with 4,500 people where not once did I hear so much as a man clear his throat during the entire showing.  Absolute silence and rapt attention for 120 minutes—in a room full of preachers!  And when the movie finally ended the stunned silence continued on for at least another minute.  The audience with whom I saw the movie on the 26th responded in exactly the same way.  Most of those present sat quietly throughout the credits, reluctant to leave.  The Passion of the Christ was the most intense emotional experience that I have ever known while watching a movie.  From beginning to end it maintained the intensity of the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan—squared.  That night, when at a late hour I finally got to bed, sleep did not easily come.  The images of the film continued to haunt my memory.  And days later, as I write these words, the images are with me still.  But these are not nightmare images, even with all the blood and brutality.  They rather serve as a reminder that thanks to the love of that One so wonderfully brought to the screen by Jim Caviezel, I am bought with a price.  And I think of those wounds He bore, not in horror, but with gratitude. 

[i] The source material for the film’s depiction of scourging was the cover story from the March 21, 1986 issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” by Dr. William D. Edwards, MD; Rev. Wesley J. Gabel, M.Div.; and Mr. Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI. The article provides a coldly clinical examination of both the historical and medical realities of death from scourging followed by crucifixion.

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