In the wake of Mel Gibson's latest instance of public buffoonery, Matt Yglesias quite rightly suggested that recent acts of anti-Semitism do not necessarily deepen or recast or beg the demand for a re-evaluation of his movie, The Passion Of The Christ. That shit is in the past now--he's now working with dust stained Latin Americans on some movie about Mayans or some shit now anyway. Howevs, I must take issue with Matt on one idea that he advances, namely, that POTC was a "good" movie that demonstrated "recognizable quality."
Nothing could be further from the truth. When I saw POTC, it wasn't the anti-Semitic content or the gratuitous violence that shocked me. What blew my mind was just how awful the movie was. That movie may as well have been titled Plan 9 From Nazareth. It was not so much a movie about Christ as it was the most depressing Skittles commercial in the world.
So, in the interest in delving into the film's crapulence (and not to delve into Gibson's recent extralegal woes), I am posting the review of the movie that I wrote when it came out two years ago...and has it really only been two years??
Please to enjoy.
The only thing more shocking than The Passion of the Christ's depravity is its indifference.
I met Jesus on my way to the theatre to see The Passion of the Christ today. Not our Lord and Savior, but a sweet, middle-aged Hispanic man who greeted me warmly, tore my ticket (which itself read "The Passion of the Chris", making me wonder if I really was going to see the guy who invented the Chris Steak get nailed to a cross), and beamed a broad smile in my direction as I noticed his name tag, clearly reading "Jesus." I didn't know at that point if it were a sign from above or pure ironic happenstance, but if you are wondering if I was moved more by the Jesus inside the theater or the Jesus standing outside, let's just say this. You truly can trust in Jesus.
The theatre was pretty empty for the 12:30pm show. Maybe 35 people in all, in a theatre that usually can pack in close to 200. I guess the hard core Jesus freaks were sleeping one off. The crowd was pretty diverse. I got a sense that it was a pretty good mix of the curious and the certain. For my part, I'd have to say that I came in to this movie with certain expectations--and I can say that the movie I saw was not what I expected at all. I don't know if I saw the passion of the Christ, but I definitely say the lashin' of the Christ and the slashin' of the Christ. I saw the teeth gnashin' of the Christ. At one point, I saw the mashin' of the Christ, and I saw Jim Caviezel model the fashion of the Christ.
But this was mostly about the cash-in of the Christ. For all of us gathered in the theatre, The Passion Of The Christ had been sold to us and we had bought. Over the past half year, Mel Gibson has tirelessly marketed this movie, first framing it as a movie Jews should be afraid of, as secret screenings were presented to audiences who would shill in return. As the opening approached, the brand identity changed. Now the movie was a gory festival of over-the-top ultraviolence, with Gibson as the ringmaster touted for his tendency toward graphic cinematic self-abuse. This was the two-headed reputation of the film as it opened wide on Ash Wednesday, and those memes had so permeated the atmosphere that nearly every critic who went to see this movie to write about its opening framed their discussion on the Search For Anti-Semitism and the Shock of Awesome Violence.
Let's briefly dispense with these two facets of the film. Is the film anti-Semitic? Oh, lordy, yes. The Bear is on Line One beseeching you to watch where you walk in The Woods today, because he made an awful mess of the place. Oui, monsieur, the Sanhedrin are more or less depicted as brutish Semitic ghouls who gather at night and are wisely disdained by the Romans--who are at least as brutish in places, sometimes more but more often shown as empathetic and noble--who at least do their dirty work in the light of day. Nevertheless, the anti-Semitism is clownish and lacks much authorial conviction. Moreover, Gibson builds himself a number of escape clauses, such as characters pointedly depicted or referred to as Jewish who assist and defend Christ. Gibson's intent on playing the game of blame, but he knows that if he can be all things to all people, he makes more bank. He gets to heap his fury on the Jews while maintaining a veneer of inclusivity. It's all marketing. Gibson brilliantly allows himself a free hand to stoke the flames of anti-Semitic fear while having, on the other hand, room to freely declare that it's all a canard.
Is this film violent? Beyond belief. The Passion of the Christ is the most abundant and indulgent display of ultraviolence and corporal terror that I have seen in years. If this film was sent into space on DVD and found by an alien race without any preknowledge of Jesus Christ, those aliens would go out of their way to stay the fuck away from us. Within a quarter hour of the start of the movie, the viewer is launched on a journey of stultifying depravity and wanton cruelty. It's almost pagan in its bloodletting--I guarantee this film will be thesis fodder for a generation of Paglia acolytes.
But I don't need to tell you about the treatment of the Jews or the mistreatment of Jesus' body. Every critic you'll read for insight into this film is going to tell you all about it. I've spent three days sampling the reviews myself. What I am going to tell you about this movie is the one thing that Mel Gibson has gone out of his way to ensure will not be discussed as this movie opens across the country, and based upon what I have read, I am certain that there are few critics beyond me that are willing, if not able, to share the real ungodly truth about this movie.
The Passion of the Christ is a poorly directed and deadly dull piece of cinema. If God truly wrote this movie, then I am offering my prayers to Alan Smithee for the time being.
In short, it's a very bad movie. Plain and simple.
It amazes me that this can be overlooked, with all the press this movie has gotten! Sitting in the movie theatre about an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie, it hit me all at once: "I'm bored! I am bored out of my mind!" This is a movie filled with bad directing, worse acting, inept scenework, leaden dialogue, stunted momentum, wooden characters and nearly no cinematic dynamic of any kind! The movie is not moving, not captivating, not inspiring, not interesting. You don't believe any of the characters at all and you care even less about them. It is a film that fails to improve on a series of poorly shot Polaroids on the same subject.
Begin with the dialogue; so much ink has been spilled over the use of allegedly authentic Latin and Aramaic. The truth is the device doesn't amount to a hill of beans. The actors forced to speak Aramaic fare the worst--when people speak naturally, there is inflection and intonation and vocal devices we subconsciously employ to pepper our language and illustrate our thoughts in a festival of denotation and connotation. It's perfectly clear that the actors speaking Aramaic have no facility with the language--they may know what they are saying but they clearly have no idea how. The result is language without rhythm or color, most frequently revealing itself through plodding monotone. When the actor attempts to suggest the emotional context behind their words, the lines of dialogue take on an unreal flatness of attitude. Jim Caviezel, when expounding on Christly principles, can do little more than beam widely and attempt to infuse each syllable with as much beatitude as possible. Or, alternatively, during the last supper, with as much portentiousness. The result is that he sounds either like a sluggard or a simpleton.
The Italian actors speaking Latin fare somewhat better, but only because they take broad license and badly mispronounce the words. When I'm told that the languages are deployed to heighten the linguistic authenticity, there's only some many times a character can mispronounce the word "veritas" (here pronounced with the Italian "v" sound as opposed to the"w" sound used by the Romans) before you lose all credibility with me. One imagines that if Pilate were to order his centurions to always keep their underwear on, Gibson would translate it as "semper ubi sub ubi."
The subtitles are of little use, and unintentionally reveal anachronistic phraseology that has no business being in a piece of writing for which historical accuracy was an intended virtue.
Beyond the flat, meaningless language, there is a surprising lack of authentic human behavior in this movie. It's revealed in the way the Roman guard, pounding a nail into Christ's feet, is neither holding the hammer correctly no using enough force to pierce the bone or the wood of the cross. It's in the way that the Marys soak up Christ's blood after the scourging, as if it's an activity they do every single day. It's in the way the actor playing John participates in every scene he's in--he's witnessing a terrible tragedy, the killing of a man he considers to not just be a friend and teacher, but the Messiah, but the best the actor can give is a constant look of dull bemusement, as if he's watching his soccer team lose and it's a real bummer. Mary asks early on, "Why is this day different from any other day?" Watching this movie, you'd have no idea.
Frankly, the directing is as close to inept as any movie I can remember. There is a stunning lack of creativity in composition or shot variety, and there are many moments that look like Mystery Science Theatre fodder. When the Marys and John are observing the Stations of the Cross from amid the crowd and Mary says that she needs to get closer, the three actors turn and jerk to the side to move as if in lockstep. It's like a shot from Three's Company. There's a painful transition scene that awkwardly and amateurishly handles the departure of Simon the Cyrene and the arrival of John and the Marys. Other scenes seem as if they are meant to be funny. When Gesmas finishes mocking Christ, a crow flies into the scene, atop Gesmas' cross, then a quick cut to Gesmas glancing up, bug-eyed, practically saying "Whaaa-whaaat?" and then the crow plucks his eyes out. Mel Brooks would have used that as a bit! (Later, a shot of Gesmas reveals his eyes, intact.) Caiaphas and Annas and the rest of the Jews spend so much time carting Jesus from place to place, when Herod remands Christ into Pilate's custody, the only thing missing from the reaction shot of Caiaphas and Annas is an eyeroll and an "Oy."
Gibson's inept direction, the lack of believable human behavior and the poor use of language all come together whenever there is a crowd scene. And, unfortunately, that's like, the whole movie. The scourging scene is played like a bad high school improvisation game, with each character playing broad emotions and attitudes without any gradation or variety. The scourgers maniacally enjoy their work, the Roman administrators look bored, and the onlookers look stricken. Everyone picks their expression and hammers it over your head for the duration of the scene. The worst part, though is the noise the crowd makes. It does not sound natural. It sounds like a bunch of actors half-heartedly making generic crowd sounds. I fully expected to hear the actors repeating "Rhubarb...rhubarb..." to one another. The overall effect, I swear, is the sound of one note wailing, a general hubbub of partisans shouting things like "Oh!" and "Yeah!" over and over, with the particularly viciously inclined essentially yelling "Rrrraaahhhh!!!!" again and again and again and again.
None of this is Jim Caviezel's fault. For 85% of the movie he's simply dragged from scene to scene and beaten within an inch of his life. Indeed, it would seem that it was completely possible for Caviezel to have been asleep or unconscious during the majority of the scenes he was in. The fault lies with Gibson, who breaks every single dramatic commandment, including the most important one: Show, don't tell.
The thought behind the movie is royally confused. Gibson spares no expense or detail at the brutality visited upon Christ, but he seems categorically unimpressed with Christ's teachings or his sacrifice. There are flashback scenes throughout the film, zapping back to moments in Jesus' life. All are set up ineptly (Jesus looks at some water, and he remembers water! Jesus sees a sandal, and he fixates on--a sandal!) and all seem utterly perfunctory, like Gibson had to check them off a bingo card before he could consider the movie finished. He begins the movie with Isaiah 53, and makes sure to give Caviezel a line about laying down one's life for one's friends, but that's as much of that aspect of Christ's life that Mel wants to consider. When we flashback to his defense of Mary Magdalene, we see Christ depicted as a faceless tough drawing his line in the sand--but we don't see any of the tenderness. We're given no clue to what he sees in Mary. At the Sermon on the Mount, Caviezel may as well be reading from a shopping list. The Last Supper is no more remarkable than brunch at Denny's. Gibson seems hopeful than a few sideways glances at Christ's deeds and few saintly uttered bromides will explain all we need to know about Christ, so that Mel can get back to the business of breaking him in half.
However, none of this would be that much of a shame if there didn't happen to be one scene in the movie that Gibson gets absolutely perfect. It's a simple flashback to a time in Jesus' youth, where he is shown fashioning a table as his mother offers him some food and drink. It's a wonderful scene, played with a specificity and an economy that every other scene is devoid of completely. Caviezel gives you an idea of what a fantastic Christ he could be, given the chance--in this small scene, he successfully communicates in one moment Jesus' nuturant care and precision, his determined work ethic, and his steady, magnetic charisma, while in the next turning playful, creative, sweetly tender. In that scene, you see a budding leader of men. You see a man with dynamism, and personality whose certain of every gesture. You see all those qualities that equate to saving grace, passion and compassion, courage and mercy. It's a wonderful moment--the only time I was truly transfixed by the movie.
Gibson is fully invested in what was taken from Christ, but strangely indifferent to all that He gave. I'm left to speculate that Gibson either lacks the capacity to show his audience the depths of Christ's sacrifice, or else he simply doesn't care. Ultimately, this is not a movie that depicts a man laying down his life for the good of anyone. This is a movie that depicts the taking of a life, bit by bit and shred by shred, and if it were not for the loving attention given to the details of the otherwise ponderous and repetitive scenes of violence--the dripping of sticky blood, the fetishistic rending of human flesh, and the constant beating and stoning and mocking and spitting--this movie would have no sense or sensibility at all. As it is, though, it's a diabolical Grand Guignol of cartoonish violence and surreal behavior. An execution and desecration presided over by the Three Stooges.