In April 2004 New Directions reviewed the film The Passion. We reproduce this here as a new set of films about the life of Christ and his Resurrection are in cinemas
Alban Xavier, our man in Vancouver, reviews The Passion
We asked a student taking a gap year in Canada to go to Mel Gibson’s The Passion in downtown Vancouver and tell it to the readers of New Directions as it really is – or as it seemed to him…
There is something inexplicably beautiful about hearing a familiar word or phrase expressed in a foreign language. At The Passion of the Christ (unless there has been a wild outbreak of Aramaic study in the UK) nearly everyone can share this pleasure. Gibson’s courage in putting a film of such spiritual potency into mainstream Hollywood and maintaining the original Aramaic and Latin is a testament to the man’s faith. The film is an intensely moving portrayal of the last hours of Christ’s life for both the believer and the ‘doubting Thomas’. As an innocent bystander, but close observer of ‘the faith’, the film left me with plenty to reflect on.
Christ’s compassion on the screen seems to be in stark contrast to the world around us. To see a man condemning himself to death for ‘the redemption of man’ seems strangely out of place in a world of power politics and ‘I want it all and I want it now’ popular culture. The Vatican, which as far as I know doesn’t have a regular film reviewer, commented: ‘a production of exquisite artistic and religious sensitivity’.
The eyes of Christ
Christ, unsurprisingly, is the centerpiece of the film, and Jim Caviezel turns in a master-class performance in acting. He beautifully conveys the humanity of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. As he calls for the Father to ‘let the cup pass from me’, one cannot but feel a great affinity with him. Through the camera angles, we are frequently presented with Christ’s immediate vision; and what he sees usually links to a flashback of his early life. Subjected to horrendously graphic and repetitive floggings, the physical body of Christ is horribly mutilated for the majority of the film. As a result, Caviezel shows compassion through his eyes, an intensely moving spectacle. It is an incredible talent to express huge emotion in a mere passing glance. His relationship with the Madonna (Maia Morgenstern) is conveyed purely through exchanged glances from the public squares in which he is on trial. The passion they both convey is truly inspiring. It is an extraordinary task accurately to convey the immense pain of the man who ‘carried the sins of the world on his back’.
Satan and Judas, as is often the case, are the most intriguing characters in the film despite the former being theological artistic licence. There always seems to be so much more directorial and artistic scope for evil.
Judas (Luca Lionello) is a man constantly unsure of his actions, until the very moment of betrayal. His decline from a fearful man, begging the high priest to return Jesus, to a ‘man possessed’, dashing outside the city walls to his eventual place of eternal rest, is one of the gems of the film. Gibson has judged the character brilliantly and showed his ultimate humanity. In doing so, he turns the spotlight of self-analysis on the audience. It is an unnerving feeling to recognize a part of yourself in Judas.
Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) appears as a constant apparition to Christ and lurks in and among the crowds for most of the film. Her cold androgynous appearance is in direct contrast to the warm glow of Middle Eastern good looks that surrounds Jesus and his disciples. Her appearances are always full of symbolism, displayed most effectively when she mockingly carries a hideous looking child to her breast (an antichrist-like depiction of ‘the Madonna and child’.) There is also a wonderful moment where Satan, or so we are led to believe, appears to Judas as a fly-blown rotting donkey corpse (a powerful image of evil). Judas promptly hangs himself with the donkey’s reins – the use of the donkey contrasting sharply with Christ’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem.
This is undeniably an epic and moving depiction of the last hours of Christ’s life. Gibson has brilliantly realized his objective. But a few things nagged at me about the film.
First, and pivotal to the film, is Gibson’s judgment of the balance between the physical and the spiritual. Granted that as a visual medium, film does not necessarily convey spiritual struggle as well as literature or radio; but this does not mean it should be sidelined. Gibson has chosen to convey Christ’s pain in a purely physical sense, and the extremes to which it is shown are often absurdly graphic. To show the nailing of Christ’s hands and feet is one thing; to have Christ consistently and savagely tortured at various intervals is unnecessary. It is not, strictly speaking, biblically inaccurate; but might not Christ’s spiritual suffering been explored more effectively, perhaps, through extended interaction with his disciples or mother?
Then there is Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), who shows glimmers of great potential, but in the end falls slightly flat. Pilate’s inner struggle over his role in Christ’s death is beautifully portrayed in his puzzled inquisition of Christ: ‘What is truth?’ His naiveté in asking the Way, the Truth and the Life ‘what is truth?’ is one of the most important, but seemingly throwaway, scenes of the film. But the political motivation (his fear of Caesar or of rebellion by the Jews) seems exaggerated and contrived: the rebellious mob is more of a subdued rabble, than a potentially anarchistic force. Our screens have been full recently with scenes of true rebellion in Haiti. This mob lacked the fear factor of real insurgents.
I left the cinema and was immediately confronted by a desperate beggar, one of many in downtown Vancouver. I spared some change I couldn’t afford and walked on, my own tiny bit of compassion lost to the night. An advert with a Samaritans phone in the background and the slogan ‘because bisexuality, suicide and ecstasy don’t usually come up around the dinner table’ caught my eye. I longed for Gibson’s overly graphic but beautiful depiction of the last hours of Christ again.
Gibson has taken a huge leap of faith and put his soul on the line in this film. A world as cynical as ours may chew up and spit out this great work without much time for reflection; but the film remains a ‘must see’. The Passion hasn’t converted me, but it is undeniable that Gibson has demonstrated that Christ and his teachings have permanence and give answers that the world of McDonalds and MTV can never provide.
I believe that Bob Dylan (for me God’s current representative on earth) ‘Sure as hell / you’re bound to tell / no matter how hard you rub / you won’t find it on your ticket stub.’ For $11.95 two nights ago I almost did.
Alban Xavier is on his gap year travels in Canada