Monday, November 22, 2010

Passion of the Christ (2004): Jesus is Shunned by Hollywood

We see a magnificent full moon over the Garden of Gethsemane.  While Jesus (James Caviezel) is engaged in a tense conversation with God, his worthless disciples lie there sleeping.  Jesus is understandably concerned with what is about to happen (being flogged, stabbed with a spear and having nails pounded through one’s limbs before being hung up on a cross tends to turn most people off), and he unsuccessfully tries to get God to change his plans.  Judas (Luca Lionello) enters the Garden and gives Jesus his kiss.  What then begins is the most prolonged exhibition of sadism that is ever portrayed in any major movie.  Jesus is whipped, beaten and tortured in every way – much to the joy of the Roman soldiers.  We are almost relieved when the cross is raised because by that time even crucifixion seems mild.  Through all of the mayhem, we are introduced to various other characters.  Judas observes the beatings and torture that are going on and he begins to lose his mind because he knows that he’s the one who sold his master out.  Mary, the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern), piteously wipes up the blood from where Jesus has been flogged.  Pilate (Hristo Shopov) is portrayed as a gifted administrator who passes up his one chance for greatness by being unable to stand up to the crowd and save a single life – the life of Jesus.  Pilate’s wife (Claudia Gerini), ashamed of the spinelessness of her husband, brings clean cloths to Mary to assist her in her gruesome chore and to offer her any kind of moral support she can give.  Surprisingly, Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) plays only a minor role.  Perhaps Gibson was distressed by Mary Magdalene’s  choice of a profession.  And finally, we meet a balding and androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) who creepily taunts both Judas and Jesus throughout the movie.  Though sending Judas to hell is a secondary goal of Satan, what Satan really wants is to get Jesus to change his mind about going through with the crucifixion.  Satan attempts to do this by suggesting to Jesus how futile all of his suffering will be, especially since the suffering is for the benefit of ungrateful Man.  Satan loses out.
When Jesus does finally die, his body is then lowered in front of his weeping mother.  The screen then goes black, but soon a shining light appears to indicate a wonderful sunrise.  Jesus then miraculously rises from the dead, walks towards the entrance of the cave in which he has been entombed, and we get a fleeting glimpse of the sunlight shining through the holes in his hands.
With the making of the movie and its ultimate reception, Mel Gibson came close to performing a miracle of his own.  He financed the movie himself after every Hollywood studio refused to back it.  Despite the extreme violent content of the movie, he still received the support of the religious community.  Gibson also had his own personal baggage.  He allegedly belonged to a religious affiliation that had broken off with the Catholic Church and claimed that the most recent of Popes were all Free Masons.  Gibson’s father was reported to have made a number of anti-Semitic statements.   Also, there were concerns (in the end unjustified) that the movie would portray the Jews badly.  (The Jewish leadership does come off badly in the movie, but the Romans in general are the ones who receive most of Gibson’s scorn.)  Gibson was determined to film the entire movie in the Aramaic and Latin tongues – sure to turn-off the American movie public.  (He’d even considered showing the movie without subtitles.)  And a large percentage of individuals on the left were frightened because a major motion picture about Jesus was being made by a notorious conservative like Gibson.  Yet with all he had against him, Gibson succeeded in making a movie and, to the surprise of many people, made lots of money at the box office.
If Gibson had worked as hard on portraying the good works and teachings of Jesus as he did in showing Jesus beaten and bruised along the seven-stations-of- the-cross, Gibson would have succeeded in creating a masterpiece.  Instead, we view a film showing mankind in all of its depravity.  The movie comes close to being upended by Gibson’s blood lust.  It’s tempting to wish that someone else besides Gibson had editorial control over what took place on the screen, but we have to realize that without Gibson this type of movie would never have been completed.  This movie required Gibson’s demented sort of vision.  No clear thinking person would have taken on a project like this one.  Not even Francis Ford Coppola in the making of Apocalypse Now showed such insane dedication to his movie the way that Gibson did.  This dedication is almost non-existent in the movie industry.
The two most discussed and controversial movies of 2004 (The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 911) failed to be nominated for any major awards.  Movie review ratings for these two movies were as varied as is possible.  But it wasn’t political leanings that kept Hollywood from nominating The Passion of the Christ.  To criticize Hollywood for having political leanings to the left is to suggest that the Hollywood elite have any genuine conviction at all.  What Hollywood truly lacks is courage.  Their leanings are towards remaining safe.  Many of them are rich hypocrites who will abandon their political leanings altogether when pressure is applied.  The Passion of the Christ scared the Academy Awards committee away because of its association with the Religious Right.  It would be absurdly funny to hear any Hollywood big wig suggest that he was turned off by the violence in the movie.  But more telling, Fahrenheit 911 did not receive a nomination for best documentary because the Academy Awards committee was afraid of being accused of having a liberal bias.  Both movies were flawed but both also deserved a nomination because the directors dared express something controversial.
The Passion of the Christ is beautifully filmed (especially the beginning and ending scenes), obviously portrays the kind of suffering that Jesus must have gone through and, when it concerns the story of Pilate and his wife, conveys an intelligent and sensitive treatment by the director that I would not have guessed Mel Gibson possessed.  Non-Christians and liberals would have been moved by these scenes if they were willing to give the movie a chance.  I’ve enjoyed very few movies that Mel Gibson has been in since the last of the Mad Max trilogy (which were all tremendous movies).  Even Braveheart I thought was heavy handed and over the top – for example, we constantly hear Gibson at inopportune moments in Braveheart yell out, “Freedom!”  The filming of The Passion of the Christ was one of those times that a director tried to produce something visionary.  Gibson almost succeeded.  I would have awarded this movie the best picture for 2004.
July 14, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller   2006

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