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The Passion of the Christ 2

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  • Noel Vera
    The perversion of Christ Noel Vera In a previous article (originally printed in Businessworld, March 19, 2004
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2004
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      The perversion of Christ

      Noel Vera

      In a previous article (originally printed in Businessworld, March
      19, 2004
      I wrote about how Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" was
      historically and biblically inaccurate, how it may not have been
      intended to be anti-Semitic but is open to abuse by those who are,
      and how Gibson's true source for the movie isn't so much the Bible
      as he claims, but the anti-Semitic writings of Anne Catherine
      Emmerich, a 19th century nun and "visionary," and German Romantic
      poet Clemens Brentano, who compiled her "visions" in a series of
      books (Brentano possibly fabricated the bulk of Emmerich's
      writings). But how is it as a film? As a work of cinema?

      It looks handsome enough; say what you will, Gibson did have one
      genuine artist in his employ--Caleb Deschanel, the tremendous
      cinematographer of such beautifully photographed films as "The Black
      Stallion" and "The Right Stuff." Gibson in interviews mentioned how
      he wanted to evoke the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio, and
      Deschanel obtains it for him, especially Caravaggio's use of
      dramatic chiaroscuro--the deep shadows, the bright highlights.

      But filmmaking is more than beautiful photography and lighting: it's
      editing, writing, acting, and, above all, that difficult-to-define
      skill of storytelling through, as much as possible, the use of
      moving images, cut in patterned sequences. Gibson's movie is easy to
      nitpick--his editing stitches together Deschanel's lovely footage
      with all the skill of a thumbless tailor; he doesn't seem to know
      the meaning of the word "restraint" when it comes to slow motion
      (I'm guessing a full ten to twenty minutes could be lopped off if
      every shot ran at normal speed); his sets and costumes are
      sumptuous, but sadly remind you of the kind of overproduced
      extravaganzas Hollywood used to make, like "King of Kings" or "The
      Greatest Story Ever Told."

      Gibson's notions on violence aren't much better. He's clearly
      working out some personal demons--torture is common to almost all
      his films, from impromptu electroshock therapy in the first "Lethal
      Weapon" movie to evisceration in his self-directed "Braveheart."
      Gibson seems to want to punish himself for private wrongs in as
      public a manner as possible--he wants us all to suffer for his sins,
      in effect--and I suppose we can relate to that; there are some guilt-
      obsessed filmmakers who make a career out of visualizing the blood
      and violence inherent in the Catholic faith: John Woo, Abel Ferrara,
      Martin Scorsese, to name a few.

      Unlike the above filmmakers, however, Gibson doesn't seem to
      understand that violence should be used sparingly, to keep viewers
      from becoming numb; it has to be mixed in with other elements (like
      a coherent story), and sprung on the audience at the precise moment
      when they are off-balance. Gibson doesn't have Woo's innate sense of
      rhythm, which turns violence into a choreographed dance; he doesn't
      have Ferrara's cool eye, which gazes on violence with unsettling
      serenity; he doesn't have Scorsese's restless intelligence, which
      pares away unnecessary footage like so much fat. Gibson's "Passion,"
      with its endless scenes of scourging and stumbles (seven of them,
      mostly shot in excruciatingly slow motion) along the long shuffle to
      Golgotha, is clumsy, self-absorbed, flabby with extraneous detail--
      not just numbing in its obsession with violence, but boring.

      These criticisms, however, are strictly small fry; most of Gibson's
      storytelling sins can be traced to his decision to focus almost
      entirely on the last twelve hours of Jesus' life (other sins too--
      Gibson's movie is essentially an adaptation of the passion play,
      filtered through the sensibilities of Emmerich and Brentano--and
      historically, passion plays were used to fan the flames of anti-
      Semitism). By filming the climax and not the rest of the story, we
      never learn why Jesus was condemned and crucified (for all you know,
      he was just pulled off the street). Certainly Christians would know,
      but this makes the picture more exclusive than inclusive, strictly
      for the baptized only; Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists and the
      rest need not watch.

      The lack of context also means Caiaphas is largely unmotivated--we
      don't know why he wants Jesus dead, and it's easy to think "maybe
      because Jews are just evil;" the actor playing Caiaphas, Mattia
      Sbragia, is reduced to playing a stereotype Evil Jew. We don't learn
      of Jesus' more provocative acts, like the whipping of moneylenders
      at the temple, or the entrance into Jerusalem on an ass in
      blasphemous (at least to Jewish authorities) fulfillment of
      scriptures; we don't have the crucial scene of Jesus revealed to his
      disciples as the Son of God--his primary reason for doing the things
      he did. The question has been long debated, who's responsible for
      the death of Jesus--Judas, Caiaphas or Pilate? There's actually a
      fourth possibility, Jesus himself; not as a suicide, but as a man on
      a mission to redeem souls. But you never see that in this picture.

      You never get to see Jesus' other sides either--the intellectual and
      theologian, the revolutionary leader ("I bring not peace but the
      sword"). Jim Cavaziel, who plays Jesus, does well enough with the
      physical suffering but essentially has no character to play--his
      Jesus is a passive, rather ineloquent lamb led to slaughter. My
      personal opinion, but a film on Jesus has to be more than this, has
      to engage mind and heart, intelligence and faith; I think we need
      more to our Jesus films than this tiresome focus on beatings and
      scourgings, drawn out and magnified to better relish the blood and
      pain. That's the technique not of an artist, but a pornographer--he
      stretches out the money shots, gives the viewers a chance to "get
      their rocks off," so to speak; the only difference is that Gibson
      peddles violence, not sex (I much prefer the latter kind of porn,

      Another point: Gibson's emphasis on physical torture gives short
      shrift to inward, psychological torture; the beatings, the
      scourging, the pounded nails, they're nothing compared to what Jesus
      must have felt inside. Gibson's movie gives us little hint of Jesus'
      humiliation and despair, his sense of being abandoned by friends,
      disciples and, worst of all, God.

      That's another difference between Gibson and Woo, Ferrara, Scorsese:
      for Gibson violence is its own end; for these filmmakers it's a
      means of suggesting inner torment. Despite all the violence you see
      in films like Woo's "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled," Ferrara's "The
      Bad Lieutenant," Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," these
      filmmakers managed to portray protagonists whose interior suffering
      dwarfed their exterior suffering; the most fascinating aspect
      to "Raging Bull's" Jake La Motta was the suggestion that he entered
      the boxing ring on a regular basis and allowed his face to be beaten
      to a bloody pulp because it made him feel better; it relieved his
      inner pain. Compared to La Motta, the sufferings of Gibson's Jesus
      are strictly skin-deep.

      A final thought: Gibson's movie has made hundreds of millions of
      dollars in boxoffice revenues, thanks to a publicity campaign that
      exploited both the fears of the Jewish community and the gullibility
      of Christian conservatives who thought they were getting a Hollywood
      superstar's faithful adaptation of the Bible. Gibson wanted to
      exploit the Pope as well--the same Pope whose authority his
      Traditionalist sect doesn't recognize and who he privately
      (according to his father) calls an "ass"--but thanks to luck (or
      perhaps the grace of God) the Pope withheld his endorsement.

      No reason to believe Gibson can't repeat his success in Manila,
      though--the Archbishop has given his approval, and already
      testimonials to the movie's artistry and holiness are popping up in
      papers all over the city; I assume Academy Awards are only a matter
      of months away.

      We do have to remember that in 1915 D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a
      Nation" was also a great boxoffice success, and that President
      Woodrow Wilson gave it his ringing endorsement--"history writ with
      lightning," he said; the voices raised in objection to its monstrous
      depiction of blacks were largely ignored. Years later, admiration
      for Griffith's filmmaking has not diminished, but recognition of its
      intense racism and gross historical distortions has grown,
      accompanying the film like its own dark shadow. Gibson's movie is
      nowhere near as good as Griffith's of course, but with time and a
      little luck, hopefully people will begin to recognize "The Passion
      of the Christ" for what it is--a crude, anti-Semitic snuff flick,
      cynically marketed and blindly embraced, all in the name of Jesus

      It's the last part that's galling; Gibson wraps righteousness round
      his self like a cloak of holiness, when you just know that the one
      thing Jesus hated above all else was religious hypocrisy. This movie
      isn't just bad, it's evil; it's the voice of a false prophet,
      magnified and sanctified by the sound of cash registers ringing
      several hundred million dollars' worth of boxoffice gross*. The
      Hollywood producers who spurned Gibson when he was making his
      picture must be looking on with envy.

      *Matthew 16:26 "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the
      whole world, and lose his own soul?" To which Robert Bolt's Thomas
      More in "A Man for All Seasons" gives an interesting variation: "It
      profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole worldÂ…but for

      (First published in Businessworld, April 2, 2004)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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