Sunday, May 15, 2011
Torture a critic part II: The Passion of the Christ
Our hiatuses are longer than all the Oscar telecasts combined and for this we apologize, as always. Hopefully the Lovecraftian tentacles of the internet will reel in the few souls who join us on these pages and rejoin our cinematic propensities.
Eons ago, when the first version of the ipad was still hip and Justin Bieber looked like a lesbian we promised readers to indulge in a serious bout of philosophical and existential masochism by forcing ourselves to view films that we would otherwise shirk like a moldy yogurt. Reid bravely took on the dark surrealism of Precious: Based on the novel by Yaphet Kotto, turning in a piece of cinematic criticism that in its glory seemed like the alcoholic lovechild of Pauline Kael and John Updike. My own fate was sealed when readers voted my cinematic waterboarding to take the form of Mel Gibson's (ugh!) infamous fundamentalist spectacle The Passion of the Christ, a film I loved to hate in the glow and comfort of prejudice but which I must now despise with its irrevocable, pathetic imagery seared into my brain for the rest of my life.
Why all the hate, though? Well, when the film came out I, like most sane people, was somewhat taken aback by the astounding fervor surrounding the film which seemed to have little or nothing to do with its cinematic qualities but rather its extremely disturbing and unholy relationship with American fundamentalist Christianity, especially of the Evangelical kind. Back then I found few things more confusing and - frankly - pathetic than Christianity resulting in The Passion having a worse aura in my book than Emperor Palpatine and Dick Cheney combined. The fact that I wholeheartedly despise most of the Mel Gibson's output as either an actor or director didn't help, especially since this disposition centered primarily around his most lauded effort as both director and thespian, the men-in-kilts Academy Award winning Braveheart, a film that I found so pathetic and inane that it made Forrest Gump seem like Last Year at Marienbad.
The bitches brew of fate is a strange one indeed and so a few years later I found myself a convert to the ancient faith of Christianity, albeit a much stranger and mellower form than either Mel Gibson or his Evangelical adherents hold to. Yet despite this Passion of the Christ seemed even less like a cinematic undertaking worthy of my time. Instead of finding the prospect of watching a two hour snuff-fest version of the Christ's crucifixion and death a pathetic waste of time I now also found it to be a rather blasphemous prospect indeed. It was therefore with a heavy heart and a repentant prayer on my lips that I joined Reid in watching this mess of a film, one of the ugliest pieces of cinema I have ever seen.
Let me start my review (if this stream-of-consciousness nonsense qualifies as such) by pointing out that said ugliness certainly does not derive from a lack of technical proficiency. The cinematography, especially, is a very qualified piece of work indeed (nominated for a statue of a naked bald man, no less) and director-Gibson knows where to point his camera. The verisimilitude with regards to the period is also nicely handled with the entire cast performing nicely in ancient Aramaic (I, along with a host of other reviewers, know this for a fact, given that we are all adapt in ancient Aramaic). Yet these technical merits in no way result in beautiful images, good direction or a passable script. There can be no separation of form and content in good art and that has seldom held as true as in this film. Gibson's content is relegated to almost nothing but the torture of Christ at the hand of the Jewish high-priests and later Pilate's cronies. This event is given all of a couple of sentences in the four gospels yet Gibson here elaborates upon those few words to such an extent that the film basically takes it place in the questionable genre of torture-porn. Any human being would have been dead within the first ten minutes of this film yet the fun goes on for another hour and fifty. Perhaps Gibson is secretly a Docetist.
A discussion of a film like this naturally extends into the territory of theology, like it or not. Art, philosophy and theology (when the sticky matter of the divine pops up in an artistic context) are all intrinsically linked in a film like this. The problem here doesn't so much lie with the inability of the filmmakers to create powerful and beautiful images or to tell a story but rather that this does not seem to have been the purpose to begin with. Gibson is a fundamentalist through and through. His interpretation of the mystery of Christ's death and Resurrection (maybe - who cares about that part?) is basically drawing on the most legalistic, dark and ugly interpretations that Western Christianity has had to offer in the past millennium (teachings all that the Christian East thankfully never even touched with a ten foot pole): God the Father is pissed off as all hell because human beings have been a bunch of dicks and He wants vengeance on a scale so grandiose it would have all the Old Testament prophets pissing in their pants. Human beings are simply not able to take the kind of ass-whooping that God the Father has in store so He has to send His only begotten Son into the world to be whooped. And whooped He is, over and over and over and over and over and over. And in feeling the pain and misery and suffering of this whooping, in feeling how guilty and horrible and wretched we are, we may somehow partake of this cathartic whooping and be allowed into the country-club that is the Kingdom of Heaven. The Passion of the Christ is basically the cinematic equivalent of the heretical medieval sect of the flagellants or the butt-crazy practitioners of devotional crucifixion in the modern-day Philippines, practices that have for ages been considered disgusting and heretical by any people who come even close to being called orthodox Christians.
If this Mickey Mouse version of Christianity gels well with your own spiritual beliefs than perhaps The Passion of the Christ is right up your alley. If you (be you Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox) perhaps think that there maybe more (just something more) to these ancient and strange myths of the Messiah being born to a Virgin and dying on a Cross, than you will probably be left wanting by this film. Even if you are an atheist and you have even a shred of respect for spirituality, myths, symbolism, mystery, poetry, allegory or philosophy than this film will leave a very bad taste in your mouth. There are beautiful meditations in the history of cinema on whatever it was that took place on a hill called Golgotha two thousand years ago. Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is a masterpiece, a reflective and contemplative film that raises questions through image and word, that lets us enter deeper into the mysteries. And Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew remains among the most spiritual and profound works of art ever created in any medium, a journey into the reality of beauty and compassion. The Passion of the Christ is the exact opposite of these, a fundamentalist snuff-film that represents everything that is gross and disturbing about religion, perhaps the supreme manifestation of what Freud wrote about in Totem and Taboo.