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After 2 attempts where i faced sold-out theaters, i finally saw this movie. It is undeniable now that this movie is simply the highest grossing R-rated movie of all times, and the highest grossing independent movie of all times. It is a huge hit. It is also very controversial. So, is it deserved? Can the movie stand on its own merits, if it has any?
First off, some disclaimers. To me, a particular interpretation of the Gospels formed the basis for the old Church's strongly institutionalized anti-Semitism, rooted in religious dogma. That is, until very recently with Vatican II's landmark 1965 document, 'Nostra Aetate', declaring "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if that followed from Holy Scriptures". The Catholic Church has been bad for the Jews (and many other groups for sure too) for 15 centuries: the 'wandering Jew' was represented as cursed for eternity for the killing of the Messiah, effectively, the killing of God itself. The crucifixion of Jesus serves as a benchmark for suffering: Jesus suffered in proportion to all the sins of Man he was dying for, and as recently as the late 19th century, Christmas and Easter (celebrating the birth and death of Jesus respectively) were yearly occasions for 'revenge' through Jew killing in Europe and Russia because of this type of material. Now, sure, the core teachings of Jesus were of compassion and love, the and Gospels communicate that too, but to me, it's like comparing the theoretical beauty of Communism with the horrid realities of its implementations. In the end, only the reality of a philosophy counts, and the reality of Christianity towards Jews was terrible. I also believe that Gibson has many times made worrisome statements about Jews, and his father is an open Holocaust denier. You can search on Google and make up your own opinion.
But let's stay clear of this last fact and focus on the movie itself for this review, or i would run out of room here. Gibson chose the traditional interpretation of the Gospels in line with the old church, and in so doing, invariably stereotyped and denigrated the masses of Jews who were not followers of Jesus. The movie also whitewashes Pontius Pilate, who crucified a quarter million Jews and who was recalled to Rome by Caesar five years later for his brutality. Pilate is presented as a compassionate man who resists giving in to the Jewish authorities in order to protect the innocent Jesus. This was done in a repetitive and consistent way: Pilate cringing, shedding tears, cringing again. At this point, if you are like me, you can't help but be woried about the fact that the movie repeats a clearly anti-Semitic message of old Christianity despite historical facts, independently of the 'true' contents of the Gospels.
I am completely able to get past these things though, and beyond the deep religious messages that are represented there (afterall, ultimately, this is about The Passion), i really see an archetype political story: a young man is threatening the religious establishment, which then swiftly moves in, manipulating the governing authorities and the masses, to have him tortured and then executed. You get to witness the profound horrors of torture and political prisonners. This is a secular view, and in that respect, the movie is a great account of probably the greatest political story ever told. It was fascinating to me to see in details how all the parties involved interacted, from the Roman authorities and the savage Roman soldiers, to the Jewish authorities and masses, and Jesus' disciples and family. I have never seen such a global view for this story before, and in that respect, the quality of the writing is high.
On other fronts, the film fares very well too. The cinematography and overall art direction are impeccable. Acting-wise, Jim Caviezel in the title role is quite convincing and pulls in a gut-wrenching performance. The rest of the cast is OK, but at times, I felt like I was watching a silent film: the emotions on display were over-done, as if to overcome the fact that the movie was subtitled. It's difficult to describe, but at times, I felt that the subtitles were almost unnecessary as the overall acting style was very silent-film like. Maybe this was intentional as I'll discuss later. As for the music, it suffered from the same type of approach: sometimes, it works very well, many times though, it is heavy and over-done.
Technically, Gibson also made 2 very important bets. First, the movie is subtitled. That could have become a problem with the audiences, but the numbers are in and it obviously did not have a negative impact. I think that Gibson handled it with genius: because of the acting and musical compensation, and also because the story is so familiar, subtitles became non-essential from an understanding point of view, and gave a powerful authenticity and sound to the film: done in English, it would have been much less interesting.
The second bet was around the unflinching realistic portrayal of violence. The visuals are never softened by suggestive angles, the details are visceral. Jesus went through a significant amount of torture and suffering until he died. For example, after a severe beating, Jesus' flesh is literally torn off his chest, revealing his rib-cage underneath. And it's not like you see it once for a split second and forget it. Gibson aptly focuses over and over again on various body parts, as a visual leitmotiv, to remind you of previous moments in the film and heighten the pain: the ribs sticking out of torn flesh are shown multiple times until the end of the movie. I definitely understand that a Christian for whom Jesus is really a close character, would be deeply affected by those images. I guess one could relate the personal experience to how many Jews feel when watching Holocaust movies such as Schindler's List, bringing many to painful tears.
This once again stirred conflict in my mind. I kept putting this in the context of this benchmark of suffering that is strong in Christianity. Jesus has been tortured and suffered for 12 hours. I have read books and seen films about entire families being tortured and experimented on for days and weeks on end during WWII by the Germans and the Japanese (the intense Men From The Sun recounts the story of Unit 731, a germ warfare research facility set up by the Japanese in China during the war, and depicts some of the most horrifying things you ever thought were possible). It is hard to compare Jesus' suffering with what many others have gone through throughout history. It doesn't negate it whatsoever, but it dimishes views of it as a benchmark. I react negatively to those people who were interviewed at the exits of cinemas telling how the movie showed the immensity of Jesus' suffering.
All in all, this movie is quite fantastic, independently of the controversies. The technical aspects are very good, and Gibson made very daring and ultimately successful bets relating to using subtitles and the portrayal of violence. The movie raised many conflicting issues in my mind. Globally, anti-Semitism is at its highest since the end of WWII. Synagogues and Jewish schools have been firebombed and Jews beaten on the streets of France and Belgium. The new demonization of Israelis as Nazi-like oppressors is fusing with the old libel of the Jews as "Christ killers". We as a nation must remain very vigilant about these things because they are real. As for the movie however, i preferred to adopt a secular view of it, at the expense of the religious messages, either positive or negative. This same core material has caused waves of pogroms in the past, but i can't agree it poses a danger today in the US. It is anti-semitic in the sense that it repeats an old anti-semitic message, but that's it.
- Laurent Hasson