Sunday, October 09, 2005

Day 9: The Passion of the Christ

For a non-Christian, watching The Passion of the Christ is a lot like watching a Star Trek movie when you’re not really familiar with the show. Sure, you might recognize some characters and thrill at some space battles, but ultimately, you’re left a little confused. What’s the big deal here? I certainly felt that way about The Passion of the Christ. It’s hard for me to write this without taking into account the vast success of the film or its place in the political landscape of the United States, but I’ll do my best.

Full disclosure: I made every attempt to engage with this film on its own level since, as a staunch atheist, I’m predisposed to disliking religious propaganda. Still, I feel safe in saying that this is not a good movie. Its biggest problem is the way it takes a spiritual subject and literalizes every damn thing to the point that any higher meaning or metaphysical implications are sublimated. It also gets several demerits for an egregious use of slow-motion throughout that is annoying at first (Judas is thrown thirty pieces of silver, struggles to catch it, drops the bag, and the coins go flying out, all in slow-mo… where’s the slow-motion “NOOOOO”, huh?) then tiring (as Jesus is being tortured, a figure meant to be the devil walks in slo-mo through the onlookers, gazing menacingly at him) then just silly (Jesus, tortured to the brink of death, falls down in slow motion! And again! And again! And again! And…). There’s a cool scene depicting Jesus saving Mary Magdalene, done silently and played with the right amount of action-movie gravitas from James Caviezel, and I enjoyed a couple of parts that had demons in it (though this is part of the literalization problem… Judas is literally chased by zombie-demon-children onto what looks like the set of Conan the Barbarian and then hangs himself. I suppose it’s hard for audiences to relate to guilt unless there are zombie-demon-children to indicate the character’s state of mind… but I digress) but, for the most part, this movie is full of cheap sentiment, and it’s plodding and dull, hitting the same notes over and over again.

I can’t write about this movie as its own entity, though. I got super-mad after watching this because I remembered The Last Temptation of Christ being a pretty awesome movie and that it couldn’t make any money because some jerks decided that depicting Jesus as having any sort-of sex at all, even if it was in a vision inspired by Satan, and even if the sex was, like, nice happy marriage sex, was a bad thing. What made me angry was that this movie, which was wildly popular with many of these same types of jerks, does exactly the same thing as The Last Temptation of Christ. Both movies focus on the humanness of Jesus to further explore the sacrifice the God-man made. In Scorsese’s version, it’s an emotional humanness fraught with sorrow, doubt, isolation, fear, and anger as a result of Jesus’ divinity. In Gibson’s version, it’s about the human physicality of Jesus, the pain of being whipped, scourged, and having your hands nailed to something. There’s a shameless use of Jesus’ mother (who’s named Mary) being sad that her son is in pain (at one time reminiscent of a scene in Dumbo (of all things)). And, of course, Jesus is in a constant state of pain, starting around 52 minutes into the film and we are given many close-ups of him wailing in agony (sometimes in slo-mo) as he’s beaten. All of this serves to emphasize Jesus’ humanity over his divinity. And yet, this fallible, frail humanity is acceptable while Scorsese’s is not? What the fuck people?

It’s actually pretty instructive to look at the endings of both movies: At the end of Last Temptation, Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, is given a chance to renounce his crucifixion, a choice that has disastrous consequences for the world while allowing him to have a happy human life for a while. When he sees the consequences, Jesus takes that choice back and dies on the cross, allowing the world to live on at the expense of his own happy life. The Passion ends with God shedding a single raindrop tear for the death of his son, said tear resulting in an Indiana Jones-esque earthquake destroying the temple of the Pharisees (I think), and causing the devil-figure to scream at us, now isolated somewhere in hell (again, I think). The movie then cuts to Jesus rising from the dead, looking out of his tomb as action-movie music builds and builds. Jesus then stands, naked (though the movie never shows his junk, making it better for kids!) and walks off and the music kicks into overdrive like we’re watching Gladiator or something as it fades to black. It’s like Jesus is going to KICK SOME ASS on the people what tortured him!

At least with Scorsese and Dafoe, we had an idea of the life Jesus was actually sacrificing by allowing his fate to befall him. Here, we get flashbacks to Jesus making a table and saying ponderous things to his followers. There’s a Sermon on the Mount scene where Caviezel delivers his lines like a quirky dead-language-speaking high school professor. For a movie that so desperately wants us to empathize with the humanity of Jesus’ body, we are given little-to-nothing to see about Jesus’ mind and so the too, too solid flesh that melts away at the hands of gleeful of Romans is attached to nobody important. Of course you sympathize with Jesus on the same level you’d sympathize with anyone being crucified by a mob. In fact, I can make a direct cinematic parallel here: I felt as bad for Jesus as I did for the Brain Bug at the end of Starship Troopers.