Monday, May 10, 2004

JESUS IS JUST ALRIGHT. Owing to a bizarre set of circumstances, I viewed yesterday The Passion of the Christ. I've seen this thing alternately praised and damned as a phenomenon, but I have hardly seen it reviewed as a movie. That makes sense: the plot is a central narrative of a major religion, and the approach is personal rather than institutional -- more like Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew than King of Kings -- so it was bound to be controversial in terms that have little to do with aesthetics.

I'm not immune to this either. I could see that the craft aspects, including the acting, are all very fine, but outside of that I was aware throughout of the received experience that was coloring my reaction. If you were ever obliged to memorize the Stations of the Cross, as I was as a good Catholic boy, you're going to be pulled in by the story no matter what.

Gibson isn't just telling the story out of the book, though. He uses a couple of devices to interpret it for us. Some of these glosses I found lovely. After denying Jesus three times (and recalling, in flashback, Jesus' prediction of this), Peter has an episode of stunned shame that is very real and moving. And when Jesus has one of his falls on the way up the hill, Mary flashes back on Christ as a toddler, tumbling in the dust outside their home. It's as corny as Griffith and as effective.

There are also a lot of flashbacks that reflect Jesus' message of love and forgiveness, but these are overwhelmed by the behavior of the mob, the priests, and the Romans. Most of the action is about thoroughly unsympathetic people beating the living shit out of Jesus Christ. Popping in a little "love your enemies" here and there doesn't cut much ice when you're watching leering Centurions ripping the skin off the Son of God's back, or sneering priests mocking him as he agonizes on the Cross, all at length and in graphic detail.

In fact, the cumulative effect is that of a revenge fantasy: when Jesus dies and the earth cracks under the temple and the Romans all run away from the storm, there's only one moviegoer reaction that makes sense, and it isn't "Love Thy Neighbor" -- it's "Payback Time." (National Review's Michael Graham, attempting to refute charges of anti-Semitism against the film, wrote, "after the movie, I wanted to kick the crap out of a Roman." I wonder whether it occured to him how that might be taken in Rome.)

I suppose my opinion could be dismissed as that of a bleeding-heart crypto-Christian who is not down with the Church Militant mission of the filmmaker. You could dismiss all criticism in the same way, if the only point of works of art were to reenforce or refute prejudices, rather than to illuminate the human experience.

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