For fans of muscular Hollywood action, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" may have been a revelation, but it was no surprise. We have, after all, seen this story before. A stranger enters a town, a saloon or the wrong side of the tracks, riles up the locals and endures a crucible of suffering. In classic westerns and detective stories, the stranger often suffers a beating along his journey because that's what happens to good guys, an assault that gives the hero license to take the stuffing out of the bad guys and bring the story to a close.
In the past, heroes usually had to take a beating to give one, but those days are gone; the modern action movie has little use for the old niceties, including heroes who don't throw the first punch. Bigger, louder and frequently more simple-minded than its genre progenitors, the modern action movie favors spectacle over story, action over introspection, speed over stasis, and heroes who take a constant licking and keep on ticking, mostly so they can dispense serious payback. There are various reasons for this shift into full-throttle action, including the fact that bullets are easier to sell on the global market than dialogue. But one consequence is that violence is no longer a narrative hook in many movies; it is their raison d'être.
Gibson became a star in Hollywood action movies, so it's no wonder that he has turned the story of Jesus into an action movie. From its first scene in the misty blue of the garden at Gethsemane when guards seize Jesus, "The Passion" looks and moves like one — I half expected to see Chow Yun-Fat swoop down alongside the disciples. Among the film's more effective strategies is polyrhythmic editing that makes dramatic use of slow motion, a technique used to greater effect by the likes of Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, some of Peckinpah's comments about "The Wild Bunch" find an echo in recent Gibson remarks, as when Peckinpah said he wanted "to take this façade of movie violence and open it up ... so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut."
A number of critics and commentators have expressed alarm at the violence in "The Passion," but the film isn't really all that more violent than a lot of movies that now come out of Hollywood, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. Or as Newsweek critic David Ansen pointed out with his review of "The Passion," France. Two years ago, the Cannes film festival premiered Gaspar Noé's art-house outrage "Irréversible," which features a scene in which one man crushes another man's head into a very believable pulpy mass and a woman played by Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene in Gibson's film) is anally raped in "real time." Noé's film generated enormous media attention, which likely suited the director's purposes. (Sound familiar?) Critics fulminated, viewers fainted, and I left the theater with a stomachache.
There's indisputable rhetorical value in emphasizing the scourging and physical torments inflicted on Jesus. For Gibson, there appears to be a particularly savage "no pain, no gain" aspect to the Jesus story, an intensity that may speak to the intensity of the director's religious belief. I find something both fascinating and repellent about Gibson's obvious pleasure in radical movie violence, but what this says about the man personally is of less interest to me than what it says about him as a filmmaker. Representations of Jesus usually say more about the historical moment in which they were created than the moment represented, and the same is true of "The Passion," a film that has given us a new and very contemporary kind of cinematic action figure — Extreme Jesus.
Problems with ending
In 1958, the novelist Graham Greene recalled that producer David O. Selznick once asked him to consider writing a film about the life of Mary Magdalene. "I'm sorry, no. It's not really my line," answered the writer, perhaps with a twinge of irony given his early life appreciation for women of the demimonde. A devout Catholic, Greene then wrote, "I am reminded by this story of another memorable lunch in a suite at the Dorchester when [Hollywood producer] Sam Zimbalist asked me if I would revise the last part of a script which had been prepared for a remake of 'Ben Hur.' 'You see,' he said, 'we find a kind of anti-climax after the Crucifixion.' "
That's always been a problem with transposing the life and death of Jesus to the screen — the third act is a bit of a letdown, cinematically speaking. The story doesn't end with the usual big Hollywood bang, and indeed for believers it doesn't "end" at all. In "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald, using the four Gospels as foundation texts, make some notable storytelling choices. They give slight shrift to some events, including the Last Supper, and emphasize others, specifically the now-notorious scourging scene. An episode that merits the briefest of mentions in three Gospels and no mention in one (Luke) here consumes about 15 minutes of screen time; meanwhile, the resurrection, which isn't part of the passion, serves as a blink-and-you-miss-it coda. And brotherly love? Well, blink and you miss that too.
The scourging scene nauseated me, but I've seen worse. Being a film critic means that you are subjected to an astonishing array of human-generated sadism. I don't know how many thousands of movie characters I've seen murdered — shot, stabbed, garroted, and sliced and diced into confetti-size pieces, all in the name of an evening's entertainment. I don't generally take issue with movie violence unless it's directed at animals and children or is unspeakably stupid; screen violence doesn't just have its rhetorical uses, it has undeniable aesthetic value. It's telling that one thing that's largely gone missing from much of the discussion about "The Passion," as my friend and former film critic Georgia Brown reminded me recently, is that few people, even critics, seem willing to admit that violence in film can be transcendent.
The violence in "The Passion" isn't transcendent, not because of the graphic quality of the representation but because Gibson is a ham-fisted director with no sense of delicacy, timing or restraint. Although he's appeared in some great films over the years, mostly in the earlier part of his career, Gibson's métier is the modern Hollywood action movie in which noise, redundancy and spectacle dominate. Given this, I didn't find his new film's relative lack of thought and its relentless violence unexpected. American movies have never had much use for philosophy or, for that matter, gentleness. In our movies we like to punch the other cheek, not turn it, and the argument has been persuasively made that that's how we like to conduct our off-screen affairs as well.
Blood then, blood now
"You can get an image of Christ," critic Dwight MacDonald wrote in 1965, "from practically anything, including a Hallmark greeting card, except the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." The movie that provoked MacDonald's easily roused pique in this instance was a religious spectacular called "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Directed by George Stevens, best known for his western "Shane," the 1965 epic purported to tell the story of Jesus, in the words of its director, "without diverging from the traditional, to think out the story anew and present it as living literature." For Stevens that meant marshaling an extravaganza partly cooked up by a Reader's Digest editor and poet Carl Sandburg, with the blue-eyed Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Jesus, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and John Wayne as a centurion.
I recently turned to MacDonald, who wrote for Esquire for six splenetic years beginning in 1960, because I was curious how this self-described "lapsed Presbyterian" handled such ostensibly delicate material during his tenure at the magazine. Among the religious films MacDonald reviewed with varying degrees of appalled amusement were Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," Nicholas Ray's "King of Kings" and William Wyler's "Ben-Hur." Of the latter MacDonald wrote that it was "bloody in every way — bloody bloody and bloody boring." Describing the film's then-graphic violence, MacDonald offered the still-timely observation that "our mass culture compensates for its prudery about sex by the broadest license in portraying violence
Here is blood blood blood — the brook running from the Cross is full of it."
The blood still runs in "The Passion of the Christ," flooding the screen as mercilessly as the Red Sea. If Gibson's Jesus comes across tougher than Wyler's, more robust and resilient, it's because that's how we like our heroes these days; the proto-hippie messiahs of the mid-1960s wouldn't cut it today, when everything from sports to religion falls under the "extreme" rubric. Like every artist, Gibson has drawn Jesus to his own specifications, his own time and place. Pope Gregory the Great, after whom Gregorian chant was named, commented that "the Holy Bible is like a mirror before our mind's eye. In it we see our inner face." Watching "The Passion of the Christ" I have an idea that Gibson sees his own inner face as bloodied, blessed and resolved — and definitely ready to kick some serious butt.
Manohla Dargis, a Times movie critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Gibson school of heroes
True to the genre that formed its director, "The Passion" gives us a contemporary image redeemer as action figure.
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