If it had turned out a bad movie, TPOTC would still have made some history. As of Sunday, when it had been in general release for a week and a half, it was already one of the top 50 US grossers of all time - an R-rated item ... with subtitles. Happily, it turned out a superior film, by just about any measure.
Let me first say a couple of things about the bad buzz. Some critics have claimed that there are scenes that are anti-canonical, that simply aren't in the Gospels. This is true. To them, I would say, first, that each of the four books contains scenes absent in the others. In this sense, the Gospels themselves are "anti-canonical." Second, it is nearly impossible to make a historical film based solely on the record. The record is always insufficient. I don't care if your subject is the Alamo, the JFK assassination, or the madness of King George. There are blanks that simply must be filled in or you don't have a movie at all. While I'm no expert, I'm betting that there is nothing in this movie that contradicts the letter of the Gospel; and I'm certain that there is nothing that violates the spirit of what was accomplished on that best and worst of Fridays. It is, as a matter of fact, the filling in of the blanks, by means of informed imagination, that makes all the difference between success and failure when the subject of a film is historical. Gibson and his co-scenarist, a guy named Fitzgerald, have succeeded, to an astonishing extent. We know precisely the essentials of the story, but the movie is still full of surprises. This effect is partly in the material itself. Jesus Christ, then as now, is full of surprises, and essentially mysterious. But the effect is also due to a deep undertanding of the theology of the thing, which gives the writers the confidence to extrapolate boldly.
The various grievance organs and their enablers in the media have, of course, been crying anti-semitism for months now, starting before the film was even in the can. The charge is baseless. The story has plenty of bad guys, and if the temple priests are shiftier-of-eye than strictly necessary, then the lapse here is into the habits of Hollywood, not the habits of Jew-haters. Moreover, the film gives the Sanhedrin more breaks than the New Testament does. There are priests who object violently to the proceedings and are rudely ... er... recused because of their objections. Even the High Priest, Caiaphas, is not entirely unsympathetic. He's taking no chances, but he clearly believes that the higher law is on his side and that the safety of the nation is at stake. (Probably the least sympathetic of the major characters is Pilate, who often gets off easy in passion plays. Here, he's a craven careerist, willing to do the right thing so long as it doesn't cost.) Most importantly, it's also clear that the good guys are Jewish, too. Most of the actors are Italian, which means that good tans and big honkers abound, and the habitual mistake of movie-makers -- making Christ and his party look like stone goyim -- is avoided. Some critics have pointed to the savagery of the crowd scenes, claiming they show the Jews as Satan's own people. Not so. It's a bad crowd, but their fury is as nothing compared to the casual sadism of the Roman soldiery; and as for Satan's appearances at specially violent moments, keep in mind that Satan is fully aware that this could be his last really good day ... ever. He's wide open. Or perhaps I should say "she is," since Satan is played by a tall and weirdly elegant actress.
So how about the criticism that it's too violent (and, indeed, it's not for children). There is, I believe, some scriptural support for the notion that Jesus was singled out for unusually bad treatment. He died on the cross without having His legs broken, that is, sooner than expected, suggesting He'd been roughed up beforehand more severely than was the rule. In any case, the violence is so shocking (and so exhausting) not because it is overdone in a cinematic sense. After all, anyone who watches enough movies has seen hundreds of phony garottings, decapitations, and so on. What's so overwhelming here is the realism. Gibson is showing what happened. Why does Gibson dwell at such length on Christ's sufferings? Why do we need to see so much of what happened, movie blow for real blow? Because His physical suffering is a sensible stand-in for His spiritual suffering, which is strictly unimaginable. "No man can bear the weight of the world's sins," says Satan. "Oh yeah?" says Jesus. Well, we can't fully share His pain, but we can share a little of the part of that pain that was fully human, and, since it's the least we can do as well as the most, we are compelled to watch.
Another criticism is that the movie is "too Catholic." There is some justice in this, I suppose, in that the Passion itself assumes more significance in the Church -- in its liturgy, its teaching, its art -- than it does elsewhere. There is, near the very end of the picture, a close-up of Christ's face, battered nearly out of human shape and bloodless, that looks to me like the scariest of all Mexican crucifixes. It fits, but it is the sort of thing that Protestant art avoids. There are two specific nits, though, that have been picked without justification -- that the eucharistic and Marian elements of the story are highlighted, discomfiting the hypothetical Protestant audience of the reviewers. Personally, I agree with Flannery O'Connor re the eucharist -- "If it's just a symbol, then to [heck] with it" -- so making the "body and blood" connection would be fine with me; but I detected no effort on the part of Gibson and company to make that connection outside the Gospel record of Christ's last supper instructions. And, while Mary's suffering is indeed highlighted, and heartbreaking, it is the suffering of a mother believably amplified by special foreknowledge and is nothing exclusively Catholic. Since a huge chunk of the movie's huge audience is composed of Bible Christians, it's pretty clear that the charge of sneaking sectarianism is bogus.
What's so good about the picture? Lots. There are terrific performances by the whole company. Gibson must be an "actor's director," as they say. The guy who plays Jesus, James Caviezel, is more than up to the job. He's a big tall guy, no "pale Galilean," and he and the writers blessedly avoid that spooky aspect of "It's a God thing; you wouldn't understand" that wrecks so many screen portrayals of Christ. This Christ is so fully human that he even has human traits that don't show up in the Gospels. One of my favorite passages in all literature is the last paragraph of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, where he maintains that Christ had a sense of humor. In this movie, Christ is actually a kidder. And it's perfectly clear that he loves his disciples, his mother, life generally. He likes us! The women in the cast are especially good. Maia Morgenstern (Mary), Monica Bellucci (Magdalene), Claudia Gerini (Claudia, the wife of Pilate), and the little beauty who plays Veronica are all terrific, with huge, pitiful brown eyes. (Btw, if you're a woman, be prepared to cry at this movie. If you're a man, be prepared to clear your throat a lot.) The script, as I've mentioned, is in complete command of the events. The direction is unflinching, not just in its focus on Christ's suffering, but in the way it forges every link in what-must-happen and welds it into place with blood and tears and laughing cruelty. The cinematography is beautiful. There are some visual stunts that are just breathtaking (no details to spoil them).
All kudos to Mad Max. With a piffling budget and a near no-name cast, despite the uniform hostility of the Hollywood power structure and the establishment media, he has made a shining piece of cinema and, I suspect, changed the rules for making and marketing movies. I urge everyone to see TPOTC, believers and scoffers alike. I may even go see it again myself. Like Mel don't have enough money already.
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