March 03, 2004

Mr. Gibson's Opus

I saw The Passion of the Christ today. To answer the big questions:

How violent is it? That depends on how you guage that. I find the child murder scene in M where the screen simply goes silent as a balloon floats away much more emotionally taxing than, say, the cartoonish mass-dismemberment in Dead Alive. Just going by amount of blood spilt, it's not even close to the most violent movie ever made. But the flaying of Jesus is one of the more brutal torture sequences on film. One shot in particular, in which a cat o' nine tails tipped with hooks tears at Jesus's body, is particularly graphic.

Any anti-Semitism? Sure, if you're looking for it. The Gospels themselves portray the Jews calling for Jesus's execution, so there's no way around the potential for an anti-Semitic interpretation. And it doesn't help that many of the actors seem cast for their hook-noses. But Gibson goes out of his way to add sympathetic Jewish characters, as when Simon of Cyrene, enlisted to carry Jesus's cross demands that the crowd and the Roman guards lay off Jesus (he has no dialogue in the Bible); a guard scornfully calls Simon "Jew," thus adding anti-Semitism to the traits of the least-sympathetic characters (the guards look and act like trolls). And though it's a bit of trivia that isn't obvious from the film itself, Gibson does show his own hands hammering in the first nail, a reference to the Christian teaching that all sinners (that is, all people) are responsible for Christ's suffering, which makes assigning blame for the crucifixion heretical.

Is it good? It's pretty good. As a non-Christian, I can't really relate to the way this film affects the devout. But I do love the decision to do it in ancient languages, a brave nod to verisimilitude over Hollywood notions of "accessibility" (notions that are belied by The Passion's box office total). But if the goal was historical accuracy, it would have been nice if all of the details were correct; historians believe that the nails went through the wrists rather than the hands, for example. And I must admit that I started to get slightly bored toward the end of the movie, but that's always a problem when you know the ending in advance.

Posted by John Tabin at March 3, 2004 11:52 PM