Rather than review The Passion of the Christ (which I haven't seen yet), I'll perform a meta-review and critique A. O. Scott's take on thase film from the NYT. Most of the reviews I've read seem to be written from a similar set of notes, and Mr. (Ms.?) Scott's review appears quite representative. Few writers have condemned the movie for anti-semitism, but for the most part they still don't really get it. Mr. Scott does seem to get it -- but he doesn't realize that he gets it.
Mr. Gibson has departed radically from the tone and spirit of earlier American movies about Jesus, which have tended to be palatable (if often extremely long) Sunday school homilies designed to soothe the audience rather than to terrify or inflame it.Although I'm not able to read Mel Gibson's mind, I imagine Mr. Scott is right on the money. Our civilization has spent a lot of effort over the past two millenia morphing Jesus into a soothing, effeminate goody-goody, but the reality of his life and message is much more visceral.
By rubbing our faces in the grisly reality of Jesus' death and fixing our eyes on every welt and gash on his body, this film means to make literal an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection and that tends to be thought about somewhat abstractly. Look, the movie seems to insist, when we say he died for our sins, this is what we mean.I think this is exactly the point. Jesus' death wasn't an abstract philisophical theory, but a brutal reality, and the pivotal moment in human history.
Many reviewers, including Mr. Scott, don't understand the theology behind Jesus' crucifixion.
A viewer, particularly one who accepts the theological import of the story, is thus caught in a sadomasochistic paradox, as are the disciples for whom Jesus, in a flashback that occurs toward the end, promises to lay down his life. The ordinary human response is to wish for the carnage to stop, an impulse that seems lacking in the dissolute Roman soldiers and the self-righteous Pharisees. (More about them shortly.) But without their fathomless cruelty, the story would not reach its necessary end. To halt the execution would thwart divine providence and refuse the gift of redemption.I can't speculate on what would have happened had someone halted Jesus' execution, but deicide is surely the most contemptable of acts. It would have been far more just and right if Jesus' life had been spared and if all of humanity were forced to stand, unredeemed, before God's perfect judgement.
Mr. Scott goes on to make a false analogy.
And Mr. Gibson, either guilelessly or ingeniously, has exploited the popular appetite for terror and gore for what he and his allies see as a higher end. The means, however, are no different from those used by virtuosos of shock cinema like Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noé, who subjected Ms. Bellucci to such grievous indignity in "Irréversible." Mr. Gibson is temperamentally a more stolid, less formally adventurous filmmaker, but he is no less a connoisseur of violence, and it will be amusing to see some of the same scolds who condemned Mr. Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" sing the praises of "The Passion of the Christ."Perhaps the underlying motivation behind the violence in question should count for something when assessing its value? Is all nudity pornographic? The means may be similar, but the ends are wholly different, and generally that matters.
This next sentence blows me away.
The only psychological complexity in this tableau of goodness and villainy belongs to Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia, played by two very capable actors, Hristo Naumov Shopov and Claudia Gerini, who I hope will become more familiar to American audiences.There's not enough psychological complexity in the story of God's death at the hands of his creation?
What makes the movie so grim and ugly is Mr. Gibson's inability to think beyond the conventional logic of movie narrative. In most movies — certainly in most movies directed by or starring Mr. Gibson — violence against the innocent demands righteous vengeance in the third act, an expectation that Mr. Gibson in this case whips up and leaves unsatisfied.The whole point of Jesus' death is that it bought us forgiveness. It's God screaming: Look how much I love you! Look how much you're worth to me! There's no more painfully beautiful expression of love.
On its own, apart from whatever beliefs a viewer might bring to it, "The Passion of the Christ" never provides a clear sense of what all of this bloodshed was for, an inconclusiveness that is Mr. Gibson's most serious artistic failure. The Gospels, at least in some interpretations, suggest that the story ends in forgiveness. But such an ending seems beyond Mr. Gibson's imaginative capacities.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.