Review: The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
by Paul Murphy
This film marks an interesting but
flawed development in verisimilitude in cinema. The use of original languages
in a historical film had been previously restricted to art house productions as
Derek Jarman's 'Sebastiane'. Of course Upper Class Romans in the Palestine of
Jesus spoke Greek not Latin although the legionaries would probably have spoken
a street or demotic Latin. Gibson aims at verisimilitude but ultimately exposes
his own inadequacies and points at a variety of textual inadequacies latent in
the original version of the Gospels written as they were in bad Greek ("How odd
that the god of the Jews would write in Greek, and in such bad Greek!"
Nietzsche). The reason for this was of course that the writers of the Gospels
spoke and wrote Aramaic but chose to popularize their works throughout the Roman
Empire by writing in Greek. For this reason no highly educated or serious Greek
or Roman would have anything to do with Christianity dismissing Jesus as yet
another Jewish Messiah for there were many at the time. Christianity was a
lower middle class enthusiasm which happened to outlive the Roman Empire. The
focuses on the Passion and in this sense it is an intensely Catholic in its impetus. Protestantism traditionally emphasized the development of Christ's thought and actions to explain the finale of Christ's life as explicable in terms of an intellectual and moral development.
The emphasis on the Passion is purely an attempt to inscribe the emotional impact of the story itself and gives virtually nothing to the enquiring viewer in terms of explication except some momentary flash backs to the Sermon on the Mount, Christ's former occupation as a carpenter. The 'characters' in the film are mainly types in an allegorical presentation and are intensely dissatisfying to anyone who has read even one modern novel. The extreme and partisan presentation of the characters without any kind of ambiguity is another explanation of the anti-Semitism latent in the film itself. Without explaining or needing to explain the wider context of Jewish or Roman history the characters are fore grounded not as real people caught in the ferment of real historical events but as types enacting a passion play. The characters play out purely symbolic roles in all this and are never differentiated as individuals. The Devil is suitably diabolical although he also seems to almost entirely lack blood as if he had enjoyed too many late nights and too much acid at raves and parties. The crucifixion itself is grotesquely gory but having said this, historical accounts tell us that is what actually happened. The bloodshed then seems entirely appropriate and shouldn't offend viewers.
The problems with the film are of an entirely different dimension. Gibson has learnt something from artist depictions of the Passion and many of the images are intensely painterly, imaginative and powerful. This indeed is the most vital and important part of the film. By choosing a subject as the Passion and choosing to depict it in an intensely literal fashion, Gibson gives away too much of his own feelings about this historical event. It is as if he is not intent on film-making but didacticism. For this reason the films somehow reminds the viewer of the flatness and stylelessness of films made under Totalitarian regimes which may again explain the allegations of anti-Semitism made against it. For the Pharisees one could easily insert the corrupt Capitalist or the Bolshevik commissar of Soviet or Nazi propaganda films. Gibson needs to realize that we live in an era when simply quoting from bad Latin or Aramaic translations and hoping that no one will notice the joins or the hastily arranged and sellotaped together wooden bench that Christ just happens to be working on and very like something which he bought earlier on in IKEA, simply won't do. Essentially Gibson has moved on in terms of film art but needs to read some novels by Emile Zola or better still Gustave Flaubert in fact anything written after 1870 or so and to attempt at least to live in his own
world and not one dominated by his father's ridiculous, fundamentalist, anti-semitic and - it would be tempting to say disgraceful - odd beliefs.