Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The reason for the season


Did the militant atheist enjoy spending the afternoon of his last day off watching a right-wing Christian fundamentalist film about humanity's inherent worthlessness in the absence of God?  The answer may surprise you!  Especially if you don't look at the tags!

Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson (based on the books by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)
With Jim Caviezel (Yeshua), Maya Morgenstern (Maryam), Luca Lionello (Yehudah), Hristo Shopov (Pontius Pilate), Francesco De Vito (Shimon), Christo Jivkov (Yochanan), and Monica Belluci (Magdalen)

Spoiler alert: N/A

I hope you all had a great Christmas, happy whatever other holidays you might celebrate, and wish you a fine New Year.

I go to church every Christmas Eve, and last night was no exception.  I don't take communion and I don't pray, but I do sing and I am moved by the faith of the faithful in my family.  I always enjoy it, because the songs are largely good, the whole thing doesn't take very long, and the implicit nastiness with which I associate church services is pushed aside on this one day out of the year, in observance of the putative birthday of Yeshua ben Yosef.  The emphasis, for Christmas, is ordinarily about Yeshua's specific teachings, particularly the ones regarding fellowship, charity, and love.  Cool stuff, to be sure.

However, last night, one of the speakers at my mom's church took a slightly different tack, and the point was made, not tangentially, that Christmas has no meaning without Easter.  And no matter how easy, or generally desirable, it may be to put the picturesque night of Yeshua's birth in a completely different compartment from the one where we keep that little baby's eventual state-sanctioned murder by torture, the fellow was not wrong.  The symbol of Christianity is not, after all, a manger.

My already-planned rewatch of The Passion of the Christ on Christmas Day thus evolved, from atheist snark, to a legitimate desire to think about the meaning of Christmas for Christians, from as sympathetic a view as I could manage.  To that end, my nuclear familyan atheist, an agnostic, a universalist, and a Baptistsat down for Mel Gibson's polarizing spiritual manifesto, though if you want to be super-technical it was me and the Baptist monopolizing the living room and the agnostic and the universalist not leaving.

Ass-showing will remained involved because, whatever its merits, The Passion of the Christ is not so good a movie that it turned me into a Catholic, or even a Protestant, Christian.

But that's an impossible standard, and The Passion is a true classic nonetheless.

If, on occasion, a bit messy.

You've surely noticed that I keep calling Jesus of Nazareth "Yeshua."  I'm not doing this solely to emphasize his place in history, and thus diminish his place outside of time and space, although it is a useful side effect and I will continue to refer to the explicit Son of God as Jesus, while referring to the human being as Yeshua.  But I do it mainly because it is his name, in his own language, and no matter how closely you listen, you will never hear the word "Jesus" uttered in this film"Iesus" being pretty close, but I'm not counting it.

You won't hear any English in this film; the only English you'll get is the text in credits and the title card, at the very end.  Just as much as the storied violence (to which we'll attend soon, at greater length), this key feature of The PassionMel Gibson's insane dedication to releasing a film with dialogue solely in Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaicis ballsy and intriguing.  But like the gore it's an integral part of Gibson's plan, and the purpose of both is to place you in the early 1st century with an immersive quality that simply cannot be matched by your ordinary sword and sandal picture.

Of course, it is best to forgetfirst of allthat such a feat of screwing with the squares was only possible because the subject matter was the squarest there was, the life of Jesus; it is also best to forget that when Mel Gibson did it again with the Mayans in Apocalypto, no one saw it, and I cared so much that I still haven't seen it, almost a decade later.  (But one day I will.)

And it is best to forget, also, that it is likelier that in Judaea, the "Roman" legionnaires and particularly the Jews would probably speak to each other in Koine Greek.  It's still a far sight better than the usual Hollywood representation of antiquity, which is that it was extremely British.  The choice of the precisely correct dead language is less important than the mere fact that it was ever a choice in the first place.

Greek's prevalence is a fact that Gibson was by no means ignorant of.  Surely, the Catholicist was aware that the New Testament's original language was Greek and that Greek was the lingua franca of the former and only recently-absorbed Hellenistic empires through which Christianity would spread in the next few decades; the Egyptian kingdom of that other Soter, Ptolemy, had been reduced to a Roman province within the lifetime of Judaeans still alive at the time of Yeshua's death, and the elites of the whole Near East were either Hellenes or Hellenized, going a long way to explain why Christianity is so unbearably Greek in its foundations, and not so particularly Jewish (and circumcision, obviously, explains the rest).

But Gibson was making an aesthetic decision, toofirst, according to the man himself, Greek sounded so much like Aramaic to the untrained Anglophone ear that it is difficult to differentiate, which is vital.  And, although he doesn't say it (perhaps not to offend his possible Orthodox audience) I think it is clear that, in a vacuum, Latin sounds better too, because as transporting and challenging and alienating as a foreign language film might be (to somenot me), Latin is enough like English (or Spanish) to be almost readily understoodand the Christian underpainting of our society bleeds through so that even though I might not have remembered what "Ecce homo" meant before I watched The Passion again, I certainly recognized it as "that line from the Bible."  And of course, certain lines in Aramaic are iconic as well, even to one with a bad classical education.  Gibson's original plan was to release the film without subtitlesessentially, then, a silent movie with noiseand although this idea may have been a very bad one (I'd give it a cautious go), we all know how the line that begins "Eloi, eloi" ends.

Even if Gibson had succeeded in convincing distributors to exhibit his crazy art movie sans translation, I reckon that no oneno one within Christendom, at the very least, other than the inappropriately youngcould have become lost.  The story of The Passion is, simply, the Passion; and not even the entire Passion, but what you might, and Mel Gibson certainly would, call the "good parts."

Yehudah's betrayal of his master, the radical rabbi Yeshua, is an already accomplished fact before the first frame appears.  The Passion begins suddenly, with the arrest of the fiery prophet who has been making the claim that he is both the prophesied messiach and, at least as troubling, the son of I Am.  The narrative progresses rapidly through his due process-defying trial before the Sanhedrin; he is then brought before the Roman authorities, personified in Pontius Pilate, who wrings his hands a great deal before washing them clean of Yeshua's blood; the blood that is then spilled, in great dollops, with special makeup effects worthy of the finest of torture porn.

Chewing on life's gristle?

By no means interpret this as irony.  I disagreed with the idea that 12 Years a Slave was a torture film, though there is torture in it, because that film was about survival; The Passion is about anything but survival, and, more than anything else, it is about death and the physical agony and spiritual terror that come before death.

At the same time, isn't The Passion far more readily comparable to 12 Years a Slave than, say, Saw?  And at this point I reach the belated realization that placing The Passion and similar films into a conventional genre like "horror" is foolish, because they obviously have different goals.  Horror films exist to scare you, or at least to gross you out (the question of whether dedicated torture films, and to a great degree slasher films, are horror films in the truest sense I will leave for another time; suffice it to say that only supernatural horror, with its prospect of religious terror, gives me nightmares).

The Passion isn't scary, and though I will concede it is very gross, it is not being gross in an entertaining way, but in a manner meant to make you grieve over the torments suffered by another and tremble with impotent anger at the injustice of his death.  12 Years, though I stand by my conception of it as a survival film, is a lot like that.  So is Life is Beautifuljust the first to come to mindand pretty much every other Holocaust film (that is, that isn't of the varieties typified by Inglorious Basterds, or Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS).

And that's a good word for the weird genre The Passion and its like inhabit: that of the lower-case h holocaust. It's also descriptive, for holocaust films offer their usually non-fictional characters to their gods, or to the ideals they hold, taking the place of gods.  And, in the manner appropriate to their historical context, they are burnt up.  You may, if you wish, add to this brief list of cinematic topheths Battleship Potemkin or The Killing Fields.  They carry out the same function as sacrifice, without the barbarism of actually scourging a man half to death and letting exposure do the rest.

All this is only to define The Passion, and it is hardly the beginning of criticism, let alone the end.  It is an unfortunate fact about its critical reception that some, though far from all, of its negative reviews were from critics shocked and overawed by its ultraviolence.  This is the mark of a success on its own terms: it is violent, it is deliberately violent, and Mel Gibson made it to provoke.  Indeed, The Passion must be amongst the most violent films ever made, at least such that got widely released in the U.S.  The Passion may be a throwback to the more violent Passion plays of old, but to us it's new, and it presents the subject of Yeshua ben Yosef in a way unfettered by convention or, many would argue, good taste.

But then, what would the tasteful depiction of the Passion look like?

Thanks to Mel Gibson, I am now a fully certified Crucifixion Tech.

But really, why shouldn't The Passion's death by cross look as antiseptic and mellow as death did in the Biblically-inspired films of the 1950s?

Well, aside from technological advance, because of cultural advance.  Is it a fair criticism to point out that Scarface '83 is a little squibbier than Scarface '32; or that Black Hawk Down a little bit more arterial than Paths of Glory?  Or, in the latter case, that it wants to be about the intensity of combat, rather than about class and politics and war more generally?

Even given our crumbling mores, Gibson's movie's true departure from the venerable Bible epic is not the resort to violence, but simply that it lacks the key markers by which one might gauge a film an epic: it does not take place over multiple years (rather it takes place over the course of about twelve hours, not counting its brief coda, which brings it up to the full three days); it does not take place over a wide geographic area (its events occur in Jerusalem and on a hill immediately outside Jerusalem); its cast does not number x>1999; it is not very long; it does not even feature Charlton Heston, which, sadly, would have likely been almost impossible by the time of filming (he could have played Caiaphus, although perhaps that's really a little too on the nose given exactly whose covenant is being presently superceded).

Otherwise, The Passion is very much of a piece with its properly Hestonian forebears.  Though technically epic Gibson's effort may not be, it joins the ranks of Biblical films to have stretched our conceptions of a film's suitability for a given audience.  The very idea that The Ten Commandments, with its brutal depiction of slavery and theistic child murder, and Ben-Hur, with its scenes of gory death-by-horse and, worse, upper-thigh massage, could both be rated G is laughable.  But they were, in part because nearly every child across America in those days, as in these days, had already been exposed to the explicit content in the Book of Exodus and the Gospels by age four.

The big difference between The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Passion of the Christ, aside from the sophistication of the violenceand, well, the fiscal discipline, and the commercial success, and the decision not to cast a distractingly Aryan leadis simply how much more context the former gives for its gnarly scenes of human miseryThat context was probably unavoidable in film renowned for being ungodly long.

But here Gibson (safely) assumes that the necessary context is already part of his audience's background; and accordingly his focus is narrowed and deepened.  You know, paring a film down to its essence is not always a mistake; and this may be why The Passion made nearly a billion pieces of silver for its Christkilling Australian, while The Greatest Story made negative infinity dollars and, in combination with King of Kings, rendered desolate its genre.

And for my part, I take no issue with the R The Passion received, rather than the NC-17 it did not; if children of a too sensitive constitution saw The Passion and were deformed by its violence, then that is a problem of parenting, not a problem of the MPAA, which frankly has enough of its own without needing to have new ones invented for it.

Certainly The Passion's R suggests that an unfairness in treatment of (no doubt) less traumatizing fare, such as recent NC-17 recipient Blue Is the Warmest Color.  But my concern is theoretical and without any actual anger, because unlike most left-leaners, I accept the reality that the NC-17 is effectively for sexual content because, whether I find it foolish or not, that is our culture.  I also take with a great heap of salt the representations made by the MPAA's fiercest critics that they really don't inwardly squirm more watching people fuck in a crowded theater, as opposed to watching people die.  I suppose I can only speak for myself, but I felt more comfortable watching The Passion of the Christ with my family than I suspect I would, say, Shortbus.  (An argument that, I grant, would make more sense if the NC-17 forbade you from bringing your mom to the show; but what it does do is forbid you from bringing your children, and I wonder if even the most libertine amongst us would find it appropriate for a couple to watch Shame together with their ten year old kid, and if an R ratingwhich it might as well have gotten, inasmuch as the sex in that movie is, frankly, super-simulated and hence super-lamewould make a difference.)

But, in any event, no need to worry here.  Although The Passion, with its almost real-time torture horror, is surely made crazy by the flesh in the way you would never expect an explicitly religious New Testament story to be, there is not the barest whiff of sexuality in this film.

But when 50 Shades of Gray does the same thing except without grievous injuries that send a body into shock?  That's a well-earned NC-17.

The Cronenberg I quoted above may be slightly spurious, but it's not unintentional.  The Passion, by its so intensely maculate conception cannot avoid recognizing and emphasizing, far out of proportion to its own intention, the fleshthe mortalityof Yeshua ben Yosef.  The formulae of Christian incantations may invoke the body and blood of Jesus, but they ring hollow to those outside communion and I take it for many within.  But this modern Passion play, rendered with grand technical prowess and invested with the necessary severity to see its own ugly vision through, makes for a profoundly emotional experience, regardless of religious background.

There is so much here to offer the atheist and non-Christian.  Strip away Mel Gibson, its position on the divinity of Jesus, its Christian message, and this movie is still about the inhumanity of humankind.  It is about a man arrested and sentenced to execution, subjected to unimaginable suffering before he finally dies, for no more than the crime of exercising his rights to speak his mind, to associate with whom he pleases and who please to associate with him, and to keep his own conscience.  It is a more universal film than its sectarian origins suggest.

Whatever the provenance of its unhappy protagonist, its villains are human agents; they order the infliction of pain and death to maintain a status quo; their servants sadistically comply, with an enthusiasm as simple as the joy they take in their unholy work.  Call it horror, call it a holocaust; the dramatic arc of the film is bent explicitly toward our mediated experience of that pain as catharsis.  Here, it must to a believer be even more extraordinarily effective.  Only in a torture film about the Risen Lord is it possible to torment your hero to death and still have a happy ending.

Crucified?  Just sleep it off.

For an infidel, of course, the resurrection of Osiris Attis Adonis Dionysos Jesus is absolutely, with only one contender, the weakest and most undermining moment of the film.  It has always confused me how His suffering, as distinct from his suffering, could ever have any deep meaning; for Jesus, as the Christ, can never die like we will die.  Even in the Christian context, where Jesus makes resurrection possible, Hisagain, as opposed to hisis not remotely like a human death: Jesus knows by fact, rather than by leap of faith, that he's going to rejoin his Father/Himself/whatever in Heaven.  A brief human lifetimerendered inhuman by the knowledge of his divinityand a day of suffering ended by reunion with the Godhead really doesn't scratch the surface of our experience.

In fact, it spits in the face of the hundred billion human lives that have blinked into and out of being over the epoch of our existence, beginning in confusion and ending in terror and painbecause none of them, but Jesus, knows that he will not die.

In watching The Passion, this coda frustrates me, because the death of Jesus is not (to me) the distinctive, crucial element of Christianity.  It is the suffering, and the fear, of a man of conviction, who, despite that suffering and fear, forges a connection between humanity and the divine through faith.  It is this that separates Christianity from a superheroic Judaism or a logically impaired Islam.  I know why the resurrection is there, I understand why it's there, I don't hate that it's there, but in this film?  It just doesn't work.

"There's a man who speaks of your religion's flaws, from a narrative standpoint."

I suppose it frustrates me especially because The Passion comes so much closer to being an agnostic film about the Son of God than you could possibly expect or hope.

There are only a few moments of magic in The Passion.  Prior to dying, Yeshua manages only a single miracle, early on, by healing a guard sent to capture him, whom Peter wounded.  It's jarring, but on the plus side, you may not even notice it because it's done in The Blue Dimension.

(The early scenes, done in an oppressive, unfortunate blue filter, are, cinematically speaking, easily the worst in an otherwise very well-made filmand even then I don't hate them; in fact I even sort of appreciate their recollection of the tinted films of the silent age; and I love how the yellow fires of the torches just look so implausibly weird surrounded by the deep blue of the filter.  The rest is pretty much excellent, if shot for maximum affect regarging the gore, including much slow motion.  Indeed, I found that despite a great deal of repetition in the actionfor example, Yeshua falls down under the weight of the cross approximately four billion timesthe action always remains shot with novelty.)

But I mean it's so dark that one can easily pretend they didn't see the gaping wound where his ear used to be.  And if pretending is too much of a cheat for you, note that the shot is fully in Yeshua's point of view; there is no small amount of subjective filmmaking going on here, and throughout the movie, and it is always possible that he did not "really" mend the atoms of the wounded policeman, who was probably not so badly hurt in the first place, but rather that each of them believed he did, and that his charismatic manner took away his pain.

Not dissimilarly to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Or, Jesus does render miracles.  Whatever.

But it also helps that the Devil is skulking around these scenes and no one else can see it.  Satan will return to plague us, and I will touch on what its presence means to me.  In the meantime, it and its minions will also plague Yehudah, a.k.a. Judas, whom truly freakishand very horror-readyghouls will hound to suicide (for what it's worth, I do not count them as magic, but again merely subjective filmmaking, representing the self-destroying guilt he feels over his treason to his master).

Then, while it's not strictly magic, there is the unfortunate bit where one of the thieves keeping Yeshua company on Golgotha suggests that there might be some logical issues inherent in Yeshua's putative divinity when set against his obvious inability to remove those nails from his hands.

Immediately, a crow comes to pluck out his eyeball.  Leaving aside how obnoxious this short scene's allusion to the immoral doctrine of divine punishment embraced by Christianity is, it's also tonally incorrect, because it's actually almost funnythis movie has one intentional laugh, which we will addressIt's also preposterously stupid that I Am's single moment of intervention in Its son/alter ego/whatever's crucifixion is to disproportionately punish a guy only tangentially involved in it, who's already being crucified, for the crime of at most being a bit of an asshole.

"Thou shalt not make snide comments.  Moishe forgot that one."

Finally, it's just so fucking petty.

There is also the earthquake and the eclipse that coincide with Yeshua's death, which for some reason I do not mind at all, because it doesn't really affect any characters within the story, and possibly merely because at least this time the Ben-Hur family doesn't emerge from a hole in the ground with their leprosy makeup wiped off, in an even worse and more annoying ending to an otherwise great flick.

Yet, despite these occasions, The Passion seems most interested in the messiach as a man, not as a God.   Jim Caviezel will always be Jesus noweven almost ten years later in Escape Plan, not terribly oblique references to his role in The Passion get madebut if he is identified to an almost uncomfortable degree with the role, it is not solely because of the popularity of the character (take that, Spock), but indeed because of his performance.  True: about 80% of it is pretending to be in terrific pain, and suffering through a makeup process that probably felt on occasion like moving through the stations of the cross.  However, a bit of it, that crucial ingredient, is Yeshua as Yeshua, a literary character adapted to a film and brought into existence by an actor, not the lifeless icon of devotion the Christ can so easily become.

"Well, guys, you live by the nail, you die by the nail."

All the power that Jesus Christ is meant to wield was always calculated to appeal to the values of savage pagans whose own gods were brutal, amoral monsters; but what appeals to me is his capacity for sacrifice, and for bravery.  Without humanity, to my mind, he can have neither.

In The Passion, there is a palpable tension between these two views of that guy who died on the cross.  Here, Yeshua asks his Father why he'd forsaken him; in the next scene, he declares his purpose accomplished.  You can imagine that this conflict is nonexistent, which is the Biblical literalist method, and which I have no desire to dissect or discuss; or you can imagine that this conflict went unnoticed entirely by the screenwriters (and the authors of the Gospels), which is even less interesting; or you can imagine that this conflict is interior, between Yeshua's obligation to be certain that his sacrifice can wipe clean the sins of mankind, and the doubts he cannot help but entertain that he is just a man like any other and powerless to stay the judgment of Godif, yes, there is even a God's judgment to be had.

To ask his father why he has been forsaken is to acknowledge the possibility that he is not God, but man; to ask that this chalice be given to another is to acknowledge the possibility that he has the free will of a man and that he could walk away from the cross in his future; the constant attentions paid by the Devil to this pivotal cosmic event, and its hopes for Yeshua's failure and shrieking anger when Yeshua does choose to die for our sins, proves that Yeshua's sacrifice does matter, because he could have chosen to be a live man rather than a dead deity.

If Yeshua was always certain of his divine dual nature, and hence omnipotent and omniscient, is there really anything to even get disappointed about?

That Yeshua ben Yosef chooses death over compromise, and even at the extremes of agony and fear never once curses the humanity that has forsaken him as surely as his Godthat is a story for all peoples, not just the Christians.

That The Passion was not intentionally made for all peoples, but instead for those who believe in the Trinity, is a shame.  And that it was made for some peoples even less than others, as was suspected at the time and totally confirmed by Gibson's public indecencies regarding Jewish folk, is even worse.  Still, it's hard for charges of blood libel to stick to a movie mostly about a Jew murdered by an enthusiastic group of European invaders who rally around an eagle standard.  Even if a racist directed it, it's surely at least as easy to discover that this movie is anti-Italian as it would be to find it anti-Semitic.

I don't want to accuse anyone of having a closed mindat least, not anyone on my side.  But if you've ever felt you haven't given The Passion a chance to be a moviea movie, mind you, rather than a propaganda toolknow that no doctrinaire lens is required to be profoundly moved by it.  And this is a testament to the emotional power Gibson and Caviezel were able to find within such a potentially alientating story as the Gospel in general and the Passion in particular.

I'll conclude by explaining the few momentsno doubt less than a full two minutesthat turn The Passion from what its fiercest critics claim it to be into one of the great movies of the 21st century, and all time.

Yes, the most egregious scene in The Passion may be the cross being flipped over so the nails can be bent back; the most fulfilling scene for the Christian may be the resurrection; but for every serious viewer, the most important scene in The Passion is not in the Bible, nor in any extra-Biblical text, so far as I am aware.  It's about the only thing in this movie that's made up to fill in the narrative gaps left by the Gospels; but in contrast to the copious context traditionally provided by other Biblical epics, it is all we really need to know.

It's Yeshua making a table in his workshop.  His mom is making him lunch.  They joke around.  They're silly.  Maryam is even very funny.  And she has to remind him to wash his hands.

The next many, many scenes largely revolve around this sweet, talented man being hurt.  I didn't care about Yeshua's suffering because he was God; I cared because he was this woman's son.

Score: 9/10


  1. The Passion as a tale of man's inhumanity towards man? That's an interesting take.

  2. Very thought-provoking review. Well done. Saw it in the cinema. Thought it a very remarkable film but no way I am letting my children watch it until they are say, at least 16.

    1. Thanks!

      And that sounds pretty sensible to me. I'd show a kid Nightmare on Elm Street or the unrated My Bloody Valentine before I'd show a kid The Passion of the Christ.