The Passion of the Christ

By Demented Toddler

'Forgive them lord... they know not what they do', said Robert Powell, shooting Zeffirelli's Jesus Of Nazareth. After the take, Laurence Olivier took him aside. 'My dear boy. Never pause if they know what you are going to say.'

It's a shame the old master wasn't around to advise Jim Caviezel on his portrayal of his initialsake, or director Mel Gibson. The most unpredictable things about The Passion of the Christ are how packed with the predictable it is and, in spite of this, how little attention it seems to have paid to previous depictions (particularly odd in a film with a Catholic director and lead). The cinematography seems to take nothing from visual art, just as the screenplay and direction take virtually nothing from literature. Mel, fascinated by special effects rather than suffering, owes more to Jim Cameron, Tony Scott and John Woo than to Duccio, Da Vinci or Dürer.

There are blue filters in the darkness of the garden of Gethsemene, yellow under the sun. An omniscient God is definitely located in the sky, and in case we're not sure who his son is, he's identified by some supernatural coloured contact lenses – you remember the bit about those in the Bible, right? They're like the good guy version of the yellow devil eyes that almost ruin the end of Angel Heart. There's a bit where he looks up and sees a dove as he's being sentenced, which had probably just flown on from the set of Face Off 2 after taking off in front of Nic Cage as he marched purposefully towards the camera. On the way to calvary, JC continually falls from various angles in gruelling slow motion, crashing to the ground with felled-tree sound effects. You can imagine the foley artists mixing up some great sounds for the nails smashing through his hands, too, like when they used a whole bunch of different gun noises to get just the right gatling cannon sound for Arnie in T2. The drums at the end of the movie, The Resurrection, are so similar to those on the Terminator theme tune that it would have been great if Caviezel had looked down from the cross and said 'i'll be back.' The oh-so-visceral cartoonish violence and endless slo-mo shots (which, run at normal speed, would doubtless cut the film's running time in half) are reminiscent of the 'gritty realism' of the westerns of Peckinpah and Hill, which, like this, turned out to be as much an over-the-top interpretation of the reality as the true blue idealism it sought to replace.

The consummate, Oscar-winning Gibson is not only limited to repeating the crass tropes of other directors, he re-uses his own as well. The whole picture seems to be an opportunity to string out the martyrdom scene he so relished in Braveheart over the whole two hours. Where the figure of redemption moved through the crowd at Mel's evisceration, the figure of damnation stalks between the spectators at Caviezel's SFX scourging. This Satan figure is an ugly baldy nemesis for the hirsute, pretty Jesus, like Luke Gss in Blade 2 or The Master in Buffy, sometimes seen suckling a Gollum mini-me, sometimes crawling with insects like Candyman. The moment Christ dies to save us all, we cut to the thwarted devil, screaming as the camera pulls up and away to reveal him standing in the middle of a music video desert hell. In your face, Milton.

Christ's sentencers, torturers and executioners are in large part in homogenous, faceless groups in matching outfits. This effect, and the hamfisted use of colour (grittily realistic shades of brown), leads one to expect each group to appear singing a rousing Rice lyric musical number. These would, judging by the endless series of symmetrical set pieces, be accompanied by some sort of Busby Berkeley dance number… 'We're the nasty pharisees, we'll make the Romans break your knees...' Well, something like that.

The leads aren't much better. Like stars of Woody Allen movies who aren't Woody Allen (Cusack, Alda, Caine), Caviezel's approach to delivering what the actor/director wants is to do a damn fine impression of him. So, his shaggy-haired suffering is a xerox of William Wallace's, and in a pastoral flashback where the carpenter knocks up a table and jokes with his mom, his endearing colgate grinning and mugging map onto every laughless light relief 'Mel at home' scene from Lethal Weapon 2 to The Patriot. He is of course, far too good looking, as is Monica Belluci's Mary Magdalene, who is really Mel's type (see especially Sophie Marceau). There's no way anyone could have paid attention to the words of a saviour with such a cute ass and no way any hooker looked so much like royalty.

At least Hristo Naumov Dhopov's Pilate is believable, making human decisions in a difficult situation. Almost everyone else seems to perform their actions and speeches because it says so in the script, in the Bible. The most offensive characters are a one-eyed piratical psycho Barrabas, and a queer, sneering, pantomime Herod, caught in the middle of filming a Prince video at a Siegfried and Roy show. He laughs at Jesus, refusing to sentence him, as the son of God makes eye contact with a cowed black slave in the corner. 'Don't worry,' his funky-coloured eyes seem to assure the man, 'I will die to save you all, and in two thousand years your people will be mostly free, and someone who looks just like you will be in a couple of frames of a movie about me.' Most motivations are ill-explained, but that's not too much of a worry, because any confusion is washed aside by an ever-present 'feel-this-emotion-now' score. This establishes itself so firmly, that with the king of the world's arms outstretched, it wouldn't seem odd for Celine Dion to come howling over the speakers 'my heart will go on (for eternity)'.

What is incredible is that an ostensibly religious film should be invested with so little meaning. A few steps from Vue West End Cinema, there's an El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery, which offers a stark contrast to this in the dense discourses Theotokopoulos worked into his depictions of Christ's life. Despite Gibson's ignoring or ignorance of all that comes after the crucifixion and before his representation, though, it is not unaffected by the resonance of its predecessors. As the head pharisee steps up, calling out 'he is not the messiah!' half the audience struggle in their seats, trying desperately to contain the response: 'he's a very naughty boy!'
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