I believe I was called to play this role.
—John Caviezel, 700 Club, 25 February 2004
It’s the reality for me. I believe that. I have to.
—Mel Gibson, Primetime Live, 16 February 2004
When Jesus (James Caviezel) first appears before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) in The Passion of the Christ, now available on an extrasless DVD, they engage in a bit of conversation concerning the nature of truth. Jesus has already been slapped, punched, and chained by the High Priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) and his minions, as well as jeered by a throng of Jewish citizens. But now the Roman procurator, who famously sent thousands of Jews to crucifixion, is looking for a reason to end the abuse, to let the Galilean go.
And so, he questions the prisoner, out of the mob’s earshot, as to why his “own people have delivered” him up to be killed. “Are you a king?” asks Pontius. Answering in a roundabout way, as Jesus tends to do, eventually admitting that he has been born to “give testimony to the truth” (the dialogue is spoken in Latin and Aramaic, subtitled in English, so some additional interpretive filter is in place). Pilate, here represented so that he is reflective as well as brutal and cruel, wonders aloud, “What is truth?” Jesus provides him no solid answer, and the film cuts outside. Pilate returns to the balcony with his charge, announcing to the increasingly agitated assembly that he finds “no cause” in the man for punishment.
The crowd wants blood, the Pharisees want dominion, and Pilate, it appears, just wants to keep his job. Feeling stuck between non-options (an uprising by the Jews or an uprising by Jesus’ followers, despite the fact that he commands the local Roman military that might quash either), he sits with his back literally against a wall. His wife Claudia Procula (Claudia Gerini) approaches, and he asks what she thinks about truth: can she recognize it when she hears it? Not unlike the Son of Man, she answers her fretful husband in allusive circles: “If you will not hear the truth,” she says, “no one can tell you.”
This problem of truth—how it might be defined, known, or told—underlies most all of Mel Gibson’s film. Tracing Jesus’ last 12 hours on earth, The Passion of the Christ raises multiple questions regarding truth, faith, and history, their intersections and distinctions. How can one gauge the truth of the gospels (Gibson based his screenplay on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and—reportedly—on writings by the nuns Mary of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich)? How does desire or circumstance affect memory, legend, and religious belief? And how can anyone process imagery so suffused with violence and suffering?
The violence takes various forms—flagellation, scourging, crucifixion—all horrific and bloody, wrenching, masochistic and sadistic. While it surely has a place within the trajectory of Gibson’s career choices (the Mad Maxes, the Lethal Weapons, Braveheart), it also achieves a kind of awful poetry, partly through cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s stunning evocations (inspired by Caravaggio and Michelangelo, among others) and partly through the many moments of overwrought slow motion, allowing careful inspection of details—fluids oozing, skin ripping and swelling, limbs giving way, tears falling. Such horrors make up the bulk of the film’s 126 minutes. The plot is pain.
While this kind of literalization is hardly unusual in Christian iconography, here it also serves particular purposes. Some seem obvious, if highly contested: evangelical sorts are calling the film a teaching and converting “tool,” to be used for years to come, other viewers worry that it will lead to less sanguine offscreen effects, igniting anger and prejudice, a longing for vengeance against those deemed “responsible” for such relentless, monstrous cruelty. It’s not even that the violence is intolerable or unfamiliar—more vicious, more visceral, and faster paced violence appears on movie screens regularly—but the effect in this instance is strangely mixed, at once intense and underwhelming. Intense because it is inexorable and underwhelming because it is so literal and solicitous, inviting you to look on its surface, to appreciate its art and orthodoxy.
The movie provides its own internal audiences, in the horrible crowd that is more and more moblike (their faces are ugly, when revealed for any few seconds) as it calls for crucifixion, and the Roman soldiers are unspeakably mean, laughing while they whip—there seems enough mindless malice to go around. The sympathetic viewers, however, are almost harder to watch, as Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) repeatedly collapse against one another, trembling, their eyes beseeching, unbelieving but compelled to believe.
Among the most effective moments is one that has Mary leave the others, wander down a walkway and stand in the foreground, her head turned away from the spectacle of her son’s scourging by the loutish Roman soldiers (their commander has to stop them, they are so overtaken by their sadistic lusting). As the beating becomes a pale blur behind her, Mary’s face becomes the narrative, more compelling and more resourceful an image than the ongoing assault.
At issue here is the way that violence makes its own kind of truth, even as representations of violence reframe presumptions of truth. Jesus’ bloodied body incarnates a reality, but its metaphor resonates more deeply, beyond the presumption that only Christians who know their Bible will truly appreciate what they’re seeing. Mary and Mary Magdalene’s reactions are something else—they allow observation and empathy, sorrow and anguish. The film can’t quite accommodate their metaphor, however, their sacrifice remains “other” than the obvious, literal, embodied loss of life.
Questions as to what comprises “truth” (complicated by questions of culpability, perspective, and intention) have accompanied the lengthy run-up to The Passion of the Christ‘s Ash Wednesday release, igniting cable-news controversy and invaluable (and seemingly endless) press coverage. For nearly a year, stories have circulated that the movie is anti-Semitic or will instigate anti-Semitism like olden-days passion plays, that it reflects Gibson’s Traditionalist Catholicism (even his father Hutton’s Holocaust-denying bent), that it will “upset” Jewish viewers. When, last January, Bill O’Reilly asked Gibson to address this last question, the filmmaker said, “It may. It’s not meant to. I think it’s meant to just tell the truth.” Even the leak that the Pope saw and liked Gibson’s movie is premised on this idea that it tells a truth: “It is as it was.”
But whose truth is it? The movie appears, for the most part, to adopt Jesus’ point of view, by definition reimagined by storytellers and interpreters over thousands of years, including Gibson, whether or not the “Spirit” is working through him, as he claimed. It opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is first tempted by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), then arrested and dragged off to Jerusalem for his mock trial and torture by Roman soldiers. Occasional flashbacks attributed to Jesus show him with disciples (in particular John of Zebedee [Hristo Jivkov], Peter [Francesco De Vito], and Judas Iscariot [Luca Lionello]) and Mary, in which he asserts his love for them, as well as knowledge of his fate. (Just how free will and God’s plan fit together is another question.)
Other flashbacks take the perspectives of Mary and Mary Magdalene, suggesting that they share the same sorts of memories, involving revelation, inspiration, and dread. None appears to have imagined the full extent of the crucifixion’s awfulness, and this is one of Gibson’s stated goals, to make clear the agony Jesus (must have) endured, to give viewers an “experience” that approximates the Passion, a pain they will remember and believe (in). Amid the devotion to this cause, that The Passion of the Christ uses such familiar means to this end—slow motion, reaction shots, huge score, lingering images of viciousness and distress—suggests a strange dearth of imagination, as if distrusting that viewers might see metaphor as a means to truth.
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