Africana Reviews: The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson has never presented viewers with an intellectual challenge, but with The Passion of the Christ that is exactly what he's done.
Reviewed by Armond White
. . . . Part of the confusion comes from the fact that there has rarely before been a mainstream movie that professed Catholic precepts. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was essentially a Marxist parable. Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was a lapsed-Catholic extravaganza. Like Kevin Smith’s Dogma, it was more skeptical than spiritual. Scorsese’s overwrought and hermeneutically ponderous style ignited controversy from Christian spokesmen but his film was simply flashier than such films as King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told.Nice to hear someone enthusing about Jesus Christ Superstar, still one of my favourite Jesus films.
Hollywood’s previous Christ films were Protestant or ecumenical in approach. Gibson’s movie is extremely Catholic in its focus on hideous/gorgeous suffering. He brings to life the bloody essence of the Crucifixion iconography . . . .
. . . . Gibson must also be defended against critics who suddenly complain about his violent style. It’s Gibson’s previous use of violence without impact that was unacceptable, in The Passion of the Christ the violent scenes are conceived ethically like the sacrifices shown in a war movie. Gibson connects to the old Negro spiritual “By His stripes we are healed” — the black gospel recognition of hideous/gorgeous suffering.
The most beautiful moment in the film is a flashback to Jesus the carpenter building a table that stands high off the ground. It symbolizes Christ elevating mankind from its meanest habits. But this is a rare moment of subtlety and loveliness. For the majority of the film, that proverbial art theme (Man’s Inhumanity to Man) is stressed, even over the primary fact of Resurrection. It proves Gibson has done things the Hollywood way for too long.
For black viewers it’s always been hard to get past the chauvinistic traditions of Christian art — even in Norman Jewison’s visionary 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar we had to endure a black Judas (played by Carl Anderson whose earnest portrayal won him a Golden Globe nomination). Not even Scorsese could resist this tradition. His The Last Temptation of Christ abetted the idea of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus. (He went against Scriptural description, favoring European hegemony — even though Scorsese himself is a descendant of dark-eyed Southern Italians.) Believers who are moviegoers have to resolve the issue of spiritual representation for themselves, which is why Jesus Christ Superstar still has the most inquiring — most postmodern — moment of all movies about the Passion. During Christ (Ted Neely’s) Garden of Gethsemane aria Jewison edits-in a montage of various fine art renderings of the Passion. By that trope, Jewison opened up the Gospels culturally and aesthetically. Gibson’s movie is not that advanced. Instead, it is powerfully, earnestly traditional.