Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Passion of the Christ: news and reviews round-up

With the release of The Passion of the Christ in the USA tomorrow, it's time to round up some of the news and reviews. I commented earlier on Christianity Today's coverage; the second of the two articles there mentions that Mel Gibson's feet appear in the stoning of the woman taken in adultery scene; so now we know that we see both his hands (crucifixion scene) and his feet.

Thanks to Helenann Hartley for these two from BBC News:

Christ film 'riddled with errors'

Bible belt devoted to Christ film

The first of these is a version of the Reuters story commented on earlier.

This Reuters story provides a useful round-up of all the early reviews of the film, which show some interesting variety:

Critics Pan and Praise Gibson's 'Passion'
By Arthur Spiegelman
. . . . "One of the cruelest movies in the history of cinema," says the New Yorker's David Denby in a negative review that also calls the film "a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminated procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony."

Critic Denby adds, 'For two hours ... we watch, stupefied as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ and is so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus's message of love into one of hate.". . . . .

. . . . . Daily Variety's reviewer Todd McCarthy was more positive about the film, saying, "If an age produces the renditions of classic stories that reflect those times, then 'The Passion of the Christ,' which is violent, contentious, emotional, extreme and highly proficient, must be the Jesus movie for this era.

"It is also gravely intense and the work of a man as deeply committed to his subject as one could hope for or, for that matter, want.... (The picture's) notoriety might soon be mitigated for mainstream audiences by word of mouth centered on the prolonged suffering and very vivid gore; at the same time, many true believers ... will be deeply moved. ..."

McCarthy rejected the idea that the film was anti-Semitic and added, "The passion according to Mel is potent stuff, but rather like a full course of bitter herbs without as much as a taste of honey." . . . . .

. . . . . Newsweek's David Ansen said, "Relentlessly savage, 'The Passion' plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion."

He added, "It's the sadism, not the alleged anti-Semitism, that is most striking. (For the record, I don't think Gibson is anti-Semitic; but those inclined toward bigotry could easily find fuel for their fire here.)"

Time Magazine's Richard Corliss, in a review headlined "The Goriest Story Ever Told," said the audience for this film is fairly narrow: True believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified. And a few movie critics who can't help admiring Mad Mel for the spiritual compulsion that drove him to invent a new genre --- the religious splatter art film -- and bring it to searing life, death and resurrection.
There are some great one-liners there -- "the goriest story ever told" sounds like something that is going to stick. There is a theme that crops up repeatedly in the reviews -- the graphic, brutal violence -- and makes a much stronger impression than anything else.

The article briefly mentions the following review from the Chicago-Sun Times, which is also blogged by Stephen Carlson on Hypotyposeis:

Review of The Passion of the Christ
Roger Ebert
. . . . . If ever there was a film with the correct title, that film is Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Although the word passion has become mixed up with romance, its Latin origins refer to suffering and pain; later Christian theology broadened that to include Christ's love for mankind, which made him willing to suffer and die for us.

The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen . . . .

. . . . . David Ansen, a critic I respect, finds in Newsweek that Gibson has gone too far. "The relentless gore is self-defeating," he writes. "Instead of being moved by Christ's suffering or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins."

This is a completely valid response to the film, and I quote Ansen because I suspect he speaks for many audience members, who will enter the theater in a devout or spiritual mood and emerge deeply disturbed. You must be prepared for whippings, flayings, beatings, the crunch of bones, the agony of screams, the cruelty of the sadistic centurions, the rivulets of blood that crisscross every inch of Jesus' body. Some will leave before the end.

This is not a Passion like any other ever filmed. Perhaps that is the best reason for it. I grew up on those pious Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s, which looked like holy cards brought to life. I remember my grin when Time magazine noted that Jeffrey Hunter, starring as Christ in "King of Kings" (1961), had shaved his armpits. (Not Hunter's fault; the film's Crucifixion scene had to be re-shot because preview audiences objected to Jesus' hairy chest.) . . . . .

. . . . Pilate is seen going through his well-known doubts before finally washing his hands of the matter and turning Jesus over to the priests, but Caiaphas, who also had doubts, is not seen as sympathetically. The critic Steven D. Greydanus, in a useful analysis of the film, writes: "The film omits the canonical line from John's gospel in which Caiaphas argues that it is better for one man to die for the people [so] that the nation be saved.

"Had Gibson retained this line, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the inner conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of anti-Semitism." . . . . .

. . . . . Is the film "good" or "great?" I imagine each person's reaction (visceral, theological, artistic) will differ. I was moved by the depth of feeling, by the skill of the actors and technicians, by their desire to see this project through no matter what. To discuss individual performances, such as James Caviezel's heroic depiction of the ordeal, is almost beside the point. This isn't a movie about performances, although it has powerful ones, or about technique, although it is awesome, or about cinematography (although Caleb Deschanel paints with an artist's eye), or music (although John Debney supports the content without distracting from it).

It is a film about an idea. An idea that it is necessary to fully comprehend the Passion if Christianity is to make any sense. Gibson has communicated his idea with a singleminded urgency. Many will disagree. Some will agree, but be horrified by the graphic treatment. I myself am no longer religious in the sense that a long-ago altar boy thought he should be, but I can respond to the power of belief whether I agree or not, and when I find it in a film, I must respect it.
Next, thanks to David Mackinder for this link from the New Republic Online

Passion Players
by Reihan Salam

This article describes itself as "TNR's "Guide to the Passion Pundits" in which "we explain what the most prominent players on both sides of the Passion debate have said, and what you can expect them to say in the weeks to come."

This article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has some good informed comment from NT scholars -- John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg and Amy-Jill Levine:

What do the Gospels say?
Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' raises anew the question of why Jesus was crucified

There is a useful line or two in this opinion piece from yesterday's Daily Telegraph, including one I excerpt below:

Mel Gibson's 'Passion of Christ' is an act of faith, not hatred
By Barbara Amiel
. . . . . It puzzles me that someone as bright as Mr Foxman can still fall into the "Banned in Boston" trap. Audiences who would never dream of going to see a film with dialogue entirely in Aramaic and Latin – as this film is – have now had their attention drawn to it by this controversy. No one can seriously believe that dormant anti-Semites will be awakened by this film, no matter how villainous the depiction of the Sanhedrin or bloodthirsty the mob. Any latent anti-Semite has far more virulent snake charmers to bring him out of his basket . . . . .
Here's another interesting review of the film, this time from Metromix.com; it is wonderfully written with a great turn of phrase; I've added a couple of excerpts afterwards (I'm updating this blog entry as I spot stuff, so I apologise for the relatively haphazard order here):

Movie review: 'The Passion of the Christ'
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
. . . . . No movie version of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection — a story filmed many times in many ways by directors as various as Cecil B. DeMille (1927's "The King of Kings"), Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew") and Scorsese (1988's "Temptation") — has ever immersed us in such a cinematic torture chamber, spilled so much believable blood or focused with such savage insistence on Christ's wounds and manhandling. When the crown of thorns stabs Jesus' forehead or the nails crunch into his palms, I felt less epiphany than empathetic pain . . . . .

. . . . Gibson is a talented, ambitious filmmaker who takes real chances, playing "Hamlet" or directing "The Man Without a Face" — and though he didn't really deserve the Oscar he won for directing "Braveheart," it's good to see him taking even riskier shots here. "Passion" certainly avoids the picture-postcard religiosity of the standard Hollywood Bible epic, and it's not at all boring. But though Gibson's vision — so tactile and violent — may be a world away from the sometimes saccharine treatments of DeMille or Franco Zeffirelli ("Jesus of Nazareth"), it's also distant from the transcendence that might have made this either a great film or moving religious testimony.

"Passion," for all its high intent, lacks artistic and even spiritual balance. At the risk of being glib, this "Passion" has more power and gore than power and glory, more blood and guts than blood and redemption. Focusing on the excruciating agony of the flagellation and crucifixion, Gibson and Caviezel never really take us deeply into Jesus' heart or soul, as Scorsese did in his much-reviled but richer film of Nikos Kazantzakis' "Last Temptation." . . . .

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