Friday, February 04, 2011


Here's a quirky piece I stumbled upon when scanning the internet a year ago, looking for "Best Of The Decade" reflections. It raises the question, if not in so many words - are Thandie Newton, Rocky Balboa, James Bond and Phillip Marlowe also numbered among the lamed vovnik?
The Movies That Changed My Life:
A Film Geek's Retrospect on Cinematic Paradigm Shifts
by Matthew K
Best Of The Decade #7: The Passion Of The Christ
Dec 18, 2009

Currently, Michael Phillips and A. O. Scott of At the Movies are each counting down their lists of the best films of the decade. For the rest of the month, I will be offering my own lists, not only my 10 "best" list but also my 10 "worst" list as well. As criteria for both lists is hard, I have decided to base my film choices on personal experience: My "best" films are those that lingered with me for weeks after I saw them, and my "worst" films are those that pissed me off the most.

Counting them down in chronological order of release dates, we continue with #7 on my "best" list:

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
directed by Mel Gibson

Step away from all the external drama surrounding The Passion of the Christ: The accusations of anti-Semitism; the controversy of the violence; Mel Gibson's erratic and un-Christian behavior some months after the film's release; Gibson's divorce of his wife Robin, mother of his massive brood of kids, and subsequent impregnation of a starlet/model young enough to be his daughter.

Step away, too, from your core belief system if you will. This I address to the agnostics, the people of Jewish descent, and the hard-line Christians quick to point out Biblical inaccuracies in the film.

Simply take a moment to judge The Passion of the Christ on its merits as a film. Look at all the elements that come together to make it so effective--the performances of the actors; the exquisite cinematography; the realistic effects; and ultimately, the way Gibson structures this chapter in the life of Christ.

By now, most of you know what the movie is about. Christ's Passion, which means His suffering, is reenacted in a series of movements meant to reflect the various Stations of the Cross in the Catholic faith (and feel free to correct me here; I'm not Catholic and am going solely on memory of a conversation with a Catholic friend several years ago). Much is made about the violence, the gruesome depiction of Christ's flogging and crucifixion, and there are moments in the film that are difficult to watch. And yet rather than coming off as a two-hour torture porn with a message, Gibson manages to create a sense of dramatic urgency by making Satan a key figure in the piece.

The only way to really explain why I liked this film is to look at it from a Christian perspective. For those who don't believe in the Christian doctrine, I respect your position, but without some background in the film's theology it is impossible to appreciate the film's narrative craft.

Simply put: The Christian faith believes that Christ was the Son of God, in essence the physical manifestation of God Himself, and that he came to our physical plane of existence to suffer and die for the sins of mankind. An analogy I have used to explain it to people is the scene in Mission: Impossible II when Thandie Newton takes the last syringe of a deadly virus with the potential to kill millions and injects it into herself; she sacrifices herself to save humanity. Likewise, it is as if God became man to "inject" Himself with a "syringe" filled with all of man's sins and then allow Himself to be brutally tortured to death as atonement for those sins.

Digressing: There is a story of a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars. He is told by his captors that he can be released to return to Rome if he gives his word that he will persuade the Roman Senate to come with a peace treaty to end Rome's war with Carthage. The general vows that he will do just that, and if he fails to persuade the Senate to draw up a treaty, then he will return to Carthage to be tortured to death. As the legend goes, the General returns to Rome and says, in essence: "Do not make peace with Carthage! They are at the end of their rope and will not resist for much longer!" He then returns to Carthage, being a man of his word, and allows himself to be tortured to death.

This story, set up as an example of Roman pride and integrity, gives us some idea of what the Christians believe about Christ. In Milton, there is a scene where man has fallen from Grace, and God tells his angels that as man is now living in sin he is unfit to be in God's presence. God says the only way to save man is if one of His angels will go to earth to take on man's sins and then die to give man salvation. None of the angels volunteer, so God's only Sons steps up to the plate and says, "I'll do it!"

Remove all the dogma, the judgmental finger-wagging of some Christians, and the tired cliches, and the legend of Christ is pretty exciting stuff. Christ in Milton is an entity of great courage and honor, and combine that picture with that of the Christ in Gibson's film being broken on the Cross and you come away with something moving and impressive.

And then there is Satan, played by the creepy-looking Rosalinda Celentano in the film. Satan's role in this film is what the Christian's believe his role is in the lives of men. Basically, Satan hovers over Christ, whispering lies into his ears, telling him he is not strong enough, that his sacrifice won't matter, that the sins of mankind are too much to bear.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Christ is praying in the Garden of Gethsemene and Satan stands above Him, taunting and tormenting with his foul words. Finally, Christ rises to his feet, exhausted, literally sweating blood, and looks Satan in the eye. James Caviezel, who plays Christ, displays a masterful sense of subtlety, gazing at Satan with an expression of both recognition and disgust. He is like a tired prizefighter, battered but not beaten, and his eyes seem to say, "Okay, buddy, let's dance." It's Stallone in the original Rocky, dragging himself to his feet to keep fighting when Apollo Creed is celebrating what he thinks is a victory. Thrilling stuff.

There are other moments too, of course. The most mentioned scene by the film's many critics is when Christ is carrying the cross to Golgotha, and his mother, Mary, sees him stumble and fall. At once, Mary has a flashback to when he was a child, stumbling and falling, and her maternal instinct kicks in as she goes to him. This scene gets most people, especially parents, weepy-eyed. It doesn't affect me so much until the scene's denouement, when Jesus looks at Mary, his face a rictus of agony, his body twisted and bloody, and says, "See, mother? I make all things new." I don't know about you, but that line elicits the same kind of emotion as when James Bond mocks his torturer in Casino Royale.

There are some Christians who complain about the film's ending. After two hours of watching this grueling and tortuous death, the Resurrection of Christ is covered in the span of 30 seconds. Why? these Christians wonder. Isn't the most important part of the story the fact that Christ conquered death?

I, on the other hand, like the succinct treatment of the Resurrection. I am reminded of the ending of The Long Goodbye, starring Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe. Throughout the entire film, Marlowe is depicted as a bumbling idiot, a rumpled, mistake-prone, frightened little man trying to solve a murder but clearly way out of his league. But in the film's final frame, when Marlowe tracks down and confronts the killer, he suddenly shows focus and nerves of steel. Marlowe was strong all along, you see, and he always had the essential tools to play with the big boys. But he was acting dumb, coming off as weak and unthreatening, so people would let their guard down, make a mistake, and lead him to clues that will help him solve the case.

Likewise, The Passion of the Christ is so elegantly handled that Christ comes off as a helpless, weak little man. Even though I went in knowing the story and believing in the Divinity of Christ, in the context of the film I found myself sensing what the people watching his crucifixion must have felt: The man looked like a nothing, a nobody. Surely, someone this meek and lowly could not be the Son of God.

But at the end of the film, when the stone of the tomb is rolled back and the once-broken Christ stands in the light, fully restored, I had a revelation. Christ was not a weak little man. Like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, He was strong. In fact, because we see that He has the power to conquer death, we realize that during His entire torture and crucifixion he had the power to stop His suffering at any time He chose.

And yet He did not. He allowed Himself to be tortured. He allowed Himself to seem weak. Not to demean the faith, but this also reminded me of the episode of Happy Days, when Fonzie let a lesser man bully him because he wanted the man to seem a hero in his son's eyes. Christ let lesser men abuse Him, torture Him, kill Him. He could have stopped it, and yet He did not.Why would anyone allow such a thing?

This, I think, is the real core of the Christian faith, something that many followers of Christ do not contemplate enough. And when you see it on film, as vivid and realistic as it can possibly be, the message is all brought home to you. I can't watch the film without shaking. My faith may waver, my mind may be filled with doubt, but I watch this film, and it reminds me of the very core of the faith. The Christians believe someone willingly suffered in their place--someone powerful enough to avoid that suffering if He so chose.

What could be more beautiful than that?

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