Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is released today in the United States, and already the debate is raging. There appears to be very little middle ground in this debate; The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert gives the movie four stars, while Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News excoriates the movie as spectacularly violent, and, remarkably, "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II."

Those German propaganda movies were pretty anti-Semitic, looking back, so for Mad Max to have topped them must be some achievement. Or else Ms. Bernard is taking through her hat.

Let's take a look. Ms Bernard remarks that the movie is a propaganda tool, and identifies Caiphas' response to Pilate, who wants to set Jesus free, "His blood be on us - and our our people," as the most damning of all.

Interestingly, Caiphas speaks this line, as do all the Jewish characters, in Aramaic. The movie is subtitled, but that line is not - Gibson is fully aware of the delicacy of feeling about this, and therefore doesn't subtitle the line, meaning that the only person who can be offended are those who are fluent in Aramaic, a very small population indeed, and those who are going to see the movie with the sole and specific purpose of being offended. Ms Bernard is one or the other. In propaganda terms, who is the spinner, and whom is the spun?

As regards the violence of the movie, we can only assume that Ms. Bernard is on surer footing. Ms Bernard is the author of Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies so we can take it as - God forgive me - Gospel that she intimately familiar with ears being sliced off, someone's brains being blown all over the back seat of a car and people being sliced up like loaves of bread. No mention of fishes, of course. As the author of a study of Tarantino, Ms Bernard must be able to justify the violence that is emblematic of the Tarantino oeuvre, she must find it necessary; how exactly Ms Bernard would direct a story about a crucifixion without lashings of blood and gore is an interesting one.

Here is the one thing I know about Mel Gibson's Passion: at a time when there is no more devoted retailer of old rope than the movie industry, which churns out stultifying and insulting movies every weekend, there is no percentage for Mel Gibson in making this movie. Instead of figuring out how the least creative effort can achieve the maximum return, as happened with, say, Bad Boys II, Gibson made the Passion because he believed in it. The Passion is rare indeed in this regard, and, whether you like the movie or hate it, you have to respect what's gone into it. I'm looking forward to seeing it.