The Circus-Sideshow Horror Aspect

The importance of cinematography has been a hot topic as of late, thanks to the recent kerfuffle with the Oscars almost presenting this year’s Best Cinematography award during a commercial break. The Passion of the Christ was actually nominated for that same award. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography makes the movie look like a painting come to life.

Apart from him sharing the same initials as Jesus Christ, much has been made of the eerie coincidence whereby lightning struck Jim Caviezel as he was up on the cross on the film set. He already had experience playing a Christ figure in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but The Passion of the Christ goes further and puts him in full Jesus make-up with a prosthetic nose. Flashbacks frame him in a manner similar to the beatific, brown-bearded Jesus of medieval or Renaissance art. His face almost looks air-brushed at times, and the eyes they give him — those digitally enhanced, preternaturally brown eyes — can be distracting at times.

At other times, The Passion of the Christ presents iconography that seems less like Renaissance art and more like something you would see in the “Hell” panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Suffice it to say, the splatter film (of which torture porn could be considered a sub-genre) isn’t the only horror genre whose tropes The Passion of the Christ emulates. At odd junctures, the film also verges on full-blown supernatural horror, not only because of Satan and the demon baby but because of the buildup of macabre imagery around Judas Iscariot.

In contrast to the singing, sympathetic Judas of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Judas we see in The Passion of the Christ is physically and mentally cursed. After he betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, his lips crack and his skin breaks out in sores. Under a bridge, he shares the darkness with demons. Visions of devil children torment him. He calls them “little Satans.” When they finally drive him to commit suicide, he hangs himself with a rope from a dead donkey that is crawling with maggots and has flies buzzing around it.

Other than the silver pieces and the hanging, none of this is in the Bible. Rather, Gibson has used his own artistic flourishes to fill in the blanks of the story of Judas. That speaks to a larger tendency in the movie. The Passion of the Christ doesn’t usually contradict the Bible, per se. What it does is funnel vague passages through Gibson’s highly idiosyncratic vision as a director.

Even for someone like me who was raised Protestant and studied to be a pastor, there are some things in The Passion of the Christ that I would only understand once I realized Gibson was drawing from Catholic liturgy and sources outside the Bible, like the impressively named The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich.

This helps explain some curiosities like the emphasis on Simon of Cyrene, the assistant cross-bearer whose role is beefed-up, similar to the whippings, from a one-line mention in the Bible. In his 2004 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote:

“The screenplay is inspired not so much by the Gospels as by the 14 Stations of the Cross. As an altar boy, serving during the Stations on Friday nights in Lent, I was encouraged to meditate on Christ’s suffering …”

“Suffering” is a key word here. I’ve heard Catholics and lapsed Catholics alike joke about “Catholic guilt,” but if ever there were a movie to show what a non-joke that can be, The Passion of the Christ might be it. The movie lays the suffering on so thick that it almost seems like it’s trying to guilt-trip viewers with the constant question, “Don’t you see what Jesus endured for you?!”

Apart from the Judas subplot, the film is full of other embellishments. Did you know that Christ the carpenter invented the dining table with chairs? Neither did I. Elements like these show The Passion of the Christ to be a fundamentally quirky conceptualization, not the gospel truth (unless your idea of that is the Gospel of Mel).

Gibson took further liberties with the Garden of Gethsemane scene, having Satan make a non-scheduled appearance with a weird squirmy thing showing in his/her nostril. Satan sends a snake slithering across the ground toward Jesus and Jesus stomps the snake with his sandal. That’s not in the New Testament … it’s trying to link the story back to the Garden of Eden and to show how Christ triumphs where Adam failed.

The sum total of all these things is a movie that relies on shock value — the shock of new and strange and viciously violent twists on an old story — to shake the viewer out of apathy. Whatever its faults, The Passion of the Christ does succeed as a kind of religious Grand Guignol. With all the creature comforts of the 21st century, it’s easy to forget the trail of blood and barbarism that leads through history to where we are now. The Passion of the Christ sprays blood on faces; it turns a white cobblestone courtyard into a blood monument.

Language and the Illusion of Accuracy

While the life of Christ may have spawned a movie entitled The Greatest Story Ever Told, we’re at a point now with post-modernism where it feels like everything has already been seen and done, to some extent, in cinema and other forms of art. Any movie about Jesus that aspires to be good faces the fundamental challenge of how to re-transmit the same story and make it fresh and interesting for a new audience.

This may partly be what attracted Martin Scorsese to a deeply unorthodox take on said story like The Last Temptation of Christ. That’s an equally controversial movie about Jesus; we revisited it here last year for its 30th anniversary. The point is, Scorsese is an artist, the filmic equivalent of a master chef. Rather than retread the familiar beats of other tellings, a person like that would be looking to use a different array of ingredients and to stage a different presentation with the food, as it were, in his version of the story.

So it goes with Gibson. With his directorial outings — including Braveheart, Apocalypto, and Hacksaw Ridge — Gibson has shown himself to be a filmmaker in full command of his craft (if not always a human being in full command of his personal life). One way he seeks to avoid Jesus-movie cliche with his iteration of the Passion is by jettisoning the English component and filming it in other languages.

Instead of hearing well-known names like Jesus and Peter, we hear the lesser-recognized Hebrew and Aramaic versions, “Yeshua” and “Cepha.” Pontius Pilate’s famous quote, “What is truth?” arrives in Latin as, “Quid est veritas?”

Presenting the movie in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin with subtitles gives it a veneer of biblical and historical accuracy. Strictly speaking, however, it’s not accurate. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek. That was the local form of language in first-century Judea and Romans stationed there would have used it.

Greek was the first language we had to study when I was taking pre-seminary classes, so imagine my surprise when I realized they were using Latin in the movie, instead. Since the ears of most U.S. moviegoers aren’t going to be sensitive to the difference, anyway, The Passion of the Christ is able to maintain its verisimilitude, or illusion of accuracy, even while substituting one foreign language for the other.

On the U.S. iTunes release of The Passion of the Christ, English is the default audio when streaming. It immediately sounds cheesy when you hear it, like an anime dubbing where the voices are overexaggerated. Had they filmed the movie in English, it would have made for a very different, perhaps significantly less artful, viewing experience.

This is most apparent in the film’s flashbacks, which are less convincing than what we see going on in the present. For anyone not already familiar with the biblical story, they might just come across as weak and weightless interludes.

In its marketing, The Passion of the Christ played to a heavily evangelical base, winning over the same political contingent that picketed The Last Temptation of the Christ. People who are not frequent filmgoers, like my parents, turned out to see this movie at the theater. Yet it’s not a movie that is concerned with bridging some secular gap, being an evangelical film and “sharing the good news,” as they say. If you asked a Martian with no knowledge of Christian theology to watch it, the Martin might be hard-pressed to grok what Jesus was even dying for.

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