Passion without hysteria

Five years ago, GetReligion launched amid some of the fiercer battles involving Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. We joined those battles ourselves (mostly in February 2004), and our onetime colleague Jeremy Lott revisits media coverage of Passion in the book Blind Spot. You may want to click here for the classic New Yorker piece, "The Jesus War."

Yesterday Ross Douthat linked to this satisfying essay by Joshua Land, who discusses the culture wars surrounding both Passion and Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. I find it especially refreshing, five years after Passion and a long 21 years after Temptation, to see a serious critic engaging with these films as films rather than as culture-war totems.

Here are my two favorite paragraphs from what Land writes about Passion:

With the notable exceptions of Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, the cast is composed mostly of little-known actors, but far more problematic from a commercial standpoint was Gibson's decision to shoot the film entirely in the languages of the first century -- Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic -- only agreeing to English subtitles after some resistance. The overall look and tone of the film, as well as its content, are closer to those of a medieval Passion Play than to anything else in contemporary cinema. The chiaroscuro-heavy visual style is derived from Baroque painting, particularly the work of Caravaggio, whom Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have cited as an influence.

... But whatever one thinks of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson deserves more credit than he's gotten for refusing to compromise his singular vision, to the point of risking some $30 million of his own money. That the film wound up grossing more than 10 times that amount at the domestic box office in no way negates the fact that its maker conceded nothing to commercial considerations. Indeed, it's safe to say that for many millions of viewers, The Passion of the Christ is the only true art film they'll ever see.

I think Land may underestimate the cultural savvy of at least a few million people in Passion's audience, but otherwise he's on target.

Other than a needless "quite literally," this is his best observation about a common thread between the two films: "Even many sympathetic viewers have found Passion to be, quite literally, 'too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday' (as Scorsese has wryly recalled the reaction of his former parish priest to his own films)."

Land is one of the few critics I've read who understands that the really explosive material in Temptation was its Christology, rather than scenes that imagined Satan tempting Jesus with a life of sex with Mary Magdalene, parenthood and polygamous marriage to Mary and Martha:

Far more disturbing to the discerning viewer is the film's highly unorthodox vision of who Jesus is. Both the Kazantzakis novel and the Schrader screenplay begin by pondering the central mystery of Christianity, the Incarnation -- the notion that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. The subject has been a matter of intense theological controversy since the early days of Christianity but the Kazantzakis-Schrader version of Jesus is clearly skewed toward the human end of the spectrum. The Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is a Nietzschean superman who struggles to overcome fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and only gradually becomes aware of his divine nature and purpose on earth. When we first see him, he is making crosses for the Romans to use for the execution of Jewish prisoners. Prone to sudden seizures, he's a masochist who wears a belt of nails to punish himself for his sins -- much closer in spirit to Scorsese's Jake La Motta than to anything resembling God in the flesh.

Thank you, good sir, for getting it.

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