Watching Mel Gibson's intense and disgusting film, The Passion of the Christ, raised numerous questions within me, which is what I suppose it was intended to do. Of these questions, the most important seems to be: for what reason do we make art? Obviously, there have been others who have contemplated this before, probably to a higher degree and with better results. Whatever conclusions one makes, it seems that a larger question springs forth: what is art?
Rather than attempt such lofty speculation here (as space does not permit) I shall simply say that after many hours of contemplation I do secede from my immediate reaction and admit that Mel has created something akin to real live, in the bloodied and beaten flesh, art. It is the creation of something from nothing and the culminations of one man's obsession, vision and conviction. So no, this is not as I first thought, a high class snuff film, but rather a deep look at a subject obviously close to the director's heart as well as a never dwindling amount of people looking for meaning in a meaningless universe. What is that subject? Their religion, their faith, their fundamental belief system and manner of coping with myriad tragedies and cosmic screw-jobs? Not really, just the extreme and cruel events prior to the crucifixion of a Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion itself seems to be a rather interesting point in the story of Christ, especially for Catholics. Step into any of the churches and you will find a large, gory depiction of the killed Christ hanging into eternal agony as constant reminder that he died for you. As a small child, I found this rather scary and disturbing, but it prepared me in way for the slow motion fetishistic imagery Mel conjured up for the big screen. I knew that this was a violent film; that it aimed to show the extents of Christ's sufferings. I guess I didn't expect the camera to take such giddy, merciless views of spattering blood and ripping flesh.
To describe the extremities of the film without mentioning the subject might raise the concerns of the Christian Right or anyone of the opinion that movies are just too bloody. It would read as though I had just seen a slasher film or larger than life Die Hard-esque celebration of violence. The slight fact that Mel is not himself shooting bad guys in Payback or Lethal Weapon but rather bringing us Jesus Christ is itself what makes the gore and depravity forgivable. Or so it seems. If this seems like a contradiction, it might just be because it is.
Nonetheless, there are many who laud this as a fantastic cinematic event; a miraculous and faithful retelling of what so many believe or need to believe (a subject for another debate). The lurching, slow movements of the film and cliched score seem to not bother the faithful, and the only criticism most have is that the film touches on anti-Semitism (which I do not think it does). I must be alone as I found the film to be gruesome at times, exceedingly dull at others, and overall lacking in any kind of passion. But Mel must mean 'passion' as defined in the traditional Latin sense of 'extreme anguish'. That being the case, the film exudes passion by the bloodly bucketful. It just lacks in the spirit or the mystery that makes Christ a compelling figure to so many. It would be like making a film about Che Guevara that focused on nothing but his execution for two extreme hours, and skipping the politics and ideas for which he died. Anything Christ is remembered for is touched upon so lightly it seems tacked on. In short, with its morbid fixation on the sacrifice and little devotion to the ideas, it reminds me why I strayed from the church.