I saw The Passion of the Christ the Saturday after it opened, but I haven't been able to post about it for a couple of reasons. First, because I don't really have anything distinctive to add to the Babel of voices raised for and against it already, and second, because my reaction to it was intensely personal and I've been struggling to find the words to express my amazement with the film. I cannot describe how far it exceeded, even transcended my expectations.
To be honest, I was initially interested primarily in hearing the dead languages being spoken; I'm a language freak and studied Latin in high school, and that was the offbeat note that caught my interest when I first heard Gibson was interested in making the film. Like most people, I thought he was probably going to lose his shirt, making a film with such a tiny niche market--who in their right mind thought John Q. Public would sit still for two hours of Jesus movie in languages no one speaks anymore?--and I admired him for being determined enough to go ahead and do the project because it obviously meant a great deal to him. This was a novel experience, as I had never previously had cause to admire Mel Gibson for much of anything; I've never been a fan of his acting or his direction.
It was therefore an enormous surprise to find that he is capable of coaxing incredible performances from more talented actors than himself (Jim Caviezel is wonderful, but Maia Morgenstern absolutely broke my heart.) It was further a surprise to find that he was able to put together a movie about grotesque human brutality, and to focus unflinchingly on that brutality, but to put the visual sequences together in such a way that the camera turns away just as it all becomes too much to bear. I know many people found the violence bordering on the pornographic; I can only say I didn't find it so. Sam Peckinpah, The Matrix, Bonnie and Clyde--that's the pornography of violence. To me the difference is that the violence here is not glorified--it's simply presented as a fact. I've seen reviews that question the authenticity of the gore--I can only wonder if any of them have done any research at all into Roman culture. They didn't own most of the known world because they shrank from violence.
Speaking to the other concerns I think are legitimate, the questions of anti-semitism and the quasi-absolution of Pilate--well, those are to a certain extent, within the eye of the beholder. I was never taught and have never felt that the Jews were to blame for the death of Christ; I watched with what I hope was a critical eye and never felt that the movie was trying to say otherwise. I recognize that Gibson's father has said some woefully ignorant and hurtful things, but I wouldn't tar Mel Gibson with his father's brush, and think it's shameful of others to do so. He's a grown man, he has his own mind and has made his own statement. Judge him on that. The characterization of Pilate is sympathetic, but as his actions don't deviate far from the Gospel, I see that as an interpretive call, and I'm not prepared to argue either way.
Because none of that is the point of the story. The sacrifice was inevitable; no one could have stopped it had they wanted to, apart from Christ himself. Complaints that the movie didn't show enough of His teachings fall on deaf ears here; King of Kings is for rent any time you want to see it. Complaints that the resurrection wasn't emphasized enough also seem to me to miss the point of the scope of the movie. This is an illustration, limited by human imperfection, of the suffering and sacrifice upon which the Christian faith is founded. And many people want to be moved by that message. The fact that there is apparently a great spiritual thirst for this movie, at this time and in this place, gives me greater hope for the future than I have had in a long time. It's certainly not a perfect film, none of them are. But for the here and now, it's good enough.
On a much less serious note, I saw Hidalgo this past Saturday. I have a confession: I just don't much like Viggo Mortensen. I didn't really like him as Aragorn, even; I find him pretentious and earnestly dull on screen, and his inability to use his eyes expressively leaves me utterly cold. The good points of his performance: his Western drawl wasn't excessively painful (I've heard much, much worse) and the one thing I must concede: the man sits a horse beautifully. In a horse movie this is, naturally, of primary importance. He also fights well, in sudden bursts of energy, and has a few moments of levity that threaten to bring the character to life before he sinks back into Hamlet's brooding melancholy yet again. That inky cloak must have been the first thing he threw into the saddle bags when he left.
The bad: well. He mumbles. His voice seems to be trying to come out through his nostrils. He's supposed to be half-Lakota; letting the question of blue eyes and recessive genes go for the moment, why does he have to have blond hair? I know it's a nitpick, but it was distracting.
But it would be unfair of me to say that Mortensen actually spoils the film; that's accomplished more by sloppy writing and editing that has the energy of the film dissipated long before the supposed climax of the action has been reached. I didn't and don't object to the fact that it's not really based on a true story ("This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Update: Ian Hamet informs me, correctly, that I attributed "Spirit" to the wrong company. Dreamworks, not Disney, was responsible for that particular fiasco.