Saturday, April 24, 2004

REVIEW of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ:

I finally saw the movie last night. Overall it was a good, gripping story, well acted, and with reasonably convincing sets, special effects (especially trauma-simulation), etc. Since, as usual, I seem to be among the last in the western hemisphere to see the film, I will try to concentrate on points I haven't seen made before.

Languages: I could follow 50-60% of the Aramaic and somewhat less of the Latin. The mistakes in both have been covered at length here, so I won't say more about them. There was a fair mixture of Hebrew in the Aramaic, which evidently was Fulco's way of simulating "street Aramaic." Well, his guess is as good as mine. The Aramaic of the Dead Sea Scrolls has some Hebrew mixed in, but not much. The Aramaic words and phrases transliterated into New Testament Greek may also have some Hebrew.

Speaking of Greek, it's strange that the sign on the cross only had the Latin inscription and one in Aramaic (the latter was definitely Aramaic, not Hebrew, and it said "King of the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth"). For all the claims of historical veracity, this was an obvious change from what the Gospels say (John 19:20). I can't help thinking there's some pre-Vatican II, pro-Latin Mass agenda here. (I'm pro-Latin too in general, but not at the expense of presenting the linguistic situation of the first century as it actually was.)

Violence: I think I was over-prepared for the violence. It was overdone, but not as much as I expected. A couple of weeks ago I saw the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead and I thought that was more graphic and more disturbing, although the injuries were not as realistic.

I think the violence in The Passion was both exaggerated and sanitized. On the one hand, I don't believe that anyone could take that amount of flogging and then get up again and walk for any distance, let alone do so carrying a heavy cross. Jesus would have gone into shock during or just after the flogging and would not have been of much use after that. Given the level of sanitation, nutrition, and medical care at the time, he probably would have died from the flogging alone. (Any physicians out there want to comment here?) On the other, despite the realistic wounds, it was unrealistic that Jesus kept all his teeth through those beatings. I suspect this was because Caviezel would have looked less manly and noble with half his teeth knocked out. (Incidentally, overall I thought that people had too many teeth for the period. No toothpaste or dental floss back then.)

Nevertheless, the level of realism was far higher than usual for film media. Consider, for example, season 2 of 24, in which Jack Bauer undergoes implausibly mild torture by supposedly desperate men in a big hurry, he goes into cardiac arrest, yet he still manages to rise from the dead - without the help of a miracle! - and save the day. At least The Passion didn't involve that kind of cartoon violence. According to the Gospels, Jesus died on the cross in just a few hours, which does imply that the beatings must have been severe. Still, there were too many gratuitous additions to the violence, e.g., the beatings starting at the arrest, the tossing-over-the-bridge scene, the crow pecking out the eyes of the unrepentant thief).

The level of gore in The Passion is not my cup of tea, but it's Gibson's movie and his artistic statement, not mine. Although I said I was over-prepared for the violence, I should add that I had some pretty violent nightmares last night (including one in Dawn-of-the Dead zombie-land), so the movie clearly affected me more than I realized consciously.

The Crucifixion: Mark Goodacre has been arguing lately that we don't actually know whether the nails went through the wrists rather than the palms during crucifixion and that it's possible that, if the arms were tied firmly to the crossbeam, the nails could have gone through the palms. He may well be right on both counts. According to John 20:25-27 Jesus' hands were nailed rather than tied, but it's unclear whether it was through the palms or the wrists.

All that granted, the physiology of the crucifixion in this movie just does not work. Look closely at the ropes that tie Jesus' arms to the cross. They are tied fairly loosely, enough to immobilize the arms in order to get the nails in, but not enough to support his whole body. If he had been nailed through the palms, the nails would torn through the hand rapidly from the weight of his body. On top of that you have the stretching of his arms to the point, presumably, of dislocation during the nailing. The pull on the hands would have torn the nails out. Then too, there's the whole business of toppling the cross over to turn the bottoms of the nails down and then turning it back again, then dropping it into the hole.

The crucifixion scene in the movie is physically impossible.

Was the movie anti-Semitic? Overall, I would say no. Both Jews and Romans are generally presented as bloodthirsty and barbaric, but there are noble exceptions among both. That said, Gibson did pick up some pretty disturbing themes I wish he had left out. In particular, the extra violence of the arrest party, the visions of the Jewish children morphing into demons, and the demon baby were gratuitous and just sat the wrong way. Also, although I don't see an intention to be anti-Semitic, I do worry about how much it will confirm people who are already anti-Semitic in their views. But I'm not sure how much this is really Gibson's problem.

Historical issues: The movie has quite a few historical errors, most of which have been well covered elsewhere. I have to say I winced when I saw the quotation from Isaiah 53 being dated to 700 BC at the beginning. Nothing like putting in a mistake in the first few frames to set the tone. Also, there was confusion over hand-washing before meals, which was a ritual act, not a hygienic one, and which was followed by some Jews but evidently not Jesus and his followers (Mark 7:1-4). Mama Mary's making Jesus wash his hands before lunch and the disciples washing theirs before the Last Supper are anachronisms. They didn't know about germs back then. (As an aside, I did think that the people looked realistically unwashed.)

Despite all that, there was a real effort at least much of the time to get the historical background right. The contrast with other movies and television films is striking. British readers may have seen the final episode of the police drama Murder City on ITV last Thursday evening. It involved an ancient codex written in some pre-cuneiform(!) language that was given some Lovecraftian-sounding name. The codex contained the true primal religion that disproved all current religions and this religion was followed by a fanatical, murderous, underground cult with Protocols-of-Zion-level tendrils of power insinuated throughout the world. That's the sort of tripe film-media usually dish out when they try to do history (the movie Stigmata is another example) and Gibson does deserve some credit for rising well above that. Still, I wish he had worked with an advisory team of specialists, and I hope he does that if it's true that his next movie will be on the Maccabees.

Miscellaneous: Why does Satan look so much like the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey?

In sum: Movies about ancient history are usually dreadfully poorly done. By that standard, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was pretty good.

UPDATE (25 April): Mark Goodacre comments here.

And more here.

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