Joonna Smitherman Trapp is an Associate Professor and serves as Chair of the English and Foreign Languages Department at Waynesburg University. She co-edits a journal on teaching and learning for the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (JAEPL). Film studies being a passion of hers, she has essays published on Derek Jarman's Edward II and Daniel Vigne's The Return of Martin Guerre.
The Uncanny Passion of Christ
A Review of the film by Mel Gibson
Watching The Passion of the Christ, by director Mel Gibson, for the first time upon its much touted release in 2004, I remember finding it difficult to shield my thoughts from the barrage of information flooding the airwaves before the anticipated release. I remember also wanting to test Gibson’s own words and see if he had indeed made “a lasting work of art.” I left the theater that evening convinced that I had experienced one of the most satisfying film viewings of my life.
Not only is the film tight, with no wasted scenes or dialog, but the excellent montage by editor John Wright (Hunt for the Red October) keeps what could have been gruesomely slow scenes of torture from dragging in harmful ways for the audience. The score never seems overdone as in many films on religious topics. John Debney’s (Bruce Almighty) music rather haunts the scenes ghostlike, emotionally complimenting the action in the film. And the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot) more than meets Gibson’s idea of imitating the paintings of Caravaggio in the mysterious baroque game of playing intense light against very dark backgrounds.
But it was the creative and surprising use of gothic conventions in the film which was so satisfying for me. Often what happens in films with overtly religious and biblical themes is that the didactic force of the narrative takes over the film often even crushing the artistry. Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald (In Cold Blood), in their adaptation of the Gospels, carefully blend the human, indeed, the physical realism, of the narrative with the supernatural to create a filmic world that makes a kind of artistic sense out of this bizarre and disturbing narrative which forms the central mythos of the western world’s unconscious.
The films opens, not with credits, not with a title, but with mumbling—painful mumbling in Aramaic. Christ’s back is to the camera. He is in agony. All around him in the city and in the garden are blue obscuring, suffocating mists. It could be the opening to any Hollywood vampire movie. Atmospheric settings at night show up throughout the film. Magic also appears in the first scene as Jesus restores the ear of the servant of the High Priest. As in most serious gothic literature, magic solves no problems. In this world magic and the supernatural are not even recognized except by a few. The event passes with only the servant aware of the deed.
A striking addition to the narrative is the physical appearance of the Evil One. Often in gothic literature, evil appears and is unnamed, usually only recognized by one or a few. In this film, the Lord catches glimpses of Satan moving through the crowd, tempting him to give up his suffering, taunting him, manipulating events. Though unnamed, the audience knows who this character is even before we see the maggot silently moving around the creature’s nostril. The androgynous character, played by Rosalinda Calantano, is beautiful and alluring as evil should be, but I can’t remember any depiction of evil being so startling or alarming in recent film. In the midst of this very realistic and brutally physical film, these brief appearances of the supernatural remind us that that rational thought doesn’t work when the forces of good and evil collide. Evil entices people to base desires and creates horrible situations out of the normal realm of human imagination.
Balancing the very real and human scenes of Jesus with his mother in their home, scenes of his childhood, scenes with his disciples, and the scene of the aborted stoning of Mary Magdalene are other scenes of the supernatural. But we might even talk about how Gibson and Fitzgerald turn the tables on typical gothic convention in these scenes of the past as well. Usually the past intrudes upon the present causing unease and fear. The past is always haunting the present as in the case of Judas remembering his horrible crime. These memories and taunting from Satan drive him to suicide. But the other scenes of the past are rather lovingly beautiful, healing, and provide comfort to the suffering women in the crowd, to the suffering Christ, and especially, to the audience. But the scenes of very real and tangible suffering are intercut with the most unexpected interruptions of the supernatural--Satan triumphing in Hell over the death of Jesus, the tear falling from heaven that causes the great earthquake, and the rending of the veil in the temple. After such graphic realistic moments, the insertion of the gothic again serves to remind of the battle between good and evil waged in the background.
If the role of the gothic is to help us make some kind of sense out of things we cannot fathom, and certainly, understanding the workings of the Divine Presence is most unfathomable, then this film, by blending realistic settings, geographies of the human face (to use Carl Theodore Dryer’s ideas), and almost tactile suffering with the unnatural, is a grand achievement in visualizing a story which we both understand on a human level and struggle to understand on a metaphysical level. Another aspect of the gothic is to help us grasp why something so unfathomable can seem so uncannily familiar.
As a person who grew up taking communion weekly, thus re-living the crucifixion event week after week after, this film felt like home to me. I find that both disturbing and comforting. Just as I still find the experience of communion.