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Give 'Em Hell, Mel

Gibson stirs it up with The Passion of the Christ.


The pop-culture issue of the day surrounds Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ. Beyond any talk of quality, profundity, or interest is the issue of anti-Semitism and the film's depiction of the Jews. A key component of Jewish persecution, from Christ's death and through to our own 21st century, has been the role of the Jews in the death of Christ. "Christ killers" is, I believe, the favored derogatory. This is a most ridiculous slur, because whoever killed Christ has been dead for some 2,000 years. There is no element of Jewish culture that I am aware of attached to any kind of pride or accomplishment regarding a Jewish defeat of the Christian messiah. But I don't imagine that anyone issuing such a slur would have first investigated the Jewish experience prior to the bigotry. That's the thing about bigots: shoot first, questions later.

So, allow me to address the most pressing social concern regarding this divisive film: The Passion of the Christ is not an anti-Semitic film. It recognizes, with what I believe to be an accurate interfaith perspective, that Christ's death was carried out by a cooperation between the Roman bureaucracy and Jewish Pharisees. To blame the entire Jewish people for the death of Christ would be the same as blaming all of the United States of America for, say, bombing the bejeezus out of Iraq rather than blaming the few who hastened and necessitated the action. My comparison has a political barb to it, yes, but allow me to elaborate further by likening it also to a select clutch of Islamic fundamentalists blaming all of the U.S. for Reagan/Bush/Clinton-era foreign-relations policies -- and therefore finding it God's will to topple two skyscrapers, full of civilians, with airplanes. Or blaming Christianity for the Holocaust. As we have witnessed for centuries, nothing fuels mankind's hate like the desire for God's love, and it is God's bad messengers who have distorted the great teachings of love, goodwill, and peace.

Off my soapbox for a moment: Accusations of anti-Semitism come not only from the film but by controversial elements of Mel Gibson's personal life and comments surrounding the release of the film. His father has been quoted recently as believing the Holocaust to be mostly fabrication. Gibson himself, when asked whether or not he believed that his own wife would go to hell because she is not Catholic, had this to say: "Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She's a much better person than I am. Honestly. She's, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it's just not fair if she doesn't make it. She's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it."

Gibson belongs to a sect of conservative Catholicism called "traditionalism," which goes beyond Protestant fundamentalists by restricting heaven to Catholics only. It is therefore natural to look for anti-Semitism in a film by a director whose view of the afterlife of the Jewish people is so calculably clear. Similarly, it was not difficult to locate his well-known homophobia in his last directorial effort, 1995's Oscar-winning Braveheart. Prince Edward II, noted historical homosexual, was depicted as a sissified fop, and Gibson (unhistorically) crafted a moment when the king pushes Edward's lover out a castle window to his death for a desired humorous effect. Ha ha. Regardless, it is corrupted power that takes the blame here for Jesus' death. Not the Jewish people. Whatever Gibson's personal feelings, they are well-hidden.

That said, the film is a masterpiece. But a masterpiece of what? Not of narrative. The Passion of the Christ is not a story film: A) We know it already, and B) this film is less talk and more flogging. The acting is beautiful and appropriate, but there are (to its credit) no noteworthy performances. James Caviezel stands out only because he gets to play Jesus and endure endless torture. The mastery of this film, then, is in the experience of it. This is not so much a movie to see as it is an experience to be had. And the experience is violent. Jesus' "passion" is not one of love but of suffering. In the Christian faith, this suffering tends to equal love, but in definition, it is all about the suffering. So this film is crafted entirely around the suffering, and its depiction is brutal, uncompromising, and utterly horrifying. The whipping of Christ is perhaps the most difficult to watch. We see his flesh sliced, ripped, and torn by switches, scourges, and a cat-o'-nine-tails that exposes his ribs. The crown of thorns, the nails in the hands and feet, and the spear in Christ's side are depicted with equal lack of compromise.

Some critics decry that this Passion focuses only on the gruesome aspects of a death and not on the magnificence of a life. True? Yes. Valid? No. It's not the point. There are other films to rent that glorify the teachings and the love of the man-god Jesus. This film is about sacrifice -- God's, yes, but Jesus' more profoundly. Gibson, who spent $30 million of his own money on this film and fought to have it made in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles, may be more accurately critiqued for some unnecessary flourishes. (Supposedly, Jesus invented the contemporary dining-room table. Satan appears as a creepy, androgynous woman, and once sports a scary, Gollum-like anti-Christ baby.) But message and messenger should be permitted some license in a work as profound as this.

Endnote: Consider this statement as you head to the theater: The Passion of the Christ is the most successful argument for the separation of church and state ever committed to film. Feel free to e-mail me at to share your comments. -- Bo List

When you think of movies about dancing (Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing, Fame), you probably think of florid emotions, big performances, and tales of triumph and transformation. But in Robert Altman's The Company, a quasi-documentary feature filmed in conjunction with Chicago's estimable Joffrey Ballet, it's just another job --a job as fascinating and mundane as any other.

The film -- a labor of love for "star" and ex-dancer Neve Campbell, who conceived the project, and for Altman -- continues the director's career-long interest in the working of subcultures: the country-music scene (Nashville), military-hospital units (M*A*S*H), domestic servants and their employers (Gosford Park), and political campaigns (Tanner '88).

This subject matter has formal, visual strengths that other Altman subcultures haven't provided, of course. From practices to rehearsals to performances, the dancers are worth watching regardless of the dramatic context, and Altman is able to explore the benefits of capturing dance on film.

The Company's greatest scene is an outdoor pas de deux between Campbell and a male partner that is threatened by wind and rain. Altman keeps the camera relatively stationary, cutting back to the audience and to the musicians for reaction shots (to the dancers and the weather). The pair engage each other slowly, elegantly, yet with great athletic strength and precision as leaves blow around the stage and rain begins to splatter the crowd. The head of the company contemplates stopping the performance the second the stage begins to get wet, but the dancers seem oblivious to anything happening around them. This simple, graceful, unabashedly erotic negotiation is one of the loveliest and one of the tensest scenes I've ever laid eyes on. If you go into a film like this wondering why people love dance, this might be the answer.

And yet one could see it as a miscalculation, since the scene dwarfs the dance pieces that begin and end the film. Indeed, nothing else in the film matches it for drama. The finale, a colorful storybook ballet with dancers in animal-oriented costumes, has a cluttered feel that obscures the dancing, but perhaps that's more a criticism of the ballet being performed than the film that documents it. Because Altman's film is about the creative process rather than about ballet specifically, focusing on this particular project seems to allow him to explore backstage elements (budget struggles, etc.) more than a simpler ballet might.

This sense of process is the key to appreciating the film. The Company is not a typical backstage drama, but rather an examination of the collaborative creative process. As such, The Company perhaps suffers in comparison to the best films of this type: my choice, by far, being Mike Leigh's stupendous theater-troupe ethnography Topsy-Turvy, though Francois Truffaut's film-set glimpse, Day for Night, is also great.

Altman, as always, is more interested in the community than the individual. The closest the film gets to lead performances are those of Campbell and Malcolm McDowell as the company's artistic director. But even they are secondary to the whole. But perhaps that is also misleading.

Altman is really interested in how these individuals function as part of a community. So he gives you the performances, rehearsals, practices, business meetings, and social lives of this particular ballet company and those who exist in its orbit. He doesn't force these lives into dramatic conventions but rather steps modestly through the textures that exist between and around dramatic moments -- the scenes left out of other movies.

As a result, The Company is a little dull at times. And there is certainly nothing else that compels one's attention like that early outdoor dance scene. But slip into its rhythms and live in it for a while, and you can appreciate what Altman is doing here.

Another thing The Company shares with Topsy-Turvy and Day for Night is an autobiographical bent. Leigh certainly saw himself in Gilbert and Sullivan, and Truffaut played the director's role for his film-within-a-film. Likewise, Altman seems to identify with the company's artistic director, Alberto Antonelli (McDowell), who is constantly massaging the money men for the meager funds needed to keep his projects afloat and managing his sprawling group of artists and technicians, much as Altman has had to do during a long, fruitful career on the Hollywood margins.

And that's why, while The Company certainly feels like a minor Altman film right now -- a mere footnote to one of the richest and most compelling bodies of work American film has produced -- I suspect that it will age rather well.

-- Chris Herrington

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