Wednesday, June 08, 2011
God knows what in the hell has inspired me to post about Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. Wait a sec... no He doesn't, because I'm not yet convinced of His existence, so much so that I'll cease putting a capital at the start of his name. A little-known (or cared-for) fact: I studied Philosophy of Religion at university for two semesters. I took the subject as a 20-year-old seeking answers to all the great questions (not all of them: the course never covered the question of when Greg Ginn planned on remastering and reissuing the Black Flag catalogue) and finished the subject w/ more questions swimming round my head than answers. However, I did pass the course comfortably in the knowledge of two things: A) the existence (or not) of a higher being remains unknowable; and B) self-righteous, wave-it-on-a-flag atheists are just as tedious and annoying as the god-botherers they oppose. But I digress too soon...
I had a couple of friends over for dinner last night, and the topic of film came up, as it often does. We were discussing ancient native American civilisations (true! It was after the fondu had gone cold) when I brought up the 2006 Mel Gibson film, Apocalypto. As with Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ (TPOTC), from 2004, it caused quite a stir, though not a big enough stir for many of my friends to bother seeing it. A few friends have seen Apocalypto, though I know of just about no one personally who has seen the Bible 'n' bloodshed epic, or will at least admit to it. The typical defence uttered for this ignorance and unwillingness to see two very fine films is that Mel Gibson is a complete asshole. That's true, but it's also irrelevant. I think it's Gibson's possible psychosis which makes him such an interesting film-maker. I hope his mid-life crisis continues and that he tackles the subject of, say, Vlad The Impaler or Napoleon in his next film, because I can assure you one thing: it won't be boring. The defence I usually hear in regards to not having seen TPOTC is that said person is not a believer, much less a believer in whatever Catholic brand of believing Gibson subscribes to. Again, that's irrelevant. Simply put, TPOTC is one of the great horror films of the past decade, if being completely terrified (and I don't just mean sickened or reviled, but truly terrified for the film's subject) during the viewing of a horror film counts for anything anymore. It's so damn scary I've only ever watched it once in full, and I own the damn thing on DVD. In fact, the only time I've ever sat through it complete in one sitting was at the cinema when it was first released. It received such massive press, most of it negative, for its unrelenting brutality, that I decided to put it on my Must See list. My wife, brother, sister-in-law and I went to the Westgarth Theatre in High Street on a rather cold and dreary Sunday afternoon to see it. The cinema was surprisingly empty - maybe 15 people in total. The moment the film started, a couple of old Italian ladies behind us started audibly praying. I'm a stickler for complete silence during a film - even subtitled ones - so I moved to a seat on the side and sat on my own for the remainder of the film. After all, I couldn't concentrate on the unrelenting brutality of what was happening on the screen.
By the time it came to the infamous whipping scene - see above, and please note: watch this scene with the SOUND OFF. This clip has a horrible Christian rock song over it, though it is the only version of this scene available on Youtube without special 18+ access - things started to fall apart. The old ladies praying started getting more vocal and another lady closer to the front of the cinema jumped up screaming for the guards to stop whipping Jesus, then burst out crying, only to sob hysterically for the rest of the film whilst her husband consoled her. I'll tell ya, it was a circus in there. And that's not even mentioning the sheer horrors of what was taking place on screen. I've said it before, I'll say it again: TPOTC remains the most violent and horrific movie I have ever watched. It's also one of the scariest. Regardless of your belief, or lack thereof, in the story of Jesus, it remains a compelling and incredibly disturbing film.
When the film was over, barely a word was uttered during the car trip home. We were completely shellshocked. Far from being uplifting, the movie was the most depressing cinematic experience I'd endured, its brutality so unrelenting that by the film's end I felt drained. The film is 126 minutes long, and my guess is that a good 100 minutes of it revolve around Jesus getting the absolute shit beaten out of him, or him dying slowly for all to see. Or a combination of the two. Not only that, but the film possesses such a dark, paranoid aura - it's the story of a man being chased, tortured and ultimately killed for his beliefs - a sense of impending doom portrayed so well, that I guarantee that if such a film had been made by an obscure Eastern European director notorious for his sensitive/tortured disposition, the movie would've garnered a lot more critical praise than it did. In short, TPOTC is a fine piece of film-making and I still stand by the unfashionable stance of believing it should (and will) be reappraised one day as an excellent piece of shock-du-jour cinema. And I say that as one who is not a fan of "shock cinema" in general. I got through the first half of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible and just about heaved my lunch at the death-by-fire-extinguisher scene, swearing that I couldn't do the rest (I didn't, as I'd been warned the second half was much worse). And as for the current crop of "torture-porn" flicks, as they've been dubbed, the Hostel/Saw school of cinema and all their imitators, I have little to no time for any of them. Bizarre curiosity had me sit through the entirety of The Human Centipede, though in general, I'd rate such examples of movie making as the products of spoilt, immature, lazy and pretentious artistes. In regards to violence and bloodshed, TPOTC outdoes them all, but it never feels exploitational. Gibson is a commercial film-maker and understands that a buck has to be made (especially when it's his on the line), and I think he was also likely aware that a generic Biblical film (as was made in the '50s) in the 21st century wouldn't generate a lot of business in these heretical times, but not once throughout TPOTC did I feel that he was indulging himself in torturous violence for such base reasons. It was simply part of the storytelling as he saw it. Or maybe he's just nuts.