Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Passion of the Christ

Year 9, Day 105 - 4/15/17 - Movie #2,599

BEFORE: It would have been incredibly easy to just drop in another 5 Richard Burton films here, like "The Sandpiper" and "The Night of the Iguana", but those wouldn't acknowledge the Easter story, which I'm finally going to reference in my ninth year of doing this...whatever this is.  I can get back to Richard Burton in a couple of days, instead I'm going to invoke the rule change I initiated back at the start of this year, which is to allow myself to link between two films that feature the same character, and for my purposes, I'm counting Jesus as a character.  (Peter, Judas and Pontius Pilate also carry over...)

I've (deliberately?) avoided this film for quite some time, because of the publicity, reception and/or scandals that surrounded it when it was released, but enough time has passed that I finally decided I should give it a go and see what all the fuss was about.  Patton Oswalt even joked about it in one of his stand-up specials, pointing out that making a film about Jesus on his last day seemed a bit like making a biopic about Albert Einstein, but choosing to focus only on some week when he had the stomach flu and just spent all his time in bed or on the toilet.  Now at least I'll see how close this analogy is.

THE PLOT: Depicts the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, on the day of his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

AFTER: This film was very difficult for me to watch, and not just because all the dialogue was in Aramaic with English subtitles.  It's because it brings me back in touch with the story of Jesus and all the mythology around it, which is something that I've tried to distance myself from over the last thirty years, since I stopped drinking the Catholic Kool-Aid.  I was raised in a very Catholic family (the son of the parish deacon and the organist) and did my time as an altar boy until aging out of the program - went through Communion and Confirmation and even took the Pre-cana course the first time I got married, even though it was to a Presbyterian.  When I got divorced I was told that if I ever wanted to get back into the church I'd have to seek an annulment, but decided at that point that if the Church didn't want me as I was, then it was time for us to part ways.

In college I studied a bunch of Greek mythology, which was a bit like comparative religion, I got to see where the early stuff came from, and why it was attractive to ancient humans.  Over time I came to regard the Bible's God on the same level as Santa Claus - it's a great story that helps tell people how to behave, but when I start thinking about the mechanics of it, like, where is heaven and how do people's souls get there, and if you lose an arm in life, do they give it back to you with your wings and harp, well the whole system starts to unravel.  While I'm not a full-on atheist, I think of myself as an agnostic - I don't want to believe in nothing, but if there's a higher power in the universe, I admit it's probably beyond any human power to understand or explain.

I acknowledge that many people DO believe in Jesus (or Buddha, or Mohammed...) as being the son of God, or god-like, or a Demi-god, and once you believe in the story, then you believe in the water turning into wine, the loaves and the fishes, the healing of the sick, and the walking on the water.  But  my rational brain also believes in the human's power to tell stories and exaggerate things over time, and when I combine this with the fact that the Gospels were written decades or even centuries after any real events, well, it's caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about what might have really gone down, before being blown out of proportion.

I do believe that there was a Jesus, or Jeshua, but exactly who he was - prophet, rebel, teacher - is what I regard as a sticking point.  Maybe he was just a guy who heard voices in his head, because we know there are a lot of people like that - and he felt it was the voice of God.  Maybe Jesus said that he was the "Son of God" as a way of saying that we are ALL sons of God - I don't know, I wasn't there.  And anyone who says that they KNOW what he meant is a damn liar, because they weren't there either, and it's all hearsay or exaggeration.  And you can't just quote the Gospel verses to me as proof, because of the storytelling factor mentioned above.  For the believers, it's a circular argument - how do we know Jesus did what he did in the Bible?  "Because the Bible tells us so."  Faulty logic.   I mean, don't stop believin' if that's what gets you through the day, but at the same time, don't sell me a line of B.S. either.

So I rationalize that there may have been a Jesus, and he may have preached some things that got him in trouble with the Pharisees, and he might have overturned some tables at the temple and that got him in trouble with the Romans.  It probably didn't help him that there were all sort of prophesies about the Messiah, and he seemed to fit the profile.  So let's say that he was crucified, for the sake of argument, but you know what?  So were a lot of people back then - what made this one special, what turned him into a movement that changed people's lives, and more importantly, their calendars?

Here's where this film and I seem to be on the same page, because they managed to keep the miracle-working (magic tricks) down to a minimum, and tried to focus on the mechanics of the crucifixion, the stuff that seems believable, like how difficult it would have been to drag a cross through the streets of Jerusalem, and how gruesome the nailing of flesh to wood would have been.  It's torture porn, sure, but at least it's honest in its brutality.  But there's the irony for Catholics, in that the crucifixion got spun into a positive event, one that absolved the sins of all believers, so that's why it's called "Good" Friday instead of "Terrible Gruesome" Friday.

The two concessions to portraying "miracles" take place at the beginning, when Jesus restores the ear of a Roman soldier in the garden of Gethsemane (I'd forgotten about that bit...) and at the end (umm, no spoilers, but it doesn't end well for J.C.) when the skies darken and the earth splits open - because God apparently had a flair for the dramatic as well as a terrible sense of timing.  You see, God, the time to express your dissatisfaction with the actions of humans is BEFORE they do something, not after...

But it's ridiculous, right?  To look at a natural event, like an earthquake or an eclipse, and think, "Boy, God sure is angry!"  That's the way ancient people thought, when they didn't understand the weather and the workings of the solar system, and aren't we more advanced than that now?  So even if you believe that there was an earthquake and/or a darkening of the sky when Jesus died, there's a perfectly natural explanation that doesn't involve him being divine.  I mean, if we allow this plot point then we also have to give credence to those fundamentalist preachers who blamed Hurricane Katrina on all the gay fornication and sinning that took place in New Orleans, and I just won't do that.

If you think about it, there could have been a hundred or so prophet crucifixions going on every week during the Roman occupation of Judea, so if an earthquake were to take place, there's a good chance that it would happen during a random crucifixion, which would then lead people to the conclusion that THIS guy must have been someone special.  I'm sorry if that sounds like heresy to you, but to me it's just logic.

Since this is a story that's been told before in films, the approach here seems to have two things going for it to make it unique - focus and juxtaposition.  But those two forces are at odds with each other, because if you focus on just 12 hours in Jesus' story, then you ignore the other important things that happened to him.  But juxtaposing key moments from his past with pieces of the Passion story, while being interesting, also serves to take away from the focus.  And in the end you can't have it both ways - because with so many flashbacks to the Last Supper, Jesus as a child, Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, all of that adds to the story, but dilutes the concentration at the same time.

But OK, I made it through this very graphic crucifixion film, the one that seemed to let Pontius Pilate off the hook, and blamed the Jews instead.  Can I have some egg- and bunny-shaped chocolate now?

Starring Jim Caviezel (last seen in "The Count of Monte Cristo"), Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci (last seen in "Spectre"), Francesco De Vito, Christo Jivkov, Mattia Sbragia, Luca Lionello, Jarreth Merz, Toni Bertorelli, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano, Fabio Sartor, Luca De Dominicis, Pietro Sarubbi, Giovanni Capalbo, Giacinto Ferro, Aleksander Mincer.

RATING: 5 out of 10 temple guards

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