Two moments in The Duke’s life loomed large as he sat down to watch The Passion Of The Christ. One of those flashback moments, when the focus starts to lose its sobriety and one almost hears pop-hits from the period buzzing around one’s mind. Or, at least, cover versions of said hits, on account of the rights to the original recordings being unobtainable.
All of a sudden, The Duke was in Dublin, gripping the hand of his Fiancee, The Duchess, as they entered the National Museum Of Ireland.
The reason for our visit was less than high-brow. We were in Dublin, and it seemed like the thing to do. The Duke still drank at the time, and chances are there were spirits in the bloodstream that were less than Holy in origin, but nonetheless, traces of some sort of Religious Emotion started to seep in amongst the nicotine and beer-breath.
There was an exhibition on at the time, a collection of paintings by Titian, the centrepieces of which were, I believe, Ecce Homo and Christ Crowned With Thorns. The Duke was stunned. Up there, in oils and canvas and dulled colours was Christ as he so seldom appeared in public. Not for Titian the blonde-haired, blue-eyed matinee idol, nor the glowing shimmering depictions of The Passion we as a society are so used to. Here instead was a dark, intense and, well, passionate Passion.
And The Duke vowed to one day make a film that told the stories of The Gospel with such stark simplicity.
And then The Duchess said “Stop being so bloody pretentious.” And that was that.
But I still bought a postcard reproduction of Ecce Homo before we left.
But what was the other moment, Duke? You definitely mentioned two.
I did, didn’t I?
Well, the second was when The Duke sat down one fine day, roughly this time last year, and viewed Gasper Noe’s Irreversible. A strange connection you might assume. But no, and here’s why.
I had heard so much about the film that it was impossible to approach it with anything less than caution. It was unnerving to even hold the thing in my hand, so much so, in fact, that the first time I purchased it I returned to the outlet not one hour later begging a refund.
But I bought it again, about a week later, and so was now preparing to engage with this mayhem, mayhem that even hardened gore-hound Mark Kermode admitted to shielding his eyes from on occasion.
Once the credits appeared, running backwards, and that unutterably nasty score set in, with the droning sirens and the bass rumble utilised by Riot Police, The Duke knew nothing good could come from this all.
Sure enough, 27 or so minutes in, just after the infamous Fire-Extinguisher showdown, The Duke was breathless, nigh-on crazed with the brutality of it all. I calmed down, of course, and watched it again later.
So these were the two sensations The Duke was host to when preparing to view Mad Max Beyond Gethsemane. A – That those Titian oils had finally found a home onscreen, and B – That this was probably going to be fairly unpleasant.
When it was announced that Mel Gibson was going to follow up his Killing The English film with a Killing The Messiah film, I was more than supportive. It seemed like it was time for another, it having been over a decade since Scorsese got scored off The Pope’s Christmas Card list with Last Temptation Of Christ.
The stills arrived, then the trailer, and all was going well. This looked remarkable. And then some folks started saying, “Hang on now just a damn cotton-pickin’ minute. I don’t like this one little bit.”
And Lo, the multitudes did gather to attack Braveheart’s film.
So how in the flaming CGI pits of Hell does one approach this objectively? It seems an impossible task. For one thing, those entering the theatre with a Christian sensibility operating behind the peepers will no doubt see something different from those from a secular perspective. Similarly, folks who never heard any of the cries of Anti-Semitic intentions in the celluloid won’t be on the look-out for anything in the slightest that points to some detestable agenda at work.
Hey, Aaron, we know this! Quit yakin’ on about other folks and tell us what you thought!
The film opens in Gethsemane, with Jesus about to be captured by the authorities for his rabble-rousing antics. The scene is achingly beautiful. Awash with blue, the whole affair plays out just as The Duke had hoped, just like one of those Renaissance scribblings come to life. And, of course, major themes are established here. Like heavy breathing. Lots of heavy breathing.
After sitting through these two hours and a bit, it is quite possible that one will be more aware of the mechanics of their respiratory system than ever before. Every second of spare audio is handed over to breathing. Sometimes deep, and throaty, on account of there being evil afoot, and sometimes unlistenably anguished, clawing for release.
Jesus prays in unsubtitled Aramaic, I presume, and it’s already quite clear that this will be a more human Christ than even in Scorsese’s fundamentalist-baiting fable. I suspect, however, that this has as much to do with James Caviezel’s stunningly realised performance, as anything else. Caviezel is remarkable, that’s all there is to it. And while for a good portion of the film he does little more than grimace and faint, he does it in spectacular style. He is at once overstated and commanding, at once awash with grief yet profoundly hopeful. It would be Oscar material, if the Oscars had anything to do with merit.
It’s also in these first few minutes that Satan appears, and The Duke felt the chills hollering for recognition. As Satan’s go, Rosalinda Celentano hasn’t much competition. Pacino and De Niro may be fine actors, but they were less than terrifying or, indeed, especially convincing, when donning the old Horn N Hoof ensemble. Hammer’s goat headed fiend in The Devil Rides Out gets points for effort, but again, it’s hard to be scared of something so easily discarded – with a burst of fireworks, no less.
Celentano, however, is another kettle of newts-eyes altogether. This is the freakiest Satan to ever appear onscreen. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if not, be prepared for the most subtly unnerving performance of the year. A bizarre, eyebrowless and androgynous Christopher Walken look-alike, Celentano stalks the screen, passing through unwitting spectators and hollering soldiers, staring towards the audience as her slow-motion movements pass Christ’s field of vision.
Some critics have gone so far as to lambaste Gibson for utilising such manipulative theatrics. Not The Duke, though. Not one little bit. This peppering of his source material with any number of unpleasant surprises only adds to the overwhelming sensation of having this tale told to us in an entirely alien manner. Satanic stalkers and demonic children are woven through the film, driving home the notion of an evil influence at work here, if only in the minds of the protagonists.
But it does add a recurrent question to the viewer’s mind, the viewer being The Duke, and the question being – Since this act will lead to the salvation of mankind and so on, why is Satan so keen on joining in with the torment, albeit in his own subtle way?
Of course, there are counter-arguments, most of which would point out that Satan in fact acts as a temptation to Christ, a reminder that he can stop all of this if he so desires. Even with this in mind, however, it’s hard to see the demonic involvement in the proceedings as anything but supportive of the events.
And those events, then.
They are incredibly hard to watch, even for card-carrying members of Gore-hounds Anonymous like myself. It’s not the violence depicted, as such, as the effect it has on the afflicted. The barrage of whippings, floggings and derisory hoots of laughter would be somewhat desensitising after a while, if not for our man Caviezel yet again. The energy he puts into this performance is truly staggering, and serves on occasion to almost replicate the lash of the whip on our own hypothetical flesh.
When Christ tumbles down a set of stone steps under the weight of the cross, the sensation invoked in The Duke’s stomach was next to sickening.
This is, in effect, the perfect response to accusations of inhumanity in the film. I, for one, felt nothing but intense sorrow throughout the ordeal. And it is an ordeal. From the trial and mocking to the final piercing of the side, the humiliation and torture clock in at least an hour and a half’s worth of screen time. Whether or not you wish to endure such an assault on the emotions is a matter for personal consideration. When Christ cries for the forgiveness of his persecutors, as nails are driven through bloodied, broken hands, the sorrow is overwhelming. Surely the inhumanity lies in the likes of Kill Bill, (which The Duke loved regardless), with its parade of mutilated samurai evoking cheers of approval rather than mournful regret.
The idea being tossed around in some quarters, that this is nothing more than a two-hour extravaganza of barbaric torture, is, as far as The Duke is concerned, painfully short-sighted.
It is true that there are moments when the spectacle threatens to overcome the motive – to wit, blood splattering the camera lens, and a particularly unpleasant visit from a crow.
But again, these moments are countered by the tranquillity of the intercut flashbacks. Perhaps the greatest of these is a simple conversation between Mary and Jesus about a recently crafted Dining-Table. Maia Morgenstern is quietly brilliant in the role of The Mother Of Christ, certainly a more rewarding performance than her reading of Woman At Fountain in Dark Prince – The True Story Of Dracula.
In fact, it is mostly through Mary’s eyes that the events leading to the crucifixion take place. She serves as the human respite from the near-inhuman barbarity on display elsewhere, and yet her gaze lingering on the broken, mutilated body of her son makes the scenes infinitely more poignant.
But what of the Anti-Semitic content, Duke?
Right. I’m not gonna waffle on about it, because there’s already plenty of that on plenty of other sites, and one could add to this the fact that I don’t speak Latin, nor, indeed, Aramaic, and can therefore comment none regarding the infamous “Blood on our children” remark, and the context of it in the film, since I didn’t know when it was said. What I will add regarding this is that the film, to me, does not reek of Anti-Semitic hatemongering as some have suggested, and to be honest, a lot of the claims of such have had more to do with Hutton Gibson, Father Of Braveheart, and his deliriously ignorant gabbing, than anything onscreen. When the man who is asked to assist in the carrying of the cross has the words, “You go now, Jew!” hissed into his ears with derisory contempt on account of his refusal to participate any further in the atrocity, it is a tad hard to swallow the Anti-Jewish accusations.
But there is one problem which does feel painfully inappropriate, and which The Duke would have preferred to have been excised completely. The last five minutes of the film are practically abominable. A sequence beginning with the formation of a CGI raindrop, moving on to some mild-mannered city rumbling, via a brief jaunt to hell and back in time for the resurrection, is next to laughable, and completely out of touch with all that has gone before it.
Better it had ended as The Duke hoped, on that heartbreaking, gorgeous shot of Mary cradling the lifeless body of her son, staring beyond the camera, beyond the audience, in a veil of incomprehension.
The Passion Of The Christ is beautiful, transcendent and heart-felt, boasting a talented “Action”-shouter in Mel Gibson – a genius, painterly Cinematographer in Caleb Deschanel who has finally found a vehicle worthy of his talents, after such middling affairs as The Patriot and It Could Happen To You – and a cast full of tremendous actors and actresses, reaching a divine plateau of some nature in Caviezel’s hypnotic, heartbreaking performance.
For more of The Duke’s inane gabbling, head on over to Mondo Irlando.