What is God’s true language? Over the centuries, many have differed on this question, and untold tongues have been erased by religious zealots who were certain that the deity spoke only their lingo. American-born Australian Mel Gibson is the product of two countries where “savages” were systematically forced to learn God’s language—which, oddly enough, was English, a parlance that didn’t exist the last time the God of the Christian scriptures supposedly spoke to mankind. To his credit, Gibson has decided that all those King James Bible–toting missionaries were incorrect: In his lurid, overblown The Passion of the Christ, Jesus and his contemporaries speak Aramaic and Latin.
At a time when even films made in non-Anglophone countries often feature English-language dialogue, Gibson’s choice is curious. It also happens to be wrong. Scholars of the period believe that the dominant tongue in Jerusalem at the time was Greek, the language in which the New Testament was originally written. Aramaic was also spoken, but Latin was rare. Co-scripters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald could have just as well used English or some other modern language—perhaps Italian, given that the film was shot in Italy. (In fact, the words spoken by the movie’s Romans resemble Italian more than the Latin pronunciations I remember from high school.) But that would have undermined the film’s central conceit: that it restores the authentic, historical Jesus.
Gibson may be unhappy at the ceaseless prerelease publicity about The Passion’s possible anti-Semitism, but he must be pleased that the mainstream press has generally accepted the basic terms of his account of Jesus’ final 12 hours. Newsweek, for example, ran a cover story whose sidebars contrasted “the movie” with “the facts,” as if there were such a thing. While Gibson and religion writers contest historical accuracies, it’s worth noting that there’s not a scrap of hard evidence that Jesus ever existed, nor a single word that was written about him while he was purportedly alive. There are only the polemical Christian gospels, both those accepted by the church and the ones deemed apocryphal, all of which are secondhand accounts (at best). Everything else is extrapolation. Mel Gibson, meet Nikos Kazantzakis.
Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, which entertains the benignly heretical notion that Jesus contemplated marrying and having a family, became a Martin Scorsese film in 1988. The movie caused a considerable, if fleeting, theological uproar. (There were police snipers on the roof when the film opened at the Avalon Theatre, which will also host The Passion.) As the only major recent New Testament epic, The Last Temptation clearly shaped Gibson’s movie: Both films make Jesus’ suffering more vivid and confrontational than old-school Biblical epics ever did, and John Debney’s Middle Eastern–ized score for The Passion owes a large debt to Peter Gabriel’s (much better) one for The Last Temptation.
But whereas Kazantzakis anticipated the sort of re-evaluation that’s common in contemporary New Testament studies—and has made an unexpected best-seller of The Da Vinci Code—Gibson wants to turn the clock back to the certainties of his Catholic childhood. Thus The Passion includes such flashbacks as the one in which Jesus (James Caviezel) rescues the prostitute Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) from the mob about to stone her to death. The Catholic Church taught for centuries that Magdalen was a whore—perhaps to undermine her inconveniently large role in the gospels—but the Bible never says that. In fact, many revisionists today are inclined to speculate that Magdalen was indeed Jesus’ wife.
That won’t do in the Gospel According to Mel, however, which has a distinctly pre–Vatican II bent. The principal expression of this, of course, is The Passion’s depiction of the Jewish high priests and the mobs that support them. In a weird (and largely unscriptural) brawl sequence, temple guards arrest Jesus and drag him to Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). Pilate repeatedly tries to free Jesus, but the Jewish priests and their followers won’t allow it. Much of Gibson’s account is derived from the gospels, but its repeated attempts to pin the crucifixion on Jesus’ co-religionists suggests, if not outright anti-Semitism, a bizarre insensitivity to the implications of two millennia of Christian hatred of Jews.
In addition to the New Testament, Gibson has been guided by the branch of Catholic mysticism that relishes bleeding and agony. After Jesus is flogged at excruciating length, Magdalen and Mary (Maia Morgenstern) wipe up the spilled blood, apparently to preserve it for ritual purposes. This exercise is followed by the long march to the crucifixion grounds, during which Jesus is whipped and falls repeatedly, and then the nailing to the cross, for which the film invents a wealth of gruesome details, most of them accompanied by grisly sound effects. If torture is truly ennobling, then every viewer of The Passion should exit the theater exalted.
Nonbelievers, however, might notice that the film is as silly as it is brutal. Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel borrow extensively from both ’70s horror flicks and ’80s MTV, enlisting coiling vipers, swarms of flies, explosive slo-mo, and blue mists worthy of a Fields of the Nephilim video. An androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) smirks periodically on the edge of the action, at one point cradling a grotesque, oversized baby. If The Passion had a sense of humor, you might suspect that Gibson was having a little fun stealing back some of the Catholic heebie-jeebies appropriated by the The Exorcist, The Omen, and their various sequels.
Yet The Passion is clearly not supposed to be fun at all: It’s an ode to mortification of the flesh in a sanguinary tradition that has receded from the Catholic mainstream. Ironically, the film’s most eager audience appears to consist of Protestant evangelicals, who were once suspicious of Catholicism’s taste for blood. Perhaps the Left Behind books—not to mention Braveheart, merely the most severe of the many previous films in which Gibson played characters who are literally tortured—have widened the audience for sanctified gore. But remove its small ration of theology and The Passion of the Christ has the same basic function as a slasher movie: It’s a serving of raw apocalypse for denizens of a shrink-wrapped age.
Although Abbas Kiarostami’s last several films have focused on adults, he was originally known for his affinity for children. So Uganda, a country where at least 1.6 million kids have lost one or both parents to AIDS, is a horrifically apt place for him to take a documentary team. Though the Iranian director’s palette has been transformed by the new location, his method remains familiar: encountering hordes of orphaned but seemingly happy children. A break from black-and-tan Iran, the brightly hued ABC Africa may even strike some as inappropriate.
The movie’s establishing shot is characteristic of Kiarostami: He films the arrival of a fax inviting him to Uganda. As he and his associates tour the country, shooting the locals and each other—the director is glimpsed repeatedly, usually with a digital-video camera in hand—facts about the crisis emerge. Speaking mostly in English, Ugandans explain what war and AIDS have done to the country and discuss the small, grass-roots programs designed to improve everyday lives. One woman notes that there are few men between the ages of 15 and 45 in Uganda as shots of posters touting abstinence and Life Guard condoms ineffectually preside over highways, towns, and clinics.
In this context, Kiarostami’s detached, self-reflexive style seems a bit cold. Indeed, it would likely appear imperious if the visiting filmmakers were from Europe or North America rather than Iran. While he shoots a variety of Ugandans, the director seems to talk mostly to his crew members—and to an upscale Austrian couple who have just adopted an abandoned Ugandan toddler (who wears an “A-B-C” T-shirt). Impressionistic views of a coffin-building shop and a United Nations–sponsored small-sum lending program are given the same emphasis as a stunning—but not exactly on topic—sequence of a lightning storm shot from a blacked-out hotel. Still, if ABC Africa is questionable as a social-issue documentary, it is also humane and beautiful. CP