Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Missed Opportunity

The Best Scene in The Passion of the Christ

A few months ago I caught an episode or two of Person of Interest, the CBS series starring Jim Caviezel. It's not something I'd watch all the time but I think he does a pretty good job in it. He's a solid actor.

I was glad to see this, because in the wake of the 2004 Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ, I was wondering if he was going to be caught in that Jesus part forever, as well as the culture-war imbroglio that followed it. Gibson warned him that it might harm his career, and last year Caviezel seemed to agree that this was in fact the case. I went to a Boston Catholic Men's conference in 2005, and he was a guest speaker, parlaying off his role in the film. His talk went over well with the audience, but I recall being struck by two things. Not only was he as devout and strident as his director Mel was at the time, but he seemed just as angry as well. I'm wondering how he feels now... I hope he's more at peace with it all.

During the Lenten season, I was looking at clips from some of the old Jesus films, the passion and crucifixion scenes in particular. I was amazed to see a stencil-colored one dating back all the way to 1903... but it made me remember how disappointed I was in Gibson's film when it came out. I had really looked forward to seeing it. I'd heard some of the criticism before I saw it, and I wanted the critics to be proved wrong. Unfortunately, I found it to be dark and demonic, and not in a constructive way. Gibson was approaching the height of what seemed to be some kind of self-loathing blood fetish in those years. In retrospect I found it no surprise that it was more popular with evangelicals of a fundamentalist stripe than it was with Catholics. In a sense, they were snookered into watching a movie version of the Stations of the Cross. For their part, Catholics were snookered into watching an extremely gory endorsement of penal substitutionary atonement.

In any case, one bright spot was the fine performance of Caviezel in the Jesus role, particularly in the flashback episodes. The flashback scenes were the best scenes in the film, particularly this one, and the one with Jesus and his mother at home. The flashbacks were welcome breathers from the almost non-stop brutality and gore throughout the rest of the film, and I couldn't help thinking what a lost opportunity this was; what a waste of an insightful and nuanced performance by Caviezel.

Credit needs to be given to Gibson for the idea of using Aramaic in the movie. That was a masterstroke. A brilliant idea. He cast it well too. If only he had done a more traditional Jesus movie, one that traced the whole arc of Christ's ministry, like King of Kings, or The Greatest Story Ever Told. If he had, it would have been The Greatest Jesus Film Ever Made.

This scene, in which Jesus teaches the crowd to "love your enemies" is the best half-minute of the film in my humble opinion, but it almost wasn't in there at all. It was done after everything else had been shot. Gibson was so piqued by the criticism he was receiving from Jewish and liberal scholars, based only on what they'd heard about the script, he included it as both a riposte and a spiritual reminder to himself. Very nicely done by Caviezel here. He'd done his research on semitic idioms, gestures, and mannerisms as well. In fact, as someone who's done a bit of acting himself, I'd venture to guess that he'd studied some videos of a sheikh or imam or two...

This post is parallel-posted on Wordpress at The Doge.


Garpu said...

No joke, he's a cousin of a friend. Said friend is about as opposite Mel Gibson as you can get.

Jeff said...

No kidding? How small a world is that? Must make for some interesting holiday conversations.

crystal said...

I liked those flashbacks in the movie too. One unusual thing about the movie was it showing Jesus in the tomb after resurrection. I think he's a good actor - liked him in Angel Eyes.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Was he good in that? I've never seen it. I'd like to see him in The Count of Monte Cristo. I've always liked that story.