From the Gibson school of heroes

True to the genre that formed its director, 'The Passion' gives us a contemporary image -- redeemer as action figure.

March 07, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

For fans of muscular Hollywood action, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" may have been a revelation, but it was no surprise. We have, after all, seen this story before. A stranger enters a town, a saloon or the wrong side of the tracks, riles up the locals and endures a crucible of suffering. In classic westerns and detective stories, the stranger often suffers a beating along his journey because that's what happens to good guys, an assault that gives the hero license to take the stuffing out of the bad guys and bring the story to a close.

In the past, heroes usually had to take a beating to give one, but those days are gone; the modern action movie has little use for the old niceties, including heroes who don't throw the first punch. Bigger, louder and frequently more simple-minded than its genre progenitors, the modern action movie favors spectacle over story, action over introspection, speed over stasis, and heroes who take a constant licking and keep on ticking, mostly so they can dispense serious payback. There are various reasons for this shift into full-throttle action, including the fact that bullets are easier to sell on the global market than dialogue. But one consequence is that violence is no longer a narrative hook in many movies; it is their raison d'etre.

Gibson became a star in Hollywood action movies, so it's no wonder that he has turned the story of Jesus into an action movie. From its first scene in the misty blue of the garden at Gethsemane when guards seize Jesus, "The Passion" looks and moves like one -- I half expected to see Chow Yun-Fat swoop down alongside the disciples. Among the film's more effective strategies is polyrhythmic editing that makes dramatic use of slow motion, a technique used to greater effect by the likes of Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, some of Peckinpah's comments about "The Wild Bunch" find an echo in recent Gibson remarks, as when Peckinpah said he wanted "to take this facade of movie violence and open it up ... so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut."

A number of critics and commentators have expressed alarm at the violence in "The Passion," but the film isn't really all that more violent than a lot of movies that now come out of Hollywood, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. Or as Newsweek critic David Ansen pointed out with his review of "The Passion," France. Two years ago, the Cannes film festival premiered Gaspar Noe's art-house outrage "Irreversible," which features a scene in which one man crushes another man's head into a very believable pulpy mass and a woman played by Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene in Gibson's film) is anally raped in "real time." Noe's film generated enormous media attention, which likely suited the director's purposes. (Sound familiar?) Critics fulminated, viewers fainted, and I left the theater with a stomachache.

There's indisputable rhetorical value in emphasizing the scourging and physical torments inflicted on Jesus. For Gibson, there appears to be a particularly savage "no pain, no gain" aspect to the Jesus story, an intensity that may speak to the intensity of the director's religious belief. I find something both fascinating and repellent about Gibson's obvious pleasure in radical movie violence, but what this says about the man personally is of less interest to me than what it says about him as a filmmaker. Representations of Jesus usually say more about the historical moment in which they were created than the moment represented, and the same is true of "The Passion," a film that has given us a new and very contemporary kind of cinematic action figure -- Extreme Jesus.

Problems with ending

In 1958, the novelist Graham Greene recalled that producer David O. Selznick once asked him to consider writing a film about the life of Mary Magdalene. "I'm sorry, no. It's not really my line," answered the writer, perhaps with a twinge of irony given his early life appreciation for women of the demimonde. A devout Catholic, Greene then wrote, "I am reminded by this story of another memorable lunch in a suite at the Dorchester when [Hollywood producer] Sam Zimbalist asked me if I would revise the last part of a script which had been prepared for a remake of 'Ben Hur.' 'You see,' he said, 'we find a kind of anti-climax after the Crucifixion.' "

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