The Passion of the Christ: In Defense (2004, Directed by Mel Gibson) English 8

Starring Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Belluci, Francesco De Vito, Toni Bertorelli

(8-Exceptional Film)

Brutal. Moving. Beautiful.

The heart of the Passion of the Christ is expressed in what amounts to one long extended scene, beginning with Christ’s flogging and concluding with a soldier piercing his side. This scene demands contemplation.  What does it say about the nature of man? How could something this violent be just another film? Why was this movie ever made? The Passion’s director, Mel Gibson, certainly wasn’t attempting to entertain. He had to know that this picture wasn’t uplifting in any commercial sense. Many Christians and Atheists alike left feeling uncomfortable, but Gibson staked his career and reputation on this film because he believed in its message, which just happened to be heavily steeped in violence. Gibson says, “This is a movie about love, hope, faith, and forgiveness. He [Jesus] died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. It’s time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope, and forgiveness.” He demonstrates, by sight and sound, every detail of Christ’s torture to engage the audience; to provoke; to prostrate; to allow an appreciation of the pain, the passion, and ultimately the triumph of this figure. The result is awe-inspiring, as a religious movie should be, transcending medium and tradition. When, in this scene, Christ is flogged and later nailed to the cross, the audience feels that they are enduring the abuse as well. The late great Roger Ebert remembers the days of his Catholic upbringing when he was forced to meditate on Christ’s suffering. He recalls, “For we altar boys, this was not necessarily a deep spiritual experience. Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ rose again, we were redeemed, and let’s hope we can get home in time to watch the Illinois basketball game on TV. What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of.” In terms of story, The Passion is told by Gibson in a straightforward manner not distracted by secondary components or ashamed of the violence it displays in abundance. Room for thought, discussion, and edification can be found but the popular response seemed to be dismissing it as too violent. Search on RottenTomatoes.com to find the shallow but fashionable critical consensus at the time of its release to be, “The graphic details of Jesus’ torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey.” One critic, Jonathon Rosenbaum, criticized the movie in lamenting, “If I were a Christian, I’d be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me.” Not liking the film is understandable, but not going beyond too violent is a cop out similar to laughing in an awkward situation, not because anything is funny, but because it allows you to distance yourself from the matter. Gibson employs violence not because anyone enjoys it, but because the blood is absolutely necessary.

I, too, was shocked upon first seeing the graphic telling of Christ’s death. I watched for the first time this harrowing picture, and I remember distinctly the part with Jesus’ flesh being yanked from his bones. My initial reaction would be akin to that of most people after viewing The Passion, asking myself why in relating a story about love does Gibson ask his audience to suffer? I have seen the film a couple of times since, and my confusion has matured into admiration. I gladly defend the intention and means in which The Passion was made, feeling the full effects of Gibson’s raw storytelling with each subsequent inspection. I have embraced all the elements poured into this feature converging into something sublime, without ever understanding the word sublime. My recent viewing has spawned even more affinity, as I noted some of the smaller touches enhancing the experience. The disorienting but effective camera angles, the gorgeous cinematography, or even something I read about Gibson filming his hands as the ones to nail Christ to the cross. “It was me that put Him on the cross. It was my sins [that put Jesus there],” Gibson confesses, clarifying a cinematic choice that I believe is entirely beautiful.

There are two types of violence in film: violent films which incite our passions and violent films which force us to reflect on the meaning of violence and sacrifice. Both modes of expressions are valid but unfortunately, I believe not enough violent films allow for real thought. Most fall into the former half of the dichotomy. Some violent films even have the audacity to pretend to be thoughtful while seeking to collect strong box office receipts. General audiences do not want to think about a movie and are satisfied with violence for the sake of violence. Movie studios and directors have no problem providing the audience with these types of flicks, because, after all, the movie business is a business.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ breaks away from studio norms and expectations, becoming a rare violent film that does allow for thinking. When people complain about The Passion being the most violent film ever made they cannot mean that it is the bloodiest, although it has plenty of blood. They cannot mean that this movie has the highest death count, because obviously it doesn’t, nor is it the only depiction of torture. So what people really mean is that for two hours Gibson exposes his audience to some of the most real, and unrelenting film violence ever, to the point where we are forced to grasp the violence. That distinction reflects no small achievement on Gibson’s part. The Passion of the Christ’s achievement is staggering.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(490)

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945, Directed by Leo McCarey) English 7

Starring Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers, William Gargan, Joan Carroll, Ruth Donnelly

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(7-Very Good Film)

Sweet. Sentimental. Moving.

It’s difficult not to get romantic notions about Hollywood classics such as The Bells of St. Mary’s. I watch and think, “Oh, how wonderful times were. How much nicer.” I know better, of course, but for me, there is a type of magic about classic Hollywood cinema that I would describe as pure joy. Here, Bing Crosby returns to his role as Father O’Malley, this time taking over at an inner-city school for children, supported by a group of nuns. Though never hostile, Father O’Malley and the Sister Superior, Mary Benedict (Bergman), have different ideas for just about everything, but even through their gentle confrontations, they develop a respect for each other as the films goes on. The Bells of St. Mary’s is a wonderful Christmas film. The drama is light but moving, Bergman is luminous, and Bing Crosby is likely the coolest priest ever to grace the screen.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(377)

Seventh Heaven (1937, Directed by Henry King) English 5

Starring James Stewart, Simone Simon, Jean Hersholt, Gale Sondergaard, Gregory Ratoff, Sig Ruman

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(5-Okay Film)

Overdone. Ham-fisted. Dramatic.

I can forgive a level of corn, especially when it comes to classic Hollywood, but Seventh Heaven overdoes it. James Stewart plays Chico, a lowly sewer cleaner in 1914 Paris and self-proclaimed atheist, burdened with an exploited young woman, Diane (Simon), through his own actions and the work of a kindly priest, Father Chevillon (Hersholt). It’s not difficult to see where the story is heading, and part of the fun in getting there is diluted by the soppy monologues and religious theme that seems to me to be built on questionable theology. In any case, the wonderful stars can’t pull the material off, and the result is only for the hard-core fans of weepies.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(87)

The Prince of Egypt (1998, Directed by Brenda Chapman, Simon Well, Steve Hickner) English 8

Voices of Val Kilmer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny Glover, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Patrick Stewart, Jeff Glodblum

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Spectacular. Involving. Admirable.

This film, from the days when Dreamworks Animation was just getting started, unsure of its direction or how to separate itself from Disney, is more ambitious and accomplished than the last dozen or so movies the, now established, studio has made. Prince of Egypt is a not completely faithful, but respectful and commendable adaptation of the story of Moses, opening with a tremendous sequence of animation depicting baby Moses’ journey down the Nile, and ending after the crossing of the Red Sea. The voice cast, specifically Ralph Fiennes and Val Kilmer as Ramesses and Moses, do truly excellent work, and the animation has not dated one bit. The story is condensed, obviously not going for the effect of four hour epic, The Ten Commandments, but instead telling this classic story efficiently and compellingly.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(84)

First Reformed (2018, Directed by Paul Schrader) English 8

Starring Ethan Hawke, Cedric the Entertainer, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Challenging. Powerful. Thoughtful.

What exactly does God expect from men and women as stewards of the Earth? Reverend Toller (Hawke) asks himself this question after meeting a serious young man and environmentalist, Michael, written off by some as a lunatic. After Michael kills himself, Reverend Toller, in ill health and growing increasingly wary in his faith, picks up the mantle the young man left. Toller also develops feelings for the young man’s widow, Mary (Seyfried), as the 250th anniversary of his church, First Reformed, approaches. Provocative material aside, Toller’s struggles and inner monologues represented by his daily journal entries are compelling and relatable, making his unraveling, or enlightenment, in the end powerful. First Reformed is a painful viewing, so unlike most “faith based” films designed to give a message, wrap up, and leave the audience feeling comfortable. First Reformed, raises difficult questions, makes us uncomfortable, resolves nothing, and leaves us to think. Ethan Hawke is superlative, and his character’s quiet intensity, personal demons, and passion make him a sort of battered, beaten down hero by the end.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(22)

Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Directed by Ingmar Bergman) Swedish 5

Starring Harriet Andersson, Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Lars Passgård

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(5-Okay Film)

Leaden. Dreary. Garrulous.

One long, revealing day on a remote island unfolds for Karin (Andersson), suffering from schizophrenia, her father, David (Björnstrand), sexually frustrated brother, Minus (Passgård), and embattled husband, Martin (Von Sydow). Dense with themes of God’s existence, incest, family turmoil, and mental illness, this chamber play grows bloated with symbolism and opaque dialogue. It’s a style many value, as Bergman is renowned, but I can’t stand it. The acting is strong, the visuals are striking, but I have no heart for Through a Glass Darkly, and it doesn’t appeal to me thematically.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(92)

The Exorcist (1973, Directed by William Friedkin) English 10

Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller

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(10-Masterpiece)

Chilling. Horrific. Effective.

A young girl, Regan (Blair), raised by her single actress mother, Chris (Burstyn), plays with a Ouija board. Not long after, Chris sees dramatic, inexplicable, terrifying changes in her once innocent daughter. Exhausting all other resources, Chris eventually turns to Father Damien (Miller), a priest and doctor working through spiritual doubt in his own life. Finding Regan to be possessed, Father Damien and a more experienced priest, Father Merrin (Von Sydow) set about her exorcism. An early standard bearer of the genre, many of its tactics have been borrowed across dozens of horror flicks, but rarely used as effectively as they are here. The Exorcist, aside from being genuinely thrilling and affecting, is an impeccably made film. From pacing to acting to its notorious special effects, the film remains an impressive horror classic. Beyond the evil and the fear of demons, the film is rooted in the horror of watching these terrible things happen to a little girl, and watching a loving mother at a loss to help her daughter.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(118)