Wednesday, February 25, 2004

For the first time in a while I thought today in passing of a once-acclaimed French author named Jacques-Anatole Thibault, who wrote as Anatole France. France is barely remembered today for, out of his entire vast output of novels and plays, one brief, clever little story called "The Procurator of Judea."

"Procurator" is one of those trick-ending stories so beloved to nineteenth-century writers. An online summary reads:

In it we meet Pontius Pilate as a retired civil servant who lives in a health resort and nurses his arthritis. A friend from the time of Pilate?s procuratorship in Judea meets him and reminds him of several incidents of those bygone years. The friend brings up, quite incidentally, the case of Jesus. Pontius Pilate tries hard to remember. But finally the old civil servant, who has had so many legal cases to deal with, admits: "I do not recall him."

The irony within the irony of this most ironic story is France's own: In his day Anatole France was arguably the most acclaimed writer in the world. He won the Nobel Prize in 1921 over Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Marcel Proust; When he died in 1924, hundreds of thousands of people followed his funeral procession through Paris. Today, he is all but forgotten, known only for a story about reputations and the passage to time.

I thought of "The Procurator of Judea" during the experience of watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. Passion is perhaps the most controversial, most widely-discussed film in the history of cinema. And it very well may deserve to be.

I think that many people who see this movie will share my reaction, which is an inability to process all of it intellectually. It's hard to talk about it, even in the context of other Passion stories. This film has at least some of the elements of the standard retelling of the story: The Faulknerian "human heart in conflict with itself" among almost ever featured character in the film, from Peter to Judas to Pilate to Jesus himself; the essay on power and "power" that Anatole France was alluding to in "The Procurator"; and of course the theological elements which are effectively, soaringly here.

But the most overwhelming thing about this overwhelming film is its meditation on violence. To apply the language of cinema as a context, The Passion is over-the-top violent on a Tarantino level. Cinema violence is always manipulative, and the violence in this movie is as well, though in a different way.

In nearly all movies, violence is a plot device intended to advance a storyline. Here, the violence is the point. Violence in nearly all movies is simply a first shoe, and those of us who are versed in the modern idiom react to it by waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there is no relief here. The camera won't spare us even a second of Jesus's agony. There are obvious theological reasons for this, and Gibson takes the time to lay them out; but beyond the religious symbolism, the violence in The Passion has another message for us.

It's about the nature of violence itself: We live in a world where violence entertains and titillates us, and I think we tend to forget that real violence kills people and breaks things. People who condemn Hollywood for "not showing the actual consequences of violence" can have no argument with The Passion.

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