|photo by Georges Biard|
-The Passion of the Christ
-The Man Without a Face
It is hard to describe the immense talent Mel Gibson has as a director. We are often distracted by his chaotic personal life. Or we think of him first as a powerful actor. But his real potency is in his mastery of the director's craft.
His first foray into directing was a fine movie called The Man Without a Face. It was a very simple, period-piece drama that is more notable for its writing and acting than its directing.
But then he followed that up with the amazing Braveheart. A little background: I had just seen the movie Rob Roy, another film about the struggles of the Scottish against the English. It was epic and it was awful. I came to Braveheart with very low expectations. And I find myself unable to adequately explain the impact this movie had. First of all, Gibson immediately makes you fall in love with the pristine, majestic landscapes of Scotland with his sweeping camera movements accompanied by the achingly beautiful bagpipes. And that is just within the first 10 seconds.
But the moment I came to realize Gibson's brilliance was after Murron had been captured. Before this scene, Gibson deftly used light, shadow, slow motion, and music to cast a love spell on you to become completely invested in the romance on screen between his William and Murron. But then it is harshily interrupted by the brutality of the English. Not only was the violence of her capture jarring, he played one of the most heartbreaking slight-of-hands I had ever seen. Murron is tied to a post and she looks out at the horizon. We get her POV of the hills where she scans for William. And we know he's coming. He has to. We are geared up for the big rescue seen. But then her throat is unceremoniously slit.
At that point, my jaw hit the floor. I do not know if other people had the same reaction, but I felt my heart drop out from under me. Not only had I not seen this coming, but Gibson had created in me a shock from losing all my hope of her rescue to a rage at the injustice of her death.
And then the next scene once again shows his mastery of the timing. He draws out the tension like a blade until it is unbearable. And I love the moment that William stares into the eyes of the English solider who approaches. Gibson forces you to look at the humanity of the soldier. He is just another man, like William. He is not faceless. Gibson makes you look straight at him right before William kills him with a mace. Not only does he innovate this flourish by removing frames, but he confronts you with the horror of killing, even in the necessity of war.
I could continue to do a scene by scene analysis, but suffice to say that Gibson uses every visual tool he can to tell his story. And in doing so, he transports the movie's epic themes into your heart. Watching Braveheart makes your heart feel enlarged with courage and nobility. It inspires. Gibson not only re-invented the Hollywood battle scene (so much so that I've heard people often to other movies as having "Braveheart-type battles") but he knew how to use simplicity. The final shot of the movie, with it's single image and single musical note, act as the final nail to seal the movie into your heart.
He brought this same skill to Apocalypto. It is not nearly as good as his other films, but he once again showed his ability to tell a story visually. Not only is it tense, frightening, and exciting, but he knows how to convey deep emotions without words. There is a character in the movie who constantly fights with his nagging mother-in-law. Throughout the beginning, they scream their venom at each other. But then the entire village is captured and taken as slaves. The mother-in-law is deemed useless and let go. She then walks free as she and her son-in-law stare at each other. In that moment you could see how much they regretted all of the animosity they shared as he was led away to certain death.
But Mel Gibson's chief contribution is the fact that he directed the greatest film ever made: The Passion of the Christ. It is more than a movie. There are people whose lives have been changed by experiencing The Passion. And that is an apt way to describe what Gibson accomplished: you don't watch The Passion, you experience it.
Every shot, every angle, every edit is imbued with Gibson's expert touch. I have never seen a more violent film, but I have never seen one more beautiful. As a Catholic, I can say that though this movie does not have a lot of Jesus' preaching, it preaches better than most sermons. How perfectly he conveys the meaning of the Eucharist by intercutting Christ raised on the cross and the words of consecration at the Last Supper as John watches in wonder! What better way to help us understand Mary's agony than by flashing us back to the child Jesus stumbling!
The movie does not just penetrate the heart; it shatters it completely.
The goal of great art is to lift the veil of heaven so that we can glimpse at Beauty Itself. There is no other movie that touches concretely that Beauty than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
And that is why he has earned his place on this list.