1. In the Heat of the Night (A+)
2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (B)
3. The Passion of the Christ (A)
Depressing Catholic movie double-feature!
These two films are actually quite fascinating to watch back-to-back. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mel Gibson was quite familiar with the former, because in many respects the structures are the same; the big difference being that Gibson includes flashbacks and the like to cover some of Christ's past, whereas Carl Dreyer keeps things closely focused on Joan's trial and execution.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
is a 1928 silent film, and it comes with all the limitations of that technological era; it greatly limits both character exchange and atmosphere (otherwise the film is pretty good in terms of depicting the period, though the soldiers' costumes look kind of weird to me, and there's a jarring shot of a guy wearing glasses). The central performance of Maria Falconetti (looking remarkably like Isabella Rossellini) as Joan has been widely acclaimed, and it is indeed pretty good, again given the limitations. Speaking of that, though, while silent movie acting has tended to be extremely hammy, the acting here (facial acting, in particular) feels pretty modern, for the most part, which in some ways just increases the frustration that you can't hear what anyone is saying in the long stretches where people are talking and there are no title cards.
Then we have Mel Gibson's 2004 labour of love, controversial then and controversial now - personally, while I doubt Mel and I would agree on many points of Christian theology, I don't see most of the objections people make to this (most of them would apply equally to the first film I reviewed, and yet that one gets more or less universal acclaim). Gibson would have done better to include the lines from one of the Gospels about Caiaphas' motivation (something that, ironically, Jesus Christ Superstar
does quite well) - but the Sanhedrin as a group is not depicted uniformly in this matter; two pointedly condemn Caiaphas, and a bunch of them storm out. Gibson's subsequent life has shown him to be someone with some clear personal issues (suggestive of progressive disintegration, from my armchair anyway), but I don't think it comes close to overwhelming the proceedings. At most, it would be possible to read the events of the film in an anti-Semitic way, but I can't imagine this reading occurring to anyone who wasn't already any anti-Semite (or, conversely, on guard against anti-Semitism).
Anyway, the film is a mix of the Gospels, some later apocrypha, and some stuff that Gibson and co. came up with by themselves (notably the fanciful scene where Jesus invents the table, which is simultaneously really weird and a nice moment of levity). Apart from the aforementioned Caiaphas, a couple of other figures, such as Judas, aren't especially well-developed. Conversely, his Pontius Pilate is convincingly depicted, as is his wife (one of the notable apocryphal additions). They also ignore St. Joseph of Arimathea's role in the Gospel in favour of having the two Marys and anonymous John take him down. Slo-mo is overused in a few places, many of the Roman soldiers and Jewish bystanders are too cartoonishly brutish (not to mention, in the soldiers' case, so bizarrely undisciplined even in front of their officers that it's hard to imagine how they've avoided being executed for insubordination by now), and some scenes are a little too blatantly tableau-ish.
But others are tremendously moving, such as the repentance of the one robber (though Gibson follows this up by having a crow attack the unrepentant one, which seems unnecessarily vindictive), and especially Mary's rush to Jesus' side. Jesus is a hard character to dramatize; in my experience, most of the best stories told with him are mainly about the people around him (which is fitting, in a way). Mary is a great access-point, and Maia Morgenstern gives by far the best performance in the film (if anybody here was robbed of an Oscar nomination, it was her). There's also an effectively creepy Satan. The production values are tremendous.