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Idol Chatter

It seems reasonable to assume that a film whose soundtrack is a setting of the Passion of Christ from the Gospel of John will have a religious or spiritual theme. The film “Passio” by Paolo Cherchi Usai, presented during the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, is a silent film about the plight of the human condition, but it was accompanied by a live performance of spiritual composer Arvo Pärt’s moving oratorio of the same name.

I also expected a spiritual experience because the event was presented in the midst of the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Pärt was performed by the choir of Trinity Wall Street, probably the finest choir in New York City.

My expectations were very wrong–at least concerning the film. The music was heart-rendingly beautiful; the Trinity choir gave a radiant performance of Pärt’s 1982 masterwork. And the cathedral, even with the west half sealed off for cleaning, played its usual evocative part. If I had simply closed my eyes, it could have been a prayerful meditation. But alas, I chose to watch the film, which consisted largely of medical footage from the early days of film and no religious or spiritual context.

The object, ostensibly, was “to manifest the neglected or repressed memory of the human race” but the effect was lost on me. We endured image after gruesome image of surgeries, medical experimentation, dead bodies, and naked epileptics having seizures, including one extended closeup of a surgeon slicing into an eyeball that compelled many filmgoers to get up and leave.

The images objectified and dehumanized the subjects in stark contrast to the touching and very human intimacy of the music. The final scene, accompanied by the magnificent coda of Pärt’s oratorio, depicted a cesarian section shown in reverse, such that the baby was unborn, inserted back into its mother’s womb. This was followed by a veritable cattle stampede as the audience raced to the exits.

Arvo Pärt’s music, in its stark, humble beauty, is an increasingly popular material for film scores. The music is often so arresting that it completely overshadows the film. In this case, I only wish that it had.

–Martha Ainsworth

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