In April 2011, over three days beginning on Good Friday, the town of Port Talbot in South Wales came together to stage The Passion through the streets with Michael Sheen as their Jesus-like figure. A year later, those three days of drama have been turned into a two hour film. The locals became the cast, crew and heroes of it and for this reason the film never feels ‘acted’ but instead harrowingly and stunningly real. It is hard for me to describe the film as I would not do its uniqueness justice – I have never seen anything quite like it. The editing style itself will stay with me before I can even think about Sheen’s magnetic presence as ‘The Teacher’ who, much like the Jesus of the gospels, attracts and repels the crowd in equal measure.
The setting of The Passion revolves around the fictional story of a battle that Port Talbot is fighting. Authoritarian forces have taken over and a ruthless, sinister corporation is in control, called ICU. They are after the town’s resources and a company man clashes with a suicide bomber on the beach. What could have been a bloody massacre is saved by a softly spoken loner who tells us later that he is here ‘to listen’ (The Teacher). He is a local man, who disappeared 40 days earlier, who has lost his memory. ICU seek to get rid of him since he is a trouble maker. The biblical parallels are at this point clear – certain figures are representative of the names we associate with the Easter story.
At the screening I went to, Director Dave McKean and writer (of the book it was based on) Owen Sheers were present for a Q&A session post show, which offered great insight into the making of the film and how the project began via National Theatre Wales. Sheen, whose home town is Port Talbot, had wanted to do a secular response to The Passion – secular maybe, but the journey one is taken on through the film takes one into a sphere that is not of the everyday and yet the film is for everyman. The secular symbolism in the film is so profound, such as the sharing of Sheen’s sandwiches with some people who have started to follow him, and the conversation with his earthly dad, a roofer, about the value of a broken slate, is so striking, it made me feel that once I walked outside the cinema I would quite easily find the divine in just about anything. The film is an achievement in film making, acting and meaning, but Christian viewers may find it even more faith affirming (though it does not set out to do this) because of what it does implicitly – I will take time to explain this.
At one level, the film is an example of the omnipresence of technology in our lives and how this has had both a disturbing and creatively good impact on our lives. McKean didn’t anticipate the intrusion of phones of the ‘crowd’ in his face whilst he was trying to film and the filming of people filming with their phones adds a huge dynamic to the film because it then becomes a mirror in which society can look at itself. It is not a film about ‘how Port Talbot staged The Passion’ – it is a record of the three days of a man on a journey, unrehearsed. It overwhelms Sheen at one point – again, this is all recorded and shown in the film, who asks a man in the crowd why he is filming him on his phone (the man is being filmed filming – if that makes sense) and the man replies because he wants to be here. Sheen replies, as Sheen, ‘then be here’; ‘be here with me’. What may have been seen as intrusive (a mobile phone) actually becomes a catalyst for the theme of the film and of Easter – be here, be present. The phone is a vehicle for asking us, are we present in this world to witness what is happening – do we relate to each other in a society of virtual reality where you can have a relationship involving no relating (the internet and phone)? How brilliant the film is in using technology to record the last three days of this man’s life but at the same time using the very vehicle that has made the film what it is, to turn the phenomenon of technology on its head: beware of who and what your master is when looking for meaning in life.
I hope I am enticing you to see this film. It is truly modern and yet timeless (like the gospels whether you are believer or not) because it is a story and a story told with all the truth of human emotion. It is also timeless because of its take on who The Teacher is. This you begin to see at the end of the film through a sequence of shots of Michael Sheen which he shot himself, whilst in isolation. They indicate isolation, brokenness and loneliness – I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the film, but all human life is here. And it is these themes that are continual through the film linked through the one main theme of memory. Sheen collects a core group of followers in the lead up to the Crucifixion who he ‘rescues’ – the first one in a very obvious way in the shape of a suicide bomber. All, like him, are struggling with some element of their past, often because they can’t remember or work out what went wrong – the film at these points – via each one’s story, is fractured and disturbing with dream-like sequences. The power of the film’s editing at these moments reflects the state of the characters’ minds so you’re not only seeing the power of the locals’ acting but the structure of the film illustrates this (McKean has a background in graphic design, illustration, sculpture and music and this is all evident by the way he’s made the film). Again, the deeper meaning is always there, Sheen says at one social gathering, to his lost yet found friends, ‘we find ourselves in each other’. It is through pain (both physical pain in mind and body in the here and now, and painful memories) that peace, understanding and often resolution can be found.
The importance of the play on words ‘ICU’ become clear – all those who follow Him, see him. He says to the suicide bomber ‘I see you’ – you are found because you have been seen and through being seen, you see this Jesus-like figure and ultimately see yourself. The underlying spiritual truths are heartbreakingly moving.
For me, it is not a ‘made’ film – it is one that evolves as the viewer’s response grows through it. Port Talbot was clearly sucked into the world of the play and if the crew just set out to give a secular response they have achieved a lot more. This is most evident in the Crucifixion when the crowd become ‘the mob’ just by virtue of wanting to see Sheen and at those moments in the film, Owen Sheers spoke of the strange moral vacuum – Sheen is violently beaten, away from the crowds but the crowd watch on big screens – people are still filming the whole event on their phones which can be seen as disgusting and when this is continued at the actual Crucifixion you feel it is then simply wrong, and yet the artistic effect of the Dali-like Christ hanging above Port Talbot with the thousands of camera phones flashing looks like stardust, and the blood and screaming of the event has transpired into a mystical spectacle.
The longer the film stays in my mind, the more metaphors and truths about life walk into my mind. Port Talbot is in a battle for its life as the film opens, a battle for its identity – it is a town scarred by the M4 motorway – this is its story, its ‘mark’, or a blot on the landscape (it appears in one of the dream sequences as ‘the monster with stone legs’), and the town is desperate to ‘reremember’ itself. To say The Teacher takes on the scars of the motorway in his bearing of another kind of monster (the cross) is not taking the symbolism too far, because human kind essentially looks for identity and if this is being taken away, people feel desperate and perform actions which don’t make sense. It is not for nothing that the words ‘I Am’ are uttered in the film, the full meaning of them and the context in which they were said continues to resonate days after viewing the film.