Passion and Pathology

“A Mel Gibson Film.” For some time now, those words have had a smothering effect over the subject of several films. With Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ we have the complete realization of an agenda that was previously only a fraction of the morality plays and plot devices that are more universally-empathetic, if no less pompous and melodramatic. I say “we” for the reason that this film belongs as much to nonbelievers as it does to theists so long as we coexist on some level of the definition, although this is often unsavory and bothersome to both parties. Life is conflict, however, and if we do not love our ideological enemies we are at least obliged to respond to what they have to say, through whatever medium.

Jesus, most of us are told, willingly allowed his death both for and because of our sins, to “save” us: Sacrifice. He then conquered death and ascended to heaven: Resurrection. The latter is considered the most important, but it is the former upon which the camera is fittingly and (almost) eternally fixated, for no sect revels more in the fluids of this endeavor than Catholicism. What then, is so surprising here?

It is not just that the film unsparingly portrays the drawn-out torture and execution of a man (to put it mildly). Bare flesh is lashed with shards of broken glass that hook into Jesus’ ribs in a moment where the shock results in the stunned silence of the audience, followed by disgusted exhalations and groans in response to the tearing-off of the man’s flesh, like strips of bacon. The Son of Man fairs no better than animals in a PETA ad. Though, for all this, can anyone disagree that at least this much is probable during a Roman scourging? It is also not for the nails penetrating his hands and feet, as thick spurts of blood fountain from the flesh. No. The shock, and contempt for any violence in this movie should be reserved for the decision that this was somehow not enough. To teach that Jesus sacrificed himself as the Gospels relate and to portray Jesus suffering more than any other man in the history of known suffering is quite another. Even for the devout such as Gibson, scripture cannot satisfy and has fallen short of imagination and perhaps his own self-pity.

The director has talked openly about his past, abusing alcohol and drugs, meditating deeply on suicide–until he reread the Gospel writings. Speaking in various interviews on “pain as a precursor to change”[1] and his frustration with previous Jesus flicks that are “inaccurate in their history.”[2] Finally, the kicker: “the Holy Ghost worked through [him]” while shooting the movie. Gibson is assuredly not a phony or half-way believer in his faith. One need only read of his stoic and content attitude that his “saintly” wife (Gibson’s own description) will most likely go to hell for being Episcopalian.[3] We are dealing with a fundamentalist and a fanatic. One taught by, we now know, another fanatic. A fact, we are warned repeatedly by the artist, not to dwell on.

It is no “miracle” that to date The Passion has grossed more than $333,000,000.[4] The numbers reflect a combination of controversy, macabre voyeurism, and the great number of people who sit and see their own sin in the leaking wounds on the screen. That, of course, has always been the point in this manipulative story now turned into propaganda, a historical incident that has been greatly taken advantage of by this narcissistic wannabe vessel of the divine so as to extract as much guilt as possible. The less information that is known to us in history, the more things seem possible–at least in debate. But Gibson has turned all things probable, and repeatedly defended his version by referring in no detail to “The Gospels.” The excess violence in this film is not “pointless” as other reviews have complained. Gibson and his screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald have used the writings of an obscure nun (uncredited in the film) to help fill in the details[5] and the filmmaking betrays something of a pathological need to portray Jesus taking as much punishment as can fit it in the frame. It’s as if Gibson simultaneously wishes to display his own guilt and sins to the world (the self-righteous announcement that it was Gibson’s own hand that hammers the first nail) while egotistically inflating his worth to cause all the more suffering of his lord.

We view the Romans warming up for their torture of Jesus, as they handle the scourge and test it out as if it were a new toy prepared especially for this prisoner. Jesus also becomes the subject of Roman instructions on proper crucifixion, as his arm is gruesomely dislocated to fit a hole that is placed too far in the cross. The cross is flipped over, Jesus hanging front-faced above the dusty rocks, while the other two prisoners condemned to death are nowhere to be seen or heard. By comparison, they will later be seen to have been barely phased by hanging in the morning air to die. Any attempts to claim that this farce is written perhaps to show the brutality of the period loses it’s legs in the contrast. There is, however, the scene where one of the criminals crucified beside Jesus mocks him; in response, his eye is immediately plucked by a raven–another lesson from Gibson on the film’s message of “love and forgiveness.” There is a scene where Jesus is hurled over a bridge in chains, nearly quartering him, and a scene where a too-small crown of thorns is forcefully fitted by the Romans–who are again shown as overacting buffoons–to assure that the thorns penetrate deeply into Jesus’ cranium.

Gibson’s soul may indeed belong to ‘God,’ but his creativity is purely a child of Hollywood, as the caricatures of the cast, and juvenile insertions of a silly supernatural Satan and child, more than reveal. To skeptics and nonbelievers, what Gibson has left unchanged from the Bible should be ssen as no less bizarre and contradicting. And so it is that we view flashbacks such as “The Sermon on the Mount,” where Jesus preaches against such selfish teaching as “love only those who love you” by appealing to the crowd with greater reward. Such illusory altruism is delivered from the pulpits of both atheists and theists today. Yet on top of all this fraud, there is still the charge of bigotry.

It’s not so much the blatant character of the anti-Jewish sentiment in the film that frustrates as much as it is the assertions by Church and community leaders that no such sentiment exists. The undetermined source of such oversight is and will continue to be puzzling so long as this work remains in the public forum. There is also the question of whether this poses a danger. There are instances such as that of the Denver church pastor who affirmed the Jews as Christ-killers (he later apologized) but, so far, no reports of violence or more serious offenses in relation have made the news.[6] To defend the film using the (apparent) absence of such reaction misses the point. Coupled with Gibson’s known disdain for Vatican II counsel, his alliance with the words of Sister Anne Emmerich, and his boyish silence while his father speaks about the greater Jewish-conspiracy, Gibson’s film portrays the Jewish priests as a snarling, nearly-rabid jury of hooked-nosed and ugly folk who, with the exception of one or two detractors for show (perhaps they are meant to represent Gibson’s vaunted “friends with numbers on their arms”) wish to persecute Jesus. In comparison, Jesus (before he is spiflicated), The Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen all look finely groomed and part of some Spanish-Italian stock. More overtly suggestive is the scene where Jewish children topped with yarmulkes transform into flesh-eating demon-children to torment Judas. Employing the quote from The Gospel of John which speaks of he “who hath the greater sin” does little to spread the blame around to all sinners, as Mel Gibson insists are to blame–not grasping of course that this whole spectacle in Judea must occur according to the will of a supreme deity, leaving no one “accountable.” But The prize for manipulation and “poetic license” must be given to the way in which Pontius Pilate is fashioned. He is both gracious and conflicted towards The Nazarene, and in his stress this man whom historians record as cruel, and too violent and provoking even for Rome (a charge to which, when confronted, Gibson ultimately agrees), confides to his wife his weariness in “putting down rebellions.” The audience is left with this narrow viewpoint, and the image of the problem-causing Jews–the same Jews of course that they witness moments before, practically foaming for Jesus’ execution. Yet a majority of criticism from the Church passes, in light of how “moving” the film is, and even if the Pope himself may not have praised it, his Bishops are all a glee.[7] Dangerous? For now the danger lies not in physical harm, but the remaining potential for harm through the collective and continued (even willful) arrest of inquiry, across the country and possibly the rest of the world, into the detail of this junk that has already begun screening in Europe and throughout the Middle East. If this irresponsible film remains unchecked by non-Christians and Christians alike, much worse will follow.

Notes:

[1] “How Despairing Gibson Found ‘The Passion” http://abcnews.go.com/sections/Primetime/Entertainment/mel_gibson_passion_040216-1.html

[2] Interview: Mel Gibson on his Passion: Jesus Christ http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/newsletter053.htm

[3] “Mel Gibson says his wife could be going to hell” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4224452/

[4] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/domestic.htm

[5] “‘Passion’ scriptwriter: 18th-century nun?” http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/arizonaliving/articles/0228passionseer28.html

[6] “Pastor whose sign ignited furor apologizes to ‘Jewish people'” http://www.ajc.com/news/content/news/0304/03pastor.html

[7] “Mystery of Pope’s ‘approval’ of Gibson film” http://www.guardian.co.uk/pope/story/0,12272,1130233,00.html