The Passion of the Christ

 

'And yet, how is it –this is not boring you I hope– how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four of them were there –or thereabouts– and only one speaks of a thief being saved. .One out of four. Of the other three, two don't mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.'…

'Well what of it? '

'Then the two of them must have been damned.'

'And why not?'

'But one of the four says that one of the two was saved.'

'Well? They don't agree and that's all there is to it.'

'But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?'

'Who believes him?'

'Everybody. It's the only version they know.'

'People are bloody ignorant apes'.

'Waiting for Godot'

 

 

I'd been looking forward to writing this review. Here is a film that has polarized opinion like no other. Either a massive testament of faith, the most moving religious experience in the last two thousand years, which will leave you trembling in the cinema thinking 'He did all that for me'; or else an exploitative, manipulative, sadistic, border-line anti-Semitic piece of hyper-Catholic spiritual rape. Just the sort of discussion your ranter likes to take sides in.

What I was not expecting to have to say was that the film was neither very spiritual nor very offensive. It was just, basically, not very good.

 

Going to see the film is a surreal experience. Buying a ticket ('One for Jesus, please.') Being directed by the usher. ('Passion of Christ, screen two, first on the right.) The fact that before getting anywhere near Gethsemane, we had to go through all the usual adverts including the one where everyone threatens to wiggle their bottoms at you unless you buy a new car. And the one for Guinness, with the slogan 'Out of the darkness, light.'

An elderly gentleman with a notebook and a Jewish accent said 'Is this the right place for the passion of Jesus?' One could see how he might have thought it wasn't.

I felt rather like a teenager buying a dirty magazine from W.H Smiths. (Not that I ever did. Oh no.) Furtive. Embarrassed. Not actually feeling that I was doing anything wrong, exactly, but that I'd just as soon sit by myself in the back row and slip out without anyone noticing.

We are used to Cinema reducing everything—Mount Doom, Normandy, the Titanic—to a pretext for spectacular entertainment. Hey, dude, let's take in the holocaust and then go for pizza. I got the distinct impression that some of the audience were treating The Passion as a challenge, just like they would any other horror film. Everyone says it's shockingly violent, and everyone says it's incredibly moving, so let's rattle our popcorn and see if we can get through it un-shocked and un-moved. After all it's only a movie.

But we are also used to Cinema evoking the most serious and profound imagery to lend stolen gravitas to what are basically just melodramas. We have already seen Mel turn William Wallace into Christ-in-a-kilt; hung drawn and quartered in graphic detail in order to give his people 'FREE—-DOM!' Leo de Caprio thrusts out his arms, claims to be king of the world, and then lays down his life to save Kate Winslett 'in every way possible.' There was even a rather desperate attempt to impose a Christ-text on Spider Man[1]. The company that distributed The Passion is called 'Icon Productions'. Its animated logo involves a little Byzantine mosaic of Jesus. We've seen it a hundred times before in front of a hundred different movies and never even noticed whose face it was. We are used to the fact that all films begin with a series of irrelevant trademarks.

In the beginning were the logos.

Having debased the currency by turning Christ into a trademark and Spider Man into a Christ figure, is Camden Odeon actually big enough to contain the real thing?

Short answer: no.

 

More codswallop has been talked about this film than about anything else in cinema history, so let me say a few terribly, terribly obvious things before going any further:

1: When Mel Gibson places the death of Christ at the center of his religion, he is not indulging in some private craziness. The Crucifixion is the absolute center of all Christian faith.

2: When Mel Gibson chooses to depict morbid scenes such as the flagellation of Christ or the removal of his body from the Cross he is doing nothing which devotional art has not been doing for a millennia and half. Wander around any art gallery.

3: Neither is he doing anything new or strange in encouraging Christians to think about the messy bits of their faith. Look round any great Cathedral, or thumb any hymnbook. ('I sometimes think about the cross/and shut my eyes and try to see/the cruel nails and crown of thorns/and Jesus crucified for me.')

4: Not all religious icons are great works of art: this doesn't stop faithful being inspired by them. Mel is hardly the first person to manufacture sentimental religious kitsch.

5: The film is not anti-Semitic, not remotely, not slightly, not even a little bit. It may however, be offensive to the Jewish religion, to exactly the same extent and degree that the Christian religion is offensive to the Jewish religion. (See appendix.)

 

It takes a man with a very brave heart to attempt this kind of movie. You are going head-to-head with The Gospel According to St Matthew and Intolerance, which are among the greatest movies ever made, and Ben Hur, which isn't. But you are also going head-to-head with decades of well-meaning, pious corn. The trouble with adapting the greatest story ever told is that it might turn into The Greatest Story Ever Told[2]. This movie largely avoids bathos and cliché, and is at a technical level, well filmed and well constructed. It does a good job of bringing to life classic iconography; indeed, the coffee-table book of stills (each one looking like a religious painting) probably contains most of what is good in the movie. But as drama, as cinema, as story telling, it just doesn't work. I was bored before we were halfway down the Via Dolorosa.

The gore-factor is not as bad as you have probably read. If you are going as part of a churchwomen's guild tea-treat, then yes, it will shock you, but if you are at all used to horror movies or action-flicks, it won't. The sheer out-of-control sadism of the long-drawn-out flogging mitigates against you really being affected by it. I still occasionally have nightmares about A Short Film About Killing because it is so merciless in its depiction of the cold-blooded neutrality of modern-day death-by-bureaucracy. (No-one really wants to hang the guy, but they all play the role assigned to them by the impersonal state, and he ends up dead.) Christ's flogging is just, well, nasty. It knows it is nasty, and we know it is faked. The brief exposing of Christ's rib cage as his flesh is flayed off elicits the same reaction as any other piece of horror movie prosthetics. 'Oh…yuk. I wonder how they did that?'

 

The movie's first big problem is its theology. It hasn't got any. I can quite see why some non-Christian viewers were bemused by it. If you were not already a committed Christian, then it would be very natural to say 'I can see that this man is being tormented and taking it very patiently but I don't understand why you attach so much importance to this.' The film shows torture for the sake of torture; torture abstracted, almost (this may be the point) to the point at which it stops horrifying us. Everything is twice as brutal as it needs to be. Did you ever imagine the Roman soldiers using whips to drive Christ through the streets to Golgotha? When the Pharisee says 'Answereth thou the High Priest thus?' I had always imagined that he slapped his face so as to insult him. Here, Jesus is knocked to the ground and spends the rest of the movie sporting a black eye like Rocky. In a 'theatre of blood' kind of way, there is some clever imagery. After the flagellation, the Romans drag Jesus across the courtyard, leaving an elegantly smeared trail of blood. While his hands are being nailed, we get a brief shot from underneath the Cross of drops of blood dripping through the wood. But what there isn't is any clear impression of why any of this is happening: what Jesus thinks is happening, what the disciples think is happening, what Mel Gibson thinks is happening. It's as if Mel thinks that 'Jesus died horribly—more horribly than you can imagine' is the be-all and end-all of the Christian message.

In Gethsemane, Satan taunts Jesus that the weight of the world's sin will be too heavy for him to bear, but nothing shows us why being beaten up by a corrupt police-state amounts to sin-bearing[3]. If you already believe that the man being tortured is God; and if you already believe that the death of God is redemptive, then having it spelled out in Dolby stereo might be a powerful devotional stimulus. If you don't then it isn't. I can't imagine it functioning as evangelism or propaganda.

The movie opens with a caption quoting Isaiah 53 'He was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities'. While this passage could be taken as referring to Israel as a whole, or as a general statement of what happens to good people in our world, Christians are used to reading it as a prophecy of the death of Jesus—I can think off-hand of three New Testament passages which quote it directly in this context. But its use in the film bothered me. Does the completely disproportionate emphasis on the flogging of Jesus mean that Mel literally identifies this whipping with 'stripes' of the Suffering Servant? ('By his stripes are we healed, made whole by the blows he received…')? Does he think that what is important is the physical pain experienced by Jesus; that the relentless beatings-up are literally the punishment for Adam's sin and no more can or need be said? This would explain why, having half-fainted from the first bout of scourging, Jesus staggers to his feet and let's them carry on. The more pain, the better. The idea that God-the-Father felt like punishing someone and Jesus volunteered to be a literal whipping boy is much the least attractive version of the Atonement.

But even if this is what Mel believes, nothing in the movie explores or elucidates it. All we really see is snarling Roman[4] soldiers who have no particular reason to be mad at Jesus, but hate him just because they do.

The film keeps dropping hints that it could have been so much better. Right at the beginning, after Jesus is arrested, two of the Marys quote the Passover liturgy. One says 'Why is this night different to all others?' and the other replies 'Because once we were slaves and now we are free.' This is both a good dramatic moment, and, if you are paying attention, a helpful religious insight, since it identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb and points to the continuity which Christians see between Passover and Easter[5]. But nothing further comes of it. Right at the end, during the crucifixion itself, we flashback several times to the Last Supper. As his bloodified body is being nailed on to the cross, we see a nice clean picture-book Jesus giving out the bread and saying 'This is my body', and as even more stage blood drips from the cross, we cut back to him saying 'This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.' Here, at least, Mel is trying to use the language of cinema to convey a message. We cut back and forth between Christ's actual blood and the wine of the first Communion which symbolizes Christ's blood and which for Catholics miraculously becomes Christ's blood. The visual juxta-positioning makes us experience the symbolism of Holy Communion far better than any explanation; it may even enable protestants to feel what a Catholic means by transubstantiation.

 ….although one can't help feeling impiously that the same juxtapositioning was done rather better in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (which against the odds, managed to make the Count a Christ figure.)

Protestants and atheists who mock the Catholic Church for saying that Eucharistic Bread and Wine literally become the body and blood of Christ have long been told that it's All More Complicated Than That. In this film we see Christ's flesh being flayed with fetishistic intensity. We see blood: blood from his flogging, blood from the crown of thorns, blood from the nails and blood from the spear wound. We watch various Marys and Veronicas piously mopping it up. And we start to wonder. Does Mel want us to think in terms of Christ's actual, physical flesh and actual, physical blood? Does this open him up to the charge which Protestants have always leveled against Catholics: of making Christianity a matter of ritual cannibalism?[6] Answer came there none.

 

Good religious art can come out of naïve theology. I myself can belt out 'The Old Rugged Cross' with the best of them. But the movie's other flaw is much less forgivable. It has no dramatic development; no narrative; no real characterization. Pilate and his wife are notable exceptions to this; they seem almost to belong in a different film, some historical drama about the Roman Empire. Having seen a naturalistic Pilate explaining that Caesar has threatened to kill him if there is another uprising, ('next time the blood will be mine') we actually understand, and maybe even sympathize, when he finally tells his soldiers to crucify Jesus. And having seen him talking like an ordinary person, we somehow believe it more when he says 'Behold the man' and 'What is truth?' Similarly, the minor character of Simon of Cyrene gets a personality: first of all humiliated that he has been forced to carry a criminal's cross; but gradually coming to sympathize with and comfort Jesus. ('Almost there,' he keeps saying, which considering what they are planning to do with him when they get 'there', can't actually have been all that much of a comfort.)

But none of the disciples are individualized, and neither, despite a few flashbacks, is Mary. (The attempt to show Jesus being gently teased by his mother for being such a hopeless carpenter was quite brave.) We see Peter being violently jostled by the crowd, and various people shouting 'You were one of his disciples' at him. We flashback to the Last Supper, and hear Jesus saying 'You will deny me three times.' We see Peter with two of the women, saying 'I denied him three times'. And that, unless I am mistaken, is the last we see of Peter. There is something positively Jacksonian about Gibson's insistence on motion and violence. There must always be movement on the screen; we must not pause for breath. The Bible has Peter warming himself by a fire in the Priest's courtyard, and being recognized in the firelight by three specific people. This has him being spun around in an excited mob, and various faceless people calling out at him. Questions of authenticity and authority apart, the Biblical version is more dramatic.

Again: we see Judas taking the 30 pieces of silver; we see him kissing Jesus in the garden, and we have a very long drawn out scene of him being hounded to his death by demon possessed children (a scene that Messrs. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John inexplicably neglected) but we get no hint of who he was, or what he did and why. We do get the priests hurling a bag of silver across the room, and him failing to catch it, despite the fact that is in slow motion; one of the more pointlessly hackneyed scenes I've come across recently. And although several Jewish leaders storm out of Christ's first trial, we get no real hint of what the remaining Pharisees are accusing him of, and what their real reasons are for wanting him dead. Could we not have had a two-sentence explanation along the lines of:

I see bad things arising
The crowd crown him king, which the Romans would ban
I see blood and destruction
Our elimination because of one man.

A Biblical movie is getting quite bad when you start to think that Jesus Christ Superstar did it better.

 

Again, most of the best dramatic touches come from the flashbacks. However, the scenes are very brief, and I think that they assume a reasonable level of Biblical knowledge on the part of the viewer. When the crowd starts spitting on Jesus as he carries his cross out of Jerusalem, we get a brief shot of a crowd waving palm branches at a man on a donkey. I guess that anyone not willfully ignorant can be expected to get the point of that. But as Jesus is being nailed to the cross we cut to him writing in the dust, Mary Magdalene kneeling to him, and out of focus rock-wielding Pharisees in long-shot. This is rather neat: Mary is remembering that Jesus once saved her from the death-penalty. But if you don't instantly associate 'Jesus writing in the dust' with 'the woman taken in adultery', the scene is hard to decode[7].

It is interesting, by the way, that the two longest flashbacks are the purely invented ones: Jesus and Mary in the carpenter's workshop; and Mary comforting the boy Jesus when he has fallen down.

The film is iconographic when it needs to be realistic, and realistic when it needs to be iconographic. In the flashbacks, we have a beardy, hippy Christ, a Light of the World, a Ladybird book of Jesus figure which, with the best will in the world, puts us in mind of bad church dramas and Life of Brian. It would have been so much better for him to have been a working class rabble rouser; a Rabbi among the Rabbis; Jewish looking, black—almost anything to de-familiarize the material. On the other hand, at the key 'religious' moments the art gets lost in the gore. After the soldiers put the crown of thorns on Jesus; I longed for the camera to stop moving long enough for him to look like a Christ-in-majesty painting. The film, I suppose, is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. When Christ carries the cross—a huge, cruciform thing, about twice as big as he is—through the streets, it looked exactly like a scene from one of the Mystery Plays, and I found myself thinking 'I can't believe a Roman execution was really like this.' On the other hand, the three bodies hanging on the three crosses looked small, petty, rather trivial, and I thought 'why can't they make it look more like an Cathedral altarpiece.'

The Resurrection was a great mistake. (I would prefer it if you didn't take that remark our of context.) The movie ends with the disciples reverently lowering Christ's body from the Cross, Mary cradling his head in her lap, a final tableaux of the two Marys, John and presumably Joseph of Aramethea in a group around the dead Christ. Three standard stained-glass window scenes. Surely 'Christ is taken down from the cross' is the natural place for what is basically a dramatized Stations of the Cross to end? But instead, we have a final sequence of a stone being rolled away; a shot of some empty burial shrouds, and finally, a cleaned up, resuscitated but very human and physical Jesus looking impassively out of the Tomb. The End. A Christs-eye view of the Resurrection is probably very bad theology: it is certainly very bad drama. This resurrected Christ is not in any sense a strange or numinous figure (as he is in the Bible, where people are afraid of him and fail to recognize him.) We've gone so quickly from the dead Christ to the living one that it almost seems to render what has gone before meaningless, as if Mel were saying 'Jesus died for your sins. But he got better!' Again, no theological context tells us what has just happened and why it matters. Again, the scene relies on using familiar religious symbols (the stone, the burial shroud) as signifiers for emotions that we either do, or don't, already feel. If we're Christians, then the resurrection is an occasion for joy, but nothing in the scene itself could possibly make us feel joyful.

Having said all this, Gibson's theological shock-trooper tactics probably had very much the effect that he was hoping for. The hullabaloo surrounding the film rather confirmed my theory that the dominant religion in the UK is deism: the idea that Christianity teaches that the Son of God died for the sins of the word seemed to come to many critics as rather a novelty. If people really do think of Jesus as a teacher of peace-and-love morality, then forcing Jesus the Self-Sacrificial Victim; Jesus the Dying-and-Rising God back into the public consciousness, if only for one Easter, may be a good thing. At least we have been reminded that our Hot Buns are decorated with the image of a really nasty torture device, and scraped some of the rust off expressions like 'we all have our crosses to bare.'

 

Maybe I made a mistake in going to see the film by myself on Easter Monday: I can imagine that seeing it with a church group on Good Friday, it could have been a powerful visual stimulus to devotion. (I still blub if I watch E.T with an audience, but watch it on your living room on DVD, and its not much more than an episode of the Muppet Show.) I think perhaps I was on the right track when I compared seeing the movie with buying Playboy magazine. You aren't going to see it because you think that it has any artistic merit, or because you expect it to tell you anything you didn't know already. You are going in order to watch a very predictable and stereotyped succession of images, to which you are 'programmed' to respond in a specific way. The images either 'work', in which case you feel what you are supposed to feel or they don't in which case you feel nothing at all—certainly not any aesthetic enjoyment. I accept that, at this level, many people have found The Passion a powerful religious experience.. I can only say that I entirely failed to get a spiritual hard-on.

 

 

To hell with Jehovah
To the carpenter I said,
I wish that a carpenter
Had made the world instead
Goodbye and good luck to you
And if our ways divide
Remember me tomorrow
The man you hung beside

It's God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me
I said it to the carpenter
A-hanging on the tree.

Sydney Carter 1915—2004

 

Appendix:  Anti-Semitism

Main  Index

Section Index



[1] The Green Goblin takes our friendly neighborhood Spider Man up to a high place to tempt him. But Spidey remains true to his real father, whose first words in the movie are 'Let there be light.'

[2] Speaking of which: John Wayne does not, in fact, say 'Awwww….truly this man was the Son of God.' He does, however, look ridiculously uncomfortable in his Roman Centurion's costume, and speak the line in his un-disguisable cowboy accent 'TruLEE this MAN was the son'a'GAWD' so that the movie achieves the impressive feat of getting a laugh out of the death of Jesus. The bathos couldn't have been worse if Max Von Sydow had burst out singing 'Always look on the bright side of life.' Mel is, I imagine, under the impression that his subtitled Aramaic text is giving the movie an unprecedented authenticity. ('It is as it was'.) But it does neatly avoid the problem of accent (could we have put up with an American Jesus, when we all know He was English?) and make lines like 'Behold the man!' and 'What is truth?' less of a minefield for actors. (I did find myself wondering, as elsewhere in the movie, how much Biblical knowledge was assumed by the sub-title writer. Jesus says 'Amen, Amen, I say to you…' rather than 'verily verily' and Pilate says 'I find no cause in him.' )

[3] In the Bible, the agony in Gethsemane is a moment of human weakness, not diabolical temptation: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. We are not told that the devil taunts Jesus, but we are told that angels come and strengthen. Mel evidently thinks that removing the good angels and adding a fallen one is an improvement on the Biblical version.

[4] Really, it's the Italians, not the Jews, who ought to be campaigning to have this movie banned.

[5] Question: Did the Jewish members of the audience like this scene because it recognized that Jesus existed in a Jewish context; or did they find it offensive because it represents a Christian attempt to appropriate the symbolism of their holiest rites? Or both?

[6] I would take it that 'saved by the blood of Christ' means 'saved by the fact that Jesus died sacrificially': it would not have occurred to me that anyone might think that the actual stuff in Jesus' arteries was especially significant.

[7] It strikes me that you could do a very interesting life of Christ told entirely in flashbacks. You might start with Jesus leaving the last supper and going to Gethsemane, and on the way, flash back to the boy Jesus in the temple; we'd arrive at the garden, and flash back to the temptation in the wilderness. By the time we reached Golgotha, the flashbacks would have caught up with themselves and reached Upper Room. Maybe I should try to write the script. I could call it Citizen Christ.