Playing Fair with Mel Gibson’s “Passion”

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Christ's suffering: "a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring"

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

In the week since I attended a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I’ve talked and argued about religion, with believers and unbelievers alike, more than I have in decades. Every film reviewer, pundit and talkshow host in the country has fervently weighed in for or against this controversial, ultra-gory reenactment of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. So much, frequently hysterical, verbiage has heaped up that the movie itself — the way it looks, moves, its way of shaping a primal story into art — gets buried. Indeed, many have just skipped the film entirely, so that their opinions won’t be hampered by actually experiencing the gospel according to Gibson.

As almost everyone knows by now, Mel Gibson invested his own money in this 126-minute visualization of Christ’s Passion — not the euphemized, abbreviated, cleaned-up version that contemporary Christians have mostly espoused, but a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring. (One Catholic novelist objected “to the way Gibson’s film disturbs [emphasis mine] our sense of peace and acceptance of the cross.”)

Distasteful and even embarrassing to many latterday Christians, this horrific chapter of Christ’s life on earth obviously possesses some special, visceral appeal for Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whom some accused of anti-Semitism even before the film was released. (For the record, I didn’t register any anti-Semitic subtext in The Passion, and I didn’t come away filled with hatred for anyone. For me, the operative emotion was pity: for benighted humankind and Gibson’s religious hero.)

Take a look at the final 15 minutes of Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart; it’s startling to see how literally Gibson rehearses — sometimes shot for shot — for The Passion, with himself as the suffering Christ. Praying for the strength to die well; spread-eagled on a cross; tempted by a satanic figure; empowered by the eyes of those who witness his awful torture; inspiring his followers with the sustaining legacy of Braveheart‘s last image, a sword-cross planted in the earth — the bloody end of Gibson’s Scots hero presages the formal, stylized contemplation of his god-man’s lengthier, equally barbaric Passion.

Gibson’s film depends on — indeed, can hardly be appreciated without — the context of rudimentary religious education. Few of us possess in-depth knowledge of Catholic iconography, Old Testament versus New Testament Christianity, Renaissance religious art, even the ancient patterns of god-sacrifice that have energized so many of our most powerful myths/religions. Complaining (as some have) that Christ’s three falls on the way to Golgotha are two too many misses the symbolic significance not only of the number three, but also of formally reenacting every Station in his Via Dolorosa, celebrating every inch of this redemptive process.

Bemoaning Gibson’s failure to frame his sacral horrorshow with lots of references to Christ’s Good News about love and forgiveness suggests we don’t want to focus on the genuinely radical core-concept of a god willingly, cruelly imprisoned in vulnerable human flesh. Earlier deities were more likely to take on animal forms in order to ravish attractive humans (see, for instance, Leda and her amorous swan); none that I can think of took it into his/her head to endure defilement and agony at the hands of mere mortals.

Christ (Jim Caviziel) at peace with the Apostles
Christ (James Caviezel) at peace with the Apostles

The mostly secular intelligentsia frown on The Passion‘s brand of visceral religious art, consigning it to the category of morbid kitsch (think Mexican Day of the Dead excesses) while preferring polite abstractions, metaphors, humanistic translations of literal action. Even words like Passion and Rapture are a little too rich for their blood. When not frowning, they tend to mock and fear the zealotry of “unsophisticated” religious enthusiasm. It’s one thing when Martin Scorsese’s Christ resists God’s casting call and yearns, even on the cross, for his ordinary human life. That Temptation of Christ appealed to those who could identify with an existential crisis of identity, but can’t get next to a Christ whose body is destroyed as a sign that he’s willing to go the bloody mile to be one of us. On the other hand, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) — along with Kevin Smith’s irreverently reverent Dogma (1999) — enraged those who view any “play” with the ingredients of Christianity as blasphemy.

What Gibson assumes, perhaps wrongly, is that on some level audiences are plugged into, intellectually and/or emotionally, the notion of a primal cycle of death and resurrection, attuned to the idea that everyone in this centuries-old miracle play has an assigned role, each absolutely necessary to the acting out of the whole fated drama of redemption. If you can connect with these concepts, I don’t think it matters whether or not you are a traditionally religious person: the power and beauty of the film’s brutal process may still move you.

Spat upon, mocked, reviled, a handsome young Jew (James Caviezel) is ritually reduced to bloody pulp. We grasp that he can escape this shameful agony at any time, but that by an act of will he does not. Jeshua’s one operative eye — the other is swollen shut almost from the beginning — is eerily inhuman; almost mahogany-colored, often seen in closeup, its alien gaze is periodically aimed at his mother (the magnificent Maia Morgenstern), necessary, courageous audience to his sacrificial drama — and upward, toward … Father? Director? Delusion?

Clearly, something momentous hangs on Jeshua’s not stepping out of character. He and his mother are both quite self-aware of the ritual nature of his “performance.” When the man whose name means Redeemer is first arrested, Mary marks Act I of The Passion with “It is begun.” Jeshua speaks to his tormentors as someone both inside and outside this “movie,” commenting on where they stand in the story and on the aftermath of his selfless act.

“Almost done,” encourages Simon, the passer-by dragooned into carrying the back-breaking cross — and the nearly unconscious Jeshua — up to Golgotha. And at long last, when this awful part of the play is over, the dying hero announces, “It is accomplished.” From a god’s-eye-view, we look down at the crucifixion tableau below, through the circular lens of a drop of rain. It doesn’t require a religious eye to recognize the terror and pity generated by the tragic theater-in-the-round beneath us. God’s tear or nature’s cleansing: something new will grow here.

Mary (Maia Morgenstern)
Mary (Maia Morgenstern)

Gibson contrasts this moment of cosmic catharsis to an image of utter sterility: echoing that previous sky-high point of view, he frames a hot, dry mound on which the once-seductive Satan writhes in impotent rage. In the beginning, the devil slithers into the Garden of Gethsemene to work on Christ’s momentary failure of faith in the efficacy of the horror to come. All androgynous beauty, with a man’s deep voice and a very small worm curling into one perfect nostril, s/he embodies the icy lure of nihilism, despair. Later, the figure slides suggestively through bloodthirsty crowds, a watcher that mockingly mirrors Christ’s witnessing mother, once even clasping a wizened, half-bestial homunculus as though it were a beloved infant. Inveterate god-hunter Ingmar Bergman would recognize this tempter. So would Fellini, whose Casanova wears the demon’s face.

In the hieratic pose of the Pieta, Mary displays the ruined body of her son at the foot of the cross, now looking directly into the camera as she previously had held Jeshua’s gaze. Formally gesturing with her right hand, she invites us as viewers — presumably those who have caused and benefited by his dying — to apprehend fully the iconic image of flesh cast off like a worn-out robe. The film’s final, brief images of the Resurrection extend the theme of outmoded costume and new, powerful life literally wiping the screen clean.

This is a film about witnessing bravely, seeing clearly, epiphany. Drawn from religious paintings, especially Caravaggio, The Passion is saturated in shadows, mist-blue or deep black, penumbras of glowing gold, white sun glare and somber gray stormlight. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel conveys the look and climate of a small town in the middle of nowhere, 2,000 years ago, where suddenly, improbably, a god-man might have died and risen from the grave. That the characters speak in Aramaic or street Latin lends the story an even stronger sense of ritual both foreign and familiar, evoking a dramatic paradigm so powerful it can be traced into our most ancient, pagan past.

All week long, people have asked me whether they should see this film. I am certain I can’t answer that question. I can only speak for myself, agnostic and myth-lover that I am. The Passion of the Christ recalled a time when faith seemed vital and relevant to me, a force to be reckoned with. And I figure that if you’re going to buy into a religion that has brutal sacrifice at its heart, there is something a little dishonest about not being willing or able to witness that sacrifice as it must have been. Considering Mel Gibson, I think he is a little mad, but that’s not such a bad thing in a visionary artist. As for me, I plan to keep my mind and eyes wide open to this kind of fierce filmmaking — and to any odd miracles I might still chance upon.

© 2004 Kathleen Murphy

Carrying the cross to Golgotha
Carrying the cross to Golgotha