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The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
Is there anything left to be said about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Much has already been written, and the critics are bitterly polarized. Writing in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier denounced the small-minded Gibson and his sacred “snuff film”—soaked in blood, reveling in torture, and resurrecting anti-Semitism as religious dogma. Wieseltier, the child of Holocaust survivors, bitterly complained that Gibson’s literal reading of the Gospels omitted Christ’s most important message: love and forgiveness. In contrast, a review in the interreligious journal First Things written by a professor of Catholic studies and an art historian described The Passion as “the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ” while confidently denying any “concerns about the film stirring up anti-Judaism.”
Most people I talk to are boycotting The Passion. They have been convinced that the film is dangerously anti-Semitic and that it would be an act of betrayal to contribute to its commercial success. They assumed that my reason for going was to weigh in with another denunciation of Gibson and his Holocaust-denying father.
In fact I decided to see and review the film for three very different reasons. First, The Passion is one of the rare movies that is also an important cultural event—a significant historical moment. My friends may be boycotting it, but audiences across America and around the world are attending in record numbers, and many Christians are coming away with a sense of restored faith. It seems to me a mistake to turn one’s back on a cultural event of this magnitude.
Second, I hoped to understand the deeply contradictory reactions to the film. Wieseltier’s brilliant denunciation of Gibson was a “never again” cri de coeur. But a distinguished Catholic colleague confided to me that she had wept through the scenes of Christ’s flagellation and crucifixion. She came away from the film with a deeper sense of Christ’s suffering—what Wieseltier saw as a repulsive orgy of torture—and regret that she had not been a better Christian. She assured me the film was not anti-Semitic and sent me the review inFirst Things. These are both intelligent people of good will, and I would guess that my Catholic friend is no more tolerant of blood and guts than Wieseltier. Certainly she is not anti-Semitic.
Finally, many of the greatest filmmakers have wanted to do a version of the Christ story. It is perhaps the most important story of Western civilization, and film is the most powerful medium our civilization has invented for storytelling. But how do you translate a sacred text into a screenplay? Pasolini did a Marxist version, Zeffirelli did a Sunday-school documentary, and Scorsese used Kazantzakis’s existential novel, a book on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books, to make The Last Temptation of Christ, a remarkable but anti-Church telling of the Christ story. Gibson had found religion as he struggled with alcoholism and suicidal depression, and he wanted to portray the Catholic faith that had saved him. He describes his filmmaking as—and I believe him—an act of faith.
As I waited in line to enter the theater, an elderly woman who was coming out stopped to advise me that I would need two handkerchiefs. She was wrong: I sat dry-eyed, stunned, and with a growing sense of dread as I watched what was for me the most anti-Semitic film I had ever seen in my life. Even more horrifying was the realization that I could not dismiss The Passion as a second-rate film. All of the snide put-downs of Gibson’s filmmaking are in my view unjustified. Yes, one can connect the dots from the torture scenes of Mad Max to Lethal Weapon to Braveheart to The Passion, but Gibson also made a passable Hamlet; he is a serious person who has created a powerful film. The cinematography is an astonishing accomplishment inspired by great religious art. It is also the most cruel and bloody I have ever seen. Episodes of sadistic brutality establish the rhythm of the film, taking the audience again and again to the limits of its capacity to endure Gibson’s bloody vision of Christ’s suffering. Yet neither I nor anyone else in that crowded, hushed theater walked out.
A quotation from Isaiah 53:5, familiar from Handel’s Messiah, prefaces the film: “He was wounded for our transgressions.” In the Bible, this follows the more famous lines of Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Surprisingly, the quotation is accompanied by a specific date (742 B.C.). The dated quotation establishes the truth-telling tone of the film and its serious religiosity: this suffering was prophesied, and then it came to pass. Through a blue haze we discern James Caviezel as Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Caviezel is not asked or allowed to act the part of Jesus; he exists only to present the human body in which the Christ is incarnate and will suffer. For that purpose he is superbly cast. Gibson wanted his cinematography to pay homage to Caravaggio, and Caviezel’s body is very much like that of Jesus in the great painter’s Flagellation of Christ.
But in Caravaggio’s sensibility Christ’s body is entirely unmarked. While Gibson’s film may have started with Caravaggio, it will end with the tortured, flayed Christs of the northern Renaissance. From the first moment we see Jesus he is in agony, praying to God and wrestling with the temptations of an androgynous Satan, played by a woman with a shaved skull (Rosalinda Celetano). We will witness Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and see him taken in chains to the high priests of the temple. If there is a false note in Gibson’s depiction, it is sounded almost at once, as his Christ is surrounded by sadists, be they Jews or Romans, who take malicious pleasure in inflicting pain. The temple guards cudgel him even before he has been judged. Then the Roman soldiers exhaust themselves in the brutal pleasure of whipping and scourging the “King of the Jews.” Christ is not only made to suffer beyond human endurance, but under Gibson’s direction he refuses to surrender to the pain and loss of blood. Incredibly, he struggles to his feet, only to incite the Roman soldiers to beat him down again with greater violence, using more-vicious instruments that tear away flesh. Yes, this is prototypical Gibson-macho, but it is also a compelling depiction of the sacred spirit, incarnate and refusing to succumb. The Passion is suffused with blood and gore, and the torture is sustained for most of the film until it reaches its apogee on the cross as Christ asks why he has been forsaken. All this is precisely as Gibson intended. His purpose was to make Christ’s suffering visible—Christ, who suffered for the sins of mankind.
What one sees on the screen depends very much on one’s religious background and whether one in fact believes in Christ. Wieseltier is Jewish and was a serious student of Jewish history; in his tirade against the film he had the candor to concede that he does not believe in Christ. With his background and without that faith he could see only Gibson’s proclivity for sadomasochism transformed into a horribly bloody snuff film. Roger Ebert, a onetime altar boy who participated in many Lenten and Easter services, described his quite different experience of the very same scenes: “What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of.” Ebert’s report is remarkable, and, for me, entirely believable. We have no more powerful demonstration of the axiom one learns from teaching film: that everyone in a theater sees a different film.
It is very much like those old psychological tests that ask whether you see in a silhouette a witch or a beautiful woman, a duck or a rabbit. My claim—though of course I have no proof for it—is that what you see in the protracted torture of Caviezel depends substantially on whether you come into the movie believing in Christ. In the face of such conflicting accounts of the Passion the question I asked myself was how my own past experiences determined the frightening anti-Semitism that I saw. What immediately came to mind was my best friend telling me—we were both eight years old at the time—that he had been taught by his priest that “you Jews killed Jesus.” I had no idea what response to make to that accusation or even whether I should tell my parents about it. If you see The Passion through that lens, I think you too will be horrified.
Many other alarms went off in my head. The high priests look and behave like all of the familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes—the selfish, obstinate, unforgiving Jews one tries to look past in the great religious paintings. They cannot be ignored when Gibson brings them to life on the screen. Wieseltier was particularly incensed that Gibson had told Diane Sawyer on television, “Critics who have a problem with me don’t really have a problem with me and this film. They have a problem with the four Gospels.” Gibson has, I fear, a much better argument than Wieseltier allows. It is very difficult to find a scene in The Passion that is not in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Gibson has placed his filmmaking gloss on the text, but with great fidelity to its words. And although the Vatican has now denied that the Pope pronounced after he saw the film, “It is as it was,” he might well have said that. The Pope saw the film that many Catholics are seeing, the one in which the Son of God suffers for their sins before their very eyes through the magic of film.
Gibson has given the Catholic Church what it wanted and perhaps needed: an occasion to embrace its own fundamentalism. Certainly the Church has neither rejected nor distanced itself from The Passion. Priests took whole congregations to see it on Easter Sunday, and viewing the film may well become an annual ritual in the tradition of Passion plays. Set aside the question of personal lenses and one is still left with the concern that Gibson’s film marks the unofficial return to the pre–Vatican II catechesis of Church doctrine. In following the literal words of the Gospel it reasserts the dogma that the Vatican in its ecumenical moments has qualified, but a dogma that can be traced back to the earliest days of Catholicism: “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” outside the Church there is no salvation, no way to God the father except through his son Jesus. And it vividly recreates the images of the stiff-necked Jews who instead of embracing salvation pronounced the sentence of death on their own Messiah.
Gibson has been faithful to his own radical form of Catholicism, which rejects Vatican II, with its affirmation of religious toleration. His Passion gives us that traditional faith without the spirit of ecumenical respect for Judaism, Islam, and other religions to which the Church pledged itself in Vatican II. It was a pledge that left open the possibility of salvation outside the Church and of forgiveness for everyone made in God’s image. If Vatican II was in large measure a response to the Holocaust and to the Church’s own history of anti-Semitism, then the success of The Passion is a cultural event that signals the end of that Christian feeling of remorse. If it does nothing else The Passion should remind us all that the impulse of fundamentalism now sweeping the world is dividing humanity even as it seeks a more sacred community.
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