The Passion of the Christ
2004Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci
fter seeing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, I didn’t walk out of the theater. I stormed out. Rarely has a movie made me so enraged that I had to go browse for CDs for half an hour just to calm down. I was literally shaking for a good five minutes. I was probably only one step away from speaking in tongues, which ironically enough would probably put me in good stead with what seems to be this film’s target audience.
What was the point of this movie? I can’t say I learned anything about Christianity from viewing it, and I certainly can’t claim to have been moved by the humanity of Jesus’ suffering. How could I? As depicted by Gibson, there was no humanity in Jesus’ suffering– just a shitload of pain and bleeding with no apparent larger context. As critic David Edelstein aptly summarized, The Passion of the Christ could have easily been retitled The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s important to note here that I’ve never been particularly affected by gore and violence in movies. And in a sense, the violence of The Passion wasn’t what bothered me per se. I’ve seen a lot worse (hell, you can see worse in other Gibson movies), but I’ve never seen extreme human suffering emphasized for... well, for its own sake. The last three-quarters of this movie is essentially an extended torture scene, with occasional bits from the Sermon on the Mount or the Last Supper thrown in for five seconds at a time, presumably only for pacing (“Love thy neighbor, blah blah blah... now let’s go back to flesh being ripped from the bone in extreme close-up!”). And I refuse to accept the argument that Gibson is interested in valorizing the ability of suffering to achieve moral transcendence; Fyodor Dostoyevsky he decidedly is not. There’s a gruesomely fetishistic aspect to The Passion of the Christ’s violence that can’t be morally disentangled from that of a snuff film. Believe it or not, I do not exaggerate.
Beyond any qualms about the movie’s message or thematic focus, it’s worth asking if, at a basic level, The Passion is a well-made film. The answer is no. This movie is a curious combination of the disturbing and the downright laughable. We see portentous, oh-so-meaningful slow motion roughly every ten seconds. There are moments of overacting that would surpass Al Pacino on a snoofter of speed. Satan shows up at periodic intervals, and he apparently resembles the kid from Powder... that is, when he’s not transforming into a snarling demon guy who scares the bejesus (sorry) out of the Apostle Peter. The middle section of the film, which depicts Jesus’ long walk from the city to site of his crucifixion while carrying his cross, is a masterpiece of utter redundancy. Jesus picks up cross, staggers a few feet, is whipped mercilessly by Roman guards, is spat on by Jewish bystanders, bleeds, falls (in slow motion) to the ground, is whipped some more, Mary looks stricken, Jesus gets back up, picks up cross, staggers a few feet... rinse, lather, repeat.
And then there’s the crucifixion itself. Hey, did you know that a vulture inexplicably pecks out the eye of one of the thieves being crucified next to Jesus? Neither did I, but it’s in this film! And of course it gets a closeup. The Romans also decide at one point to flip the cross over so Jesus is facing the ground; presumably they do this because they are mean (it’s at this point I decided that Mel Gibson probably watches DVDs of, say, real-life intestinal surgery while furiously masturbating).
The question of anti-Semitism has, of course, reared its ugly head in discussions of The Passion of the Christ. My own impression is that the film is not explicitly anti-Semitic in the sense that it was made for the purpose of depicting the Jews murdering Jesus, but that its troublesome view of Jews is almost a byproduct of Gibson’s relentless focus on Jesus’ agonizing pain. If you are watching The Passion, you cannot help but think about who was responsible for the torture of Jesus, and Gibson helpfully allows you to direct your ire at either Pontius Pilate’s sadistic centurions or the bloodthirsty Hebrew hordes who call for Christ’s death. As the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd put it, “Here, you want to kick in some Jewish and Roman teeth. And since the Romans have melted into history...” There’s even an element of homophobia here: our brief viewing of King Herod has him wearing a curly wig and liberal amounts of eye makeup, with a simpering manner that implies he spends his off hours cruising for sailors on the banks of the Dead Sea.
I would be deeply surprised if anyone walked out of The Passion of the Christ thinking deeply about the teachings of Jesus. Personally, I left with my thoughts directed less at Christian theology and more at Mel Gibson’s psychology. The man made a two-hour plus film entirely in Latin and Aramaic about the central event in his religious universe, and it plays like a pointless splatterfest with ugly fascistic undertones. Apparently this is a film capable of inspiring people, because in my theater there were scattered cheers as the credits went up. But I, for one, didn’t leave feeling the need for salvation. I left feeling the need for a shower.