Flim Review - "The Passion of the Christ" (2004)
reviewed by Andrew Johnson
20th May 2004
Springtime for Gibson
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a true phenomenon of modern cinema. In the short period since its release it has already become one of the top-grossing films of all time. More importantly, it has tapped into a real mass audience that Hollywood doesn’t reach. Although by no means a great film in artistic or intellectual terms, its sheer reach – churches block-booking cinemas, priests urging Mass-goers to see it –makes The Passion important and worth trying to understand.
Gibson himself is perhaps uniquely well positioned to address a religious-conservative audience. The action hero turned director is routinely described in profiles as a “devout Catholic”. Actually, this is half the truth – Gibson is a Sedevacantist, a member of one of the many Catholic splinter groups basing themselves on a rejection of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which among other reforms abolished the Latin Mass and officially exonerated the Jewish people from inherited blame for the death of Jesus. On these grounds the Sedevacantists believe that the late John XXIII and his successors have been heretical antipopes. They rather implausibly view the current thug in the Vatican and his grisly henchman Cardinal Ratzinger as liberal softies. Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is a highly prominent Sedevacantist and is regarded as a dangerous extremist by many even in that very rightwing milieu.
But why should Gibson, hailing from the wilder shores of Catholic sectarianism, have touched such a nerve among the broader population? After all, The Passion has proved as popular with Baptist and Pentecostal fundamentalists in the US as with the Catholic right. The main reason is that Gibson’s beliefs have led him to make a highly conservative film which presses all the fundamentalist buttons.
The horror, the horror
The film critic Mark Kermode has described The Passion as essentially a horror movie. And so it is. It is no coincidence that the film has been warmly endorsed by William Peter Blatty, the author of that other Catholic potboiler The Exorcist. Gibson’s track record in Hollywood shows him not to be averse to screen violence, but The Passion takes brutality to extremes. The 20-minute scourging sequence in particular is almost unbearable to watch. However, the violence is so unremitting that the viewer begins to become desensitised.
While Gibson claims that his source material is the New Testament, he is not telling the whole story. One of the problems to confront the maker of a biblical epic is that the Gospels themselves are written in a very sketchy style and their stories are full of holes (not to mention being contradictory). Over the centuries a vast corpus of Christian folklore has grown up to fill in the gaps. Gibson – and this speaks volumes about the man – has drawn heavily on one particular source, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a work by the German stigmatic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). Emmerich’s work is lurid in the extreme, its violence bordering on the pornographic. It is also wildly anti-Semitic.
Much of the controversy around The Passion has centred on the question of whether the film is anti-Semitic – a recent edition of Private Eye wickedly had Gibson complaining that “I’ve been crucified by the Jews”. Although Gibson has avoided the crass statements of his Holocaust-denying father, there is no doubt that the Jews as a whole are the villains of the film. The high priest Caiaphas is an anti-Semitic caricature straight out of Emmerich, while there are repeated scenes of Jewish mobs baying for Jesus’ blood, with a smug-looking Satan in their midst. The Romans who actually carry out the torture and crucifixion, by contrast, appear not as malevolent actors in their own right but as stooges of the Jews. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate – a particularly nasty fascistic boot boy according to Jewish histories – is the only character allowed any real depth. Gibson can at least claim to be faithful to the spirit of the Gospel writers, who for political reasons – the Jewish revolt of AD 67-73 and its aftermath – were anxious to downplay the guilt of the Roman rulers and distance themselves from the rebellious Jews.
Much of The Passion’s conservatism is inherent in its very structure as an account of Jesus’ last twelve hours. In the Gospels Jesus’ death takes up relatively little space, and comes across as the climax of an extraordinary life. This has been the approach of most films on the subject, from Hollywood blockbusters like King of Kings to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew. In the gospel according to Melvin, we begin with Jesus being arrested by the Romans but are not told what he had done to annoy the authorities. In the brief flashback scenes of Jesus’ prior life – including Jesus the carpenter apparently inventing the dining table – we get no sense that this was a charismatic man who could have inspired the masses. Jim Caviezel, who was so good in The Count of Monte Cristo, has little to do but suffer heroically.
Jesus as a charismatic preacher is in fact a long-standing problem for conservative Christians. If a historical Jesus did exist, he would appear to have been a radical and subversive figure, appealing to the most oppressed parts of society and challenging those in power. Modern liberation theology, not to mention Pasolini’s cinematic presentation of Jesus as a peasant revolutionary, stems from this interpretation. Therefore the ministers and priests of the Christian right are rarely to be heard quoting any social teachings of Jesus – except the famous Parable of the Talents, which Thatcherites interpret literally as an injunction to get rich. Religious conservatives looking for biblical validation much prefer Paul of Tarsus, the Joe Stalin of early Christianity. They urge their followers not to consider the teachings of Jesus, but to contemplate the miracle of his sacrifice.
It should be no surprise, then, that Gibson’s opus is a smash hit in Ireland. This country, North and South, is a seller’s market for religious conservatism. The Passion will not convert any unbelievers, but it plays admirably to its target audience’s prejudices.