FROM THE VAULTS-Jesus Christ Pose: Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ(A republication of an article originally at Helium.com, from October 2004. I will occasionally be reposting some of my favorites of my old film essays here, next being my SALO piece)
Gotta tell ya, it really looks like it must be hell being Mel. Or will be when he has to answer to his maker for this movie.
I say this after having watched in detail the Passion of the Gibson, this thing that's caused so very much controversy, as most Jesus films do, sight unseen. It's rare that you see a religious film which has used its very (supposed) offensiveness as a marketing tool. Throughout Mel's odd promotion of this thing, which consisted of self-imposed martyrdom against the Jews, indeed it seemed the meme that this was the film the Jews don't want you to see was the one woven implicitly throughout as its selling point.
It was considered some mark of Christian pride by many to not only go see this film, but to take droves of people with them, particularly the young. Children who would barely ever be allowed to see even a PG-13 film by some of these folks--and in some cases, any film at all--were brought in by parents, guardians, preachers and teachers far and wide. So very many came to this mass-produced pilgrimage point, to worship before the graven image Gibson had clumsily carved from poisoned light.
A film that is full of hatred for Jews and apologia for Romans is, I suppose, better to them than one in which Judas talks in a Brooklyn accent. That kind of Jesus film they try to keep you from getting into. I know because I recall pushing past several white-suited Christian freaks who ought to have been off being assholes outside of an abortion clinic to see the Last Temptation of Christ, a clumsy and inconsistent but brilliant film that, unlike Gibson's waste of plastic and celluloid, actually turned me more toward its subject and his beliefs. It was a story of the human part of Christ attempting to come to terms with the other side, which is not seen but appears to him--as to all prophets--as madness and certainly no burden he wishes to take up. (A similar treatment is seen in the character of Prior Walter in the sometimes-brilliant Angels in America, in his case AIDS-induced dementia, which turns out to be something else)
Also focused upon in this version--from which Gibson, incidentally, has the nerve to lift whole passages of music, particularly nervy as the soundtrack album is one of the most popular such things-- is what Jesus gives up by choosing not to merely run before he's arrested, which is any chance at the kind of happiness one can have as an ordinary man. But this is a far too subtle and multifaceted view of a small portion of what Jesus gave up--perhaps too "nuanced" or "French"(actually Greek filtered through Calvinist and Catholic) for many American Christians, at least those of more fundamentalist persuasions. No, in order to commune with their god, they feel they must see him whipped into hamburger.
The shameful perversion of their pride--which is a sin, incidentally, right at the top of the list of the seven deadlies--is typical of the desperate "fuck-you" approach to being an American these days that increasingly loses its charm and looks more like the initial stages of insanity. Much as Bush said "fuck you" to the rest of the world, Gibson and the fundamentalist fans of the movie said "fuck you" to the Jews, which ironically translated into mounds of money for Gibson. The careful exclusions from certain previews, the stupid comments tossed into the press--anti-semitism deliberately fanned and flared up and set loose, even just a little, not even to promote a political cause, but just another movie.
I realize this began as the story of Jesus but somewhere along the line the increasing paranoia of Mel Gibson surrounding the film became bigger than the film itself. Bigger than Jesus, one might say. And really, this is no different than any of Mel's other major films, and even steals many of their tics, which is to say Mad Max (which is to say the Punisher, a film in which Gibson actually might have been well-cast) in one form or another: peaceful man wanting to settle down and quiet the rage within himself is prevented from doing so by extremely bad men who kill a loved one for no other reason than to, well, show how darn villainous they are.
The only difference here is that the protagonist never gets a chance to kick ass on behalf of said dead loved one--in this case he is the dead loved one, for all of us--the ass-kicking may come outside the theatre, afterward, one might be irresponsible to presume. But still...
Well, maybe the revenge comes with the earthquake that follows his death and the sundering of the veil of the temple. But that would be a little suspiciously subtle.
After seeing Braveheart's conclusion I was certain Gibson would do something like this someday, only I thought he would cast himself in the title role. But Mel has done more, much more, than this. He has taken the story of Jesus and debased it into a spectacle of violence, but not even to lure the audience toward something remotely approaching a moral message, not even a messiah, just the mess. And the hatred of those who made said mess of your lord. But even more, he has violated one major instruction by God, to not add to or take away from scripture. Instead, Gibson has refashioned gospel in his own image.
What's there, then? Far less than you might expect.
You may think you already know the plot, but you don't. For instance, I'll bet you don't know that in the garden of Gethsemane, only the Devil, no God or Angels, answered back to Jesus. The Devil is presented as an androgynous bald figure, played by a woman but coming off as an effeminate man, continuing Mel's chronically suspicious obsession with linking of evil to either coded or overt homosexuality.(cf. Braveheart, Road Warrior) So at least Mel keeps his hatreds organized.
You may also think at least a few Romans were somehow involved in the capture of Jesus. Again, you would be incorrect, according to Mel. He has nothing but thuggish temple guards arresting him. In fact, the Jews even attempt to very sneakily hide all this from the Romans, at least until they need the Romans to off him, which none can wait to do. Mary even personally implores the Romans to help their son, and the noble centurion looks like he might do so. The excusing of the Romans' part begins here and rarely lets up. Apart from the thuggish common soldiery, all Romans of any intelligence apparently loved Jesus and were disgusted, just disgusted, at these awful Jews wanting so badly to harm him, with such bloodlust--that's the only word as presented in the film--and the Romans, it seems, certainly weren't at all concerned about Jesus being yet another messiah-figure spreading sedition against an empire only there because otherwise, its royal family—that invited the Romans in—would have been deposed otherwise.
Torturing and executing Jesus is something that the Jews push the Romans into in this film. And the Jews are so eager to kill Jesus that, even when Pilate gives them the almost childishly clear choice between freeing Jesus and an apparently psychotic Barabbas—who slobbers, and sneers, and snarls at them—they eagerly pick Barabbas to be freed. I don’t recall anything in the Bible that said Barabbas was some Mansonesque psycho, but there I go expecting subtlety and class again.
The Jews get their licks in as well. Much is added to increase the violence quotient at any opportunity and this is an example. Most gratuitously and early on, on the way back to the temple for his trial before the Sanhedrin, they toss him off a bridge by his chains like some kind of perverse bungee jumping. This bit comes off more, I truly hate to say, as certain of Mel's fantasies might look.
Then the trial before the Sanhedrin, full of every Jude Süss hook-nosed caricature that you can imagine. It seems that the more a Jew wants to kill Jesus, the uglier and, well, more stereotypically Jewish he looks. The common Roman soldiers who later beat Jesus—who, interestingly, are the only ones that are merely intermittently subtitled, and much of what they say while they torture him is not subtitled at all—are villainous too, but in a simple, brutish way, that they routinely do these terrible things unthinkingly as part of their job as occupiers.
The Jews, however, are hardly unthinking. They’re presented as calculating, every one of them. The only good-looking or young-looking Jews are apostles or converts (like the temple guard whose severed ear Jesus heals, or the one who—over the objections of his jeering countrymen!—helps Jesus carry the cross, and a good thing he does as it’s presented as far too heavy for anyone to lift, but especially someone tortured as badly as Jesus has been at that point), but otherwise every Jew seems to want Jesus’ blood. And without context, Mel can only present their motivation as pure evil. Mel likes villains who are just evil because they, well, are. And, Mel whispers in our ear, Jews who convert are good, but only those.
The trial scene gets rather comical as well. Throughout Mel seems to think filler is needed. For the most part this is accomplished by using little sayings to his apostles, and one bit of the Last Supper. But Jesus’ thoughts wander to a memory that Mel completely made up, that I haven’t seen many reviewers mention, and that I found rather bizarre, but that highlighted for me the essential tawdriness of the operation. You may recall that, at the beginning of the Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character is presented as a somewhat incompetent carpenter, making a chair that breaks the first time he sits in it. Well, here Mel has a protagonist who may indeed be the most famous carpenter of all time. This appears to be a chance to not only see the human side of Jesus but also the handyman side, so we see he wasn’t just some philosophy-spouting poufy hippie always talking about peace.
No, Jesus invents, according to Mel, the dining room table, for which he intends to make matching tables. His mother responds with a disbelieving huff, “It will never catch on.” Yes, that’s correct, it’s phrased just that way from the Aramaic in the subtitles. Is there, perhaps, something inappropriate about Mel inserting a Hollywood-cute scene in the midst of the trial of Jesus? Did he think, perhaps, we’d find it hard to relate to him otherwise?
What we get, from the trial scene all the way through the later stations of the cross, are the most extreme Jewish caricatures since the Eternal Jew, or Jude Süss, as repulsive as the strangely vehement homophobic portrayal of Prince Edward in Braveheart (seriously, Edward was an incompetent; it's gilding the lily to focus on the fact he was gay too. But Gibson thinks the first proceeds from the second), all with a full-scale hate on for Jesus and completely impatient to see him dead. And the accusers are identical. There’s an odd moment during the accusations in which you’d be forgiven in thinking two of them are in fact the same guy in succession wearing a different head covering.
We’ve seen Mel do self-important schlock before, as in Braveheart, but here it’s rather offensive, as Mel thinks he needs to up the intensity on the subject, and still injects his own most offensive tics we’ve seen from movie to movie here. For instance, his infamous homophobia as mentioned above, on display both in the androgyny of the Devil and also when Jesus is dragged to the palace of Nero.
Oh, I’m sorry, it’s actually Herod. But from appearances, you’d never tell the difference. King Herod is presented as a fat, mincing transvestite with a fake beard (which he can barely keep on) with a court seemingly entirely populated by sleepy, ugly, drunken and rather aged women. Just so we can tell he’s Jewish, he also has a rather pronounced hooked nose, which is helpful ladled onto the flaming queen he’s already been set up as.
This looks, as mentioned, just like the usual Hollywood presentation of Nero, but transposed to a Semitic context. Interesting that Mel gave an admittedly bad Jewish king an appearance strongly suggesting that of one of the most famous enemies of Christianity, but I suppose subconsciously it’s another example of how Mel tries to write any official Roman persecution of Jesus out of the story. The Romans, the narrative seems to go here, knew not what they did. The Jews here, however, very much did.
Then there’s the torture scenes. I was, to be frank, disappointed. I wasn’t expecting such half-assed sadism. But that’s what Mel gives us.
The pain of Jesus' execution is a popular conversion tool. Jack T. Chick, by a quirk of fate the best-selling cartoonist in the world and also the maddest Christian on earth, has done at least three such works: THE GIFT, which, apart from a framing story, could be a grisly color adaptation of Gibson's film. A nurse even co-narrates giving specific details. In that lurid, grisly color Chick is famous for, Jesus gets turned to hamburger. The idea is of course that the least you can do is accept him then. Then there's the famous and ubiquitous tract THE SISSY? in which two truck drivers are also told how violently Jesus died. Before, they'd thought Jesus was some kind of sissy, but afterward they extol him as a real man, "and I love him for that."
That's the rawest Jesusploitation you could find till now. Gibson's work is just on a grander and more expensive scale, but it's still a kind of conversion technique that I as a liberal Episcopalian(if agnostic now) loathe, rubbing your nose in either guilt or, worse, the thought of Jesus' big ol' balls. THE GIFT's target is women who have recently suffered loss, and employs guilt. THE SISSY? is directed at the most lunkheaded of men.
The story has a value beyond just religious belief. In many ways our collective notion of this event defines our ideas of suffering, of oppression, of principle, and capital punishment. Even if we don't believe, the story encapsulates the suffering of innocence, righteousness and good in the face of all chances to give in. It should force you to look at what you want to look away from because too many people look away from suffering now and cannot assimilate it, only avoid it. But suffering is unavoidable and should be understood. The story is a valid means--indeed one might say the original means--of understanding that of oneself and of others. If you can look at that, one would think, then you couldn’t turn a blind eye to the suffering of those here and now. If only.
But by the time the Romans get a crack at him, Jesus is already just a suffering, muttering mass of hamburger, and the beating Jesus gets isn’t cringe-inducing at all. It’s just tedious. Out in the audience, five minutes into it you start to notice it’s not such a good special-effects makeup job, a particularly silly example being a patch glued to his chest that’s supposed to look like his ribs showing through a gash in his skin. Ten minutes later you’ve already gotten the point. Not long afterward you start to ask, aloud, “Okay, when does he die already?” Or I did, anyway.
Keep hoping. There’s still every insult and glob of spit in his face as he carries the cross to Golgotha. And once he’s up there, this film that hyped itself as painstakingly accurate (whatever that could mean—there are no independent, contemporary historical accounts of the life of Jesus and four differing official gospels; this has about as much “historical” record to draw from as Shakespeare In Love) depicts Jesus getting nailed to the cross through his palms. As most know, but apparently Mel doesn’t, the Romans nailed through the wrists. The hand has weak bones that could never support the weight of a body. Jesus’ hands would have merely ripped loose from the cross, and his body would have flopped forward.
Then they flip the cross forward so that they can hoist it, backward, upright. Why this is necessary I don’t know. It wasn’t done. You’d think this would be an opportunity for Mel to show Jesus on his stomach groaning under the weight of the cross crushing him, but there’s a lucky indentation that is just the shape of Jesus’ body and just enough width that the cross is like a beam across from one side to the other. Well, at least Mel left him some dignity.
Until we get to Jesus receiving the spear in his side, at which point we realize this is a piece of pornography not unlike Jack T. Chick, but less effective. The blood comes out in a gush (that’s pink at first) all over a centurion—who falls on his knees and takes it all over—and the lips of his mother, who licks it off. That part made me cringe, I’ll admit. But I have to say I wasn’t expecting a money shot in this film.
Given the loathing I already have expressed many times relentlessly for the works of Mel Gibson, it infuriates me even more in some ways that Gibson has done so well from this bland, retarded piece of religious porn, while Martin Scorsese had to endure years of 24-hour-security simply for suggesting Jesus could love, in his mind, as an ordinary man and dream of what normal men dreamed. It wasn't merely physical pain and endurance that Jesus was enduring. It was the loss of the whole of a normal life.
But no middle-class white Christian really believes that, because they certainly don’t want to live up to such an example. What if they really did take all they had and gave to the poor? No, most American fundamentalists are what they are because they want their good lives to continue into the afterworld. As in all eras. They don’t think it should affect their behavior, really.
But it also focuses so hard and exclusively upon the actual physical nature of the sacrifice of Christ, and so explicitly, that all it can ultimately stir up is guilt and hatred. But then what else would it be? It's worth seeing just to be understood, because it's going to be a cultural seismic point. The merchandising that surrounded the film, particularly of a nail pendant (I saw this on Ebay) is saddening. But then, look at the Elvis industry... I guess they figure, "Jesus would want me to make money off him."
Gibson’s BDSM fantasies are considered good Christian product. None of that airy-fairy salvation stuff. Gibson and his intended audience can only understand this, like Thomas, if a mark you can see is left.
I thought this film, good or bad, was destined to blow a crater into film history. The hype would have you believe this film is worthy of study or interest.
Is it good?
No, it is not. It’s barely a film, a snuff film in fact, as has been observed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And it also has in common with porn that it’s unsatisfying in every regard. For this to really be porn, I suppose it would have to be marginally exciting or engaging, so maybe not. It’s hateful and idiotic, and if more people had known that, it’d never have been so successful. For the sake of Gibson’s soul, I sincerely hope this was just a money-and-prestige-gaining exercise, because I can’t imagine that Jesus feels flattered by terrible films.
"Eternity with Beelzebub, and all his hellish instruments of death, will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me and this pencil." - E. Blackadder, 1791 Questionable
words & pictures from John Linton Roberson SUPPORT MY SINFUL WORK AT PATREON!