The Passion and the gore

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

From the film The Passion of The Christ. - ICON PRODUCTIONS/AFP

From the film The Passion of The Christ. - ICON PRODUCTIONS/AFP

Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of The Christ triggers a debate in the United States on the extreme violence it depicts and its portrayal of Jews.

THERE is a prophetic episode of The Simpsons in which the celebrity guest star Mel Gibson, directing and starring in a remake of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", enlists the help of Homer Simpson, who represents the public taste (or lack of it). Homer persuades Gibson to change the picture's ending, replacing James Stewart's populist tirade with an action sequence, a barrage of righteous gunfire that leaves the halls of Congress strewn with corpses. The audience flees the theatre in disgust.

I thought of Homer more than once, with an involuntary irreverence conditioned by many years of devotion to The Simpsons, as Gibson presented his new movie, The Passion of the Christ, to carefully selected preview audiences across the land, making a few last-minute cuts, and then taking to the airwaves to promote and defend the film. Given the Crucifixion story, Gibson did not need to change the ending. The Passion of the Christ is so relentlessly focussed on the savagery of Jesus' final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it.

Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace. Gibson has departed radically from the tone and spirit of earlier American movies about Jesus, which have tended to be palatable (if often extremely long) Sunday school homilies designed to soothe the audience rather than to terrify or inflame it.

His version of the Gospels is harrowingly violent; the final hour of The Passion of the Christ essentially consists of a man being beaten, tortured and killed in graphic and lingering detail. Once he is taken into custody, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is cuffed and kicked and then, much more systematically, flogged, first with stiff canes and then with leather whips tipped with sharp stones and glass shards. By the time the crown of thorns is pounded onto his head and the cross loaded onto his shoulders, he is all but unrecognisable, a mass of flayed and bloody flesh, barely able to stand, moaning and howling in pain.

The audience's desired response to this spectacle is not revulsion, but something like the cowering, quivering awe manifested by Mary (Maia Morgenstern), Mary Magdalen (Monica Bellucci) and a few sensitive Romans and Jerusalemites as they force themselves to watch. Disgust and awe are not, when you think about it, so far apart, and in Gibson's vision one is a route to the other. By rubbing our faces in the grisly reality of Jesus' death and fixing our eyes on every welt and gash on his body, this film means to make literal an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection and that tends to be thought about somewhat abstractly. Look, the movie seems to insist, when we say he died for our sins, this is what we mean.

A viewer, particularly one who accepts the theological import of the story, is thus caught in a sadomasochistic paradox, as are the disciples for whom Jesus, in a flashback that occurs towards the end, promises to lay down his life. The ordinary human response is to wish for the carnage to stop, an impulse that seems lacking in the dissolute Roman soldiers and the self-righteous Pharisees. But without their fathomless cruelty, the story would not reach its necessary end. To halt the execution would thwart divine providence and refuse the gift of redemption.

The paradox of wishing something horrible to stop even as you want it to continue has as much to do with movie going as with theology. And Gibson, either guilelessly or ingeniously, has exploited the popular appetite for terror and gore for what he and his allies see as a higher end. The means, however, are no different from those used by virtuosos of shock cinema like Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noi, who subjected Monica Bellucci to such grievous indignity in Irriversible. Gibson is temperamentally a more stolid, less formally adventurous film-maker, but he is no less a connoisseur of violence, and it will be amusing to see some of the same scolds who condemned Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" sing the praises of The Passion of the Christ.

Gibson, from the moment he began speaking publicly about this project, emphasised his desire to make his "Passion" as realistic as possible. To that end the dialogue is in Aramaic and a dialect of Latin, which takes some getting used to but which dispenses with the stilted, awkward diction that afflicts so many biblical epics. The absence of identifiable movie stars (with the exception of Bellucci, who comports herself with fitting modesty) also adds an element of verisimilitude. But the style and tone of The Passion are far from what is ordinarily meant by realism.

The first part, which takes place in the murk and gloom of night (shot by the superb cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), has the feel of a horror movie. As Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, the camera tiptoes around him like a stalker, and John Debney's score is a high-toned creep show of menacing orchestral undertones and spine-jabbing choral effects. A slithery, effeminate Satan (played, the end credits reveal, by a woman named Rosalinda Celentano) slinks around like something in a Wes Craven nightmare, and Judas, reeling from his betrayal, is menaced by demon children with pointy teeth and milky eyes. When daylight dawns, the mood shifts from horror-movie suspense to slasher-film dread.

Throughout, Gibson lays on Debney's canned sublimity with the heaviest possible hand, and he indulges in equally unsubtle visual and aural effects. Judas' 30 pieces of silver fly through the air in slow motion, and the first nail enters Jesus' palm with a thwack that must have taken hours of digital tweaking to articulate. The thuddingly emphatic storytelling (along with the ancient languages) makes the acting almost beside the point, though it is hard not to be impressed by Caviezel's endurance. The only psychological complexity in this tableau of goodness and villainy belongs to Pontius Pilate and his wife Claudia, played by two very capable actors, Hristo Naumov Shopov and Claudia Gerini, who I hope will become more familiar to American audiences.

IS The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? To my eyes it did not seem to traffic explicitly or egregiously in the toxic iconography of historical Jew hatred, but more sensitive viewers may disagree. The Pharisees, in their tallit and beards, are certainly shown as a sinister and inhumane group, and the mob they command is full of howling, ugly rage. But this on-screen villainy does not seem to exceed what can be found in the source material.

A few weeks ago Gibson reportedly expunged an especially provocative line of dialogue that referred to the Jews: "His blood be on us, and on our children." That line comes from the Book of Matthew, and it would take a revisionist to remove every trace of controversy and intolerance from a story that rests squarely on the theological boundary separating Christianity from Judaism. That Gibson did not attempt to transcend these divisions may be regrettable, but to condemn The Passion of the Christ for its supposed bigotry is to miss its point and to misstate its problems.

The troubling implications of the film do not arise primarily from its religious agenda: an extreme, traditionalist Roman Catholicism that has not prevented The Passion from resonating, oddly enough, with many evangelical Protestants. What makes the movie so grim and ugly is Gibson's inability to think beyond the conventional logic of movie narrative. In most movies - certainly in most movies directed by or starring Gibson - violence against the innocent demands righteous vengeance in the third act, an expectation that Gibson in this case whips up and leaves unsatisfied.

On its own, apart from whatever beliefs a viewer might bring to it, The Passion of the Christ never provides a clear sense of what all of this bloodshed was for, an inconclusiveness that is Gibson's most serious artistic failure.

The Gospels, at least in some interpretations, suggest that the story ends in forgiveness. But such an ending seems beyond Gibson's imaginative capacities. Perhaps he suspects that his public prefers terror, fury and gore. Maybe Homer Simpson was right after all.

New York Times Service
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