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5. GIBSON'S THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: FROM MY OWN PERSPECTIVE (March 2004)
"Did you enjoy the movie, sir?" the young cleaning girl asked nicely, sweeping
popcorn off the floor.
The lights were up and I was the last person left in the theater. I'd finally stood, was zipping up my coat, and still decompressing.
I had to think a moment.
"...Not enjoyable..exactly. But it's a tremendous film."
Not what I expected.
Which is why my confidently pre-chosen title doesn't appear above: GIBSON'S THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: GOD DIDN'T DIE, THE JEWS DIDN'T KILL HIM, AND THE MOVIE IS UNBELIEVABLY BAD.
I can tell you that this Jewish atheist watched some of this film with tears in his eyes. Though the tears come from somewhere else than those of a believing Christian, and when I explain where they come from, believer, you won't be pleased. All the charges against the film didn't hold up in the viewing: Yes, the Jews howling for Christ's death were a pack of human hyenas, but they were balanced by sympathetic Jews. And, if I can be a little flip, even the range of nose types was wider than I'd expected-- not everyone was a hook-nosed caricature. I didn't find the film anti-Semitic, though it won't make non-Jews love us, either. The savage Romans were balanced by less savage ones, even good ones. The violence is hard, but watchable-- it really doesn't go beyond movie violence. The actual effect of sword, knife, spear or the lash on human flesh has never been fully shown in any mainstream film, and can't be. We'll look away rather than accept what happens to human bodies at the worst. Christ's wounds here remain movie wounds, make-up wounds, though harsh of their type. The movie is watchable-- don't believe the reviews. The charge is also made that the violence is unrelieved, monotonous. Not so. The film moves through different stages, each with its particular violence and violators. Some have said the film is homoerotic, as male after male assaults a sometimes scantily-clad Christ, but that's sick. The only ones who could take any pleasure in these scourgings are sadists, gay or straight. If anything, the movie goes in the other direction, dipping into homophobia, with the campy King Herod and his decadent court-- imagine an over-the-top gay John Belushi-- and snakily androgynous Satan. As if gay stands for evil. (As in the way American action films often cast an epicene Englishman as the villain.)
It is not an original film, though an extraordinarily intense and heartfelt one. Gibson has no new "take" on Christ, and looks with contempt on the idea. The cult of originality belongs to modernity, and this film is premodern. Received wisdom and canonized detail are welcome and accepted, even if they're products of a time after Christ. Hence, again Jesus is tall, blue-eyed, long-haired and pleasing to behold-- it "fits the role", even though the average Jew of his time was about 5-3 and 110 lbs., dark-haired and dark-eyed, skin tan or olive. And Jews wore their hair short. (Their curly, even kinky, hair couldn't grow long and lanky, anyway.) Nail pounds through palm, though the few remains of crucifixion victims show or indicate nails through forearms. But that is the classic iconography. (The Gospels don't even mention nails-- they just say Jesus was crucified.) We know the historical Pontius Pilate as a cruel brute who crucified many without trial, but Gibson is comfortable with the Bible's Pilate, a thoughtful man reluctantly giving in to the screams of Jewish priests (who historically were actually conciliators, working against extremists and violence). In truth, it's the Romans who may have been mostly, even entirely, responsible for Christ's condemnation. But the Gospels reflect the growing anti-Jewishness of those new and self-consciously "Christian". Gibson simply picks up a 1,900-year-old football and runs with it. Mary Magdalene is a harlot-- can't you tell from the earrings? And the Ultimate Convention is presented as simple fact, so taken-for-granted by Gibson that it has the feel of an afterthought in the film-- the Resurrection.
Now, some of the movie isn't "received"-- it's Gibson inventing. Satan works his way through the film, observing, subverting, but ultimately defeated. The Jewish High Priests attend the crucifixion-- Gibson makes that up. Dialogue is added for Pilate and his wife. Mary and Mary Magdalene are both beauties. Who knows, but not likely. The extended scenes of whipping by the Romans are created from a few Gospel words. These additions don't bother me. Christianity is 2,000 years of imagining, of build-your-own. From the 1st Century on the story of Christ has been an open call to fill-in-the-blanks. The four Gospels are thought to date from around 70 to 110 AD, and they contradict each other. (The earliest manuscripts of Mark don't even have a resurrection.) At best, they were written by eyewitnesses decades or generations later, and written not as history-- as, say, a Thucydides or Tacitus would write-- but as religious propaganda. At worst, the writers weren't eyewitnesses, but heard the story from others. And then their Gospels went through the Church's Gospel-winnowing process, which dismissed scores of other Gospels, canonized four-- and engaged in some rewrites and additions. (Please remember, that while the Gospels may have been written in the late 1st or early 2nd Centuries, the earliest surviving Gospel manuscript is the Rylands Papyrus [just a bit of John], from about 130-140 AD, and the earliest complete New Testament manuscripts-- the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus -- date from a little over three centuries after the crucifixion. Imagine that the earliest complete biography of George Washington was dated 2104, with nothing earlier than a few 20th Century fragments. And presented him as divine.)
There is no evidence that Jesus intended to found a Church, or establish a religion called "Christianity". That is the invention of others, after, especially Paul. Really, it is the invention of human hunger for transcendence, especially from death. In his book Jesus, Humphrey Carpenter says "Jesus's moral teaching (as we have it) does not in itself explain the degree of attention he attracted. We simply do not find in it sufficient reason for his being put to death, and for a new religion to grow up around his person." So the ultimate energy of the new religion would be the power of its God, worship of a superbeing for being super. As Paul put it so honestly: "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." (I Corinthians 15.14) That's the King James translation. The New English Bible, 2nd Edition, is even harsher: "...if Christ is not raised, then our Gospel is null and void." Giving the Teacher godliness, the teaching can then come along for the ride. This kind of superpower can't be portrayed on film, it is unconvincing, and is so here. What's left seems mortal to my eyes, and that's how it reaches me emotionally. The film could just as well have been titled: Ecce Homo.
Behold The Man. What I felt watching this film was the direct opposite of what a believer feels: sadness and pity for how humans suffer. Against all his beliefs, Gibson makes Christ one of us, soft mortal fruit. I had tears when Mary reaches him on the way to Golgotha and says "I'm here", as she does (in a flashback) to her child Jesus when he falls. And now he's a young man who thinks or half-thinks (it's unclear even in the Gospels) that he's divine or connected to divinity and as a result will learn a horrible lesson in his mortality and weakness, and his mother will have to watch it helplessly to the end, as mothers have watched their sons through all time. Christ's most powerful and pitiable and (if he's a God) incomprehensible utterance is "Eli, Eli, lama asavtani" (in the Aramaic), "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here is the desperate human chick breaking through the divine shell with one last cry.
A Gibson would say I don't get it, that if I see this as the sad story of a man I miss the essence. But he can't do anything to convince me, just impress me. This film is made in proud defiance of the way the world goes-- and that is heroic-- but the world goes on its way. The bulk of the human race has made its final judgment on Christianity, its fundamental incoherence and unbelievability, its nonintegration of man and God. It is why Christianity has so little presence in the great civilizations of China, Japan and India, why Europe a century or two hence will be Islamic, why America is increasingly secular. Indeed, Christianity today is at the stage where the classical paganism was in the 200's AD, still with its temples and priests and services and politicians publicly professing it and art in its behalf. I feel Gibson is gripping us by the neck and shouting " See!? See!? See what Jesus suffered!? I'll show it to you with such reality and power that you'll--"
Indeed, this is a great movie. But it's nothing more. He made the classic mistake of the artist, believing he could trump life if he could just get every detail right. But in fact, there is only one detail, and art has no command over it.
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