The countercultural Jesus
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Mel Gibson, USA, 2004, 9)
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross.”
— Richard Niebuhr, “The Kingdom of God in America”
Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is not a movie made according to the kind of Christian creed Niebuhr mockingly describes and that has become the dominant religion in this corner of Christendom. Hallelujah.
In fact, between this film and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming DOGVILLE, every one of those four “withouts” gets put through the wringer. Both my two favorite films of the year to date are religious movies that play up these “negative” countercultural features of the Christian faith that have been watered down in this era of Nice Jesus Who Affirms Us In Our Okayness. Gibson’s film is a film about man’s sin and Christ’s cross — viewed unsparingly and without sugar coating. If we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried,” then THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is about what we really mean by that sentence. Nothing else.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t flawless, in fact I was frankly surprised I was moved by the film as much as I was. But I was. The shivers went up and down my spine from the first appearance of Satan in Gethsemane and the tears flowed on several occasions (usually in concert with Mary’s IIRC … this is a very Marian Passion play). But my response was not preprogrammed. Jesus movies generally haven’t fared well with me — I really liked Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW and had a restrained admiration for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. But Nicholas Ray, Franco Zeffirelli and George Stevens left me tepid or downright cold, and let’s not even talk about the “Junk for Jesus”/straight-to-video schlock that some of us were exposed to in school. And Gibson’s previous directorial work (primarily BRAVEHEART) I found pompously overblown, overwrought, telegraphed and repetitive. Some of those flaws find their way into his latest work. And though I think Gibson’s flaws as a director mostly work for him, I will go to my grave thinking he could been more discriminate in his use of slo-mo and didn’t need quite so much music score mixed quite so loudly. Their overuse, like all forms of promiscuity, eventually dissipates some of their power when most needed and most-deeply intended.
But Gibson’s limitations, which produces movies that come across as self-important and grandiose on other projects, become strengths when applied to a Passion film, as if he’s found his project and his niche (think a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille). THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t a drama with a plot (it lacks the usual narrative hooks and assumes you know the basic story already), rather it’s more like a ritual — a real-time Stations of the Cross. If the Roman soldiers doing the scourging behave in a flamboyantly evil style, like the rednecks in DELIVERANCE, it serves to underline that this isn’t a story about some arrogant, privileged yuppies learning a lesson about intruding on nature. Nor are the Romans beating up some thieves. Or the English executing some foreign rebel. To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world’s sins, dammit. If any event deserves to be portrayed as Big, over-important, it’s this one. We’re seeing, at a certain level, an act of evil beyond comprehension and so cranking up the whipping to the infinitieth degree is the only way to make the scale of the point, given that Gibson is restricted to making a film featuring a mere man. Look at the contrast between Jesus’ body by the time He is crucified and those of the two thieves. If Jesus looks like the two thieves, the brutality is merely equal and thus the uniqueness of this suffering and death, what makes it the Atonement, is not shown.
*As works of art* (the only meaningful way to compare the Gospels to a movie that will be dust one day like everything else) the Gospels offer a different experience, though they have the bonus of a unique-for-all-time guarantee of infallibility. They’re very direct, unembroidered accounts (especially the first three), with minimal description — “Jesus was scourged” is about as detailed as it gets. But since the Passion is such a familiar story and has been done so many times, it’s reasonable to demand that an artist bring something new to it, some of the kind of embroidery absent from the Gospels, and that’s where film’s immediacy comes in.
Movies are concrete, particular, and veristic; while words tend to abstractify and conceptualize (which is a good thing, I hasten to add; it’s just a matter of how the different media operate). Gibson’s style, overblown as it is, produced for me something even the Gospels themselves don’t — being overwhelmed emotionally by the sensation that something extraordinary and world-historic is happening before my very eyes. And that’s the bell to try to ring if you’re gonna make a *film* of the Passion. A film can show the utter ruination of Christ’s body, something other media can only suggest. The Suffering Servant parable of Isaiah, which Gibson alludes to in the opening title card though not this particular verse, says that the Servant had “no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him” (Isaiah 53:2). We see what such a body looks like, what “the stripes by which we are healed” (the part he does quote, 53:5) look like.
Even the John and Matthew films I favorably cited are Gospel films, not Passion films. Gibson’s movie owes more to the tradition of Passion plays, a centuries-old genre that cinema has generally shied away from but *is* the genre of one of the greatest movies of all time — Carl Theodor Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which I deliberately watched again the day before seeing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. While Dreyer, who is ten times the director Gibson is (that isn’t an insult … Dreyer is ten times the director pretty much anyone is), doesn’t amp up the violence like Gibson does, he certainly went for the same effect — a single-minded, compressed appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Dreyer just amped up the feeling in other ways. JOAN is one of the most aggressively eccentric films ever made — shot almost entirely in closeup against white backgrounds, with odd angles and compositions, strange camera movements and montages, chosen for subjective involvement above even logical sense. Much of Dreyer’s drama is contained in the actors’ makeup-free faces, shot like bas reliefs on a wall, and those faces are usually something less than serene. Even when they are serene, the film’s out-of-scale close-ups greatly magnify small details like the path of a tear and a blizzard of sputtered spit.
The entire genre of the Passion play was never intended as a “life of Christ” primer any more than one week’s Mass is the whole liturgical year or one TV episode the whole season. Dreyer tells us nothing about the Hundred Years War and we never see the Dauphin. The genre simply assumes you know something about the Bible (and it once could) in order to get more out of it than the bald events, which aren’t on the surface very interesting otherwise. There are only a few short moments presented as the import of it all — but they’re there.
One of the earliest lines of dialog is Satan taunting Jesus at Gethsemane that no man could bear the burden of all the sins of all men. It’s too much. Jesus shrinks from the prospect, but then crushes a serpent, the symbol of Satan’s reign in the world, and proceeds to do just that — to take on, according to the Father’s will, the sins of the whole world. Q: How can a mere man tolerate this? A: He was no mere man — both again justifying the hyperviolent quality of the film, but also giving us a Jesus worth following to the ends of the Earth and dying to self for, rather than just a teacher whose homilies we can take or leave at will as they suit us.
This extremity also plays with our identification. Jesus’ superhuman endurance, along with His lack of speech, make it hard to “identify with” Him in the usual sense. Instead, Gibson cuts away from Jesus (far more than he’s given credit for) to give us plenty of shots of the people who see Jesus — Mary primarily, with subsidiary roles for Peter, Judas, Pilate and Simon of Cyrene. The dominant identification, I think, is to associate with how they react to Him, to see the meaning of His suffering and how they do or do not contribute to it, more than to Christ’s suffering itself. This is Gibson’s (and the Church’s) point about how we all crucified Christ. If we identify too closely with Jesus and see ourself in Him, then we’d kinda miss the point. Everybody but Mary contributes in some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas’ betrayal; the Temple Jews’ accusation; the disciples’ abandonment; Peter’s denials; Herod’s insouciance; Pilate’s condemnation; the crowd’s mockery; and finally the soldiers’ executing Him. And Satan remains behind the whole action — floating above and through it, and motivating the people.
When watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the first time I remember the tears flowing over my eyes came with Peter’s denials — something I’ve read, referred to or seen represented a thousand times, but in terms of making that denial convincing as something *you* might do, there’s just no substitute for actually *seeing* a threatening, angry mob constructed as Other (and constructing you as Other). Just words on a page, or just a few people milling about, or a Hyde Park soapbox crowd instead of a lynch mob, just won’t do. Since we live in basically a risk-free environment today, it’s easy for us to say “I’d never deny a friend” and so look down on Peter. Well, no. That’s part of the reason I had such scorn for the ADL’s whining that the Jerusalem mob was threatening … well, duh. How could it have made a man deny his rabbi three times if it weren’t?
There was also an uncanny event that I’ll remember forever. The church I had gone to for Ash Wednesday Mass had some nails set up in the vestibule and you were encouraged to take one as you left for keeping with you during Lent and nailing it into a cross on Good Friday. I kept that nail in my pocket and it began to lie against my thigh a little uncomfortably just at the point of the film where they arrive at Calvary. So I fished the nail out of my pocket and held it in my hand, fingering it and fiddling with it, for the rest of the film. Partly for comfort’s sake obviously, but holding a nail during the last 30 minutes conspicuously underlined and, as a sacramental, reminded me of the role I played in the crucifixion being depicted.
Gibson personalizes the Passion both through that kind of visceral concreteness, the sacramental quality of his images, and through the liturgical points made in the flashbacks. They don’t really fill in backstory as much as tell us what all this gore is the implicit culmination of. The Passion is what the Gospels had been leading up to.
For example, the late Last Supper flashbacks are rhymed with the spearing of Jesus’ side and the resulting contemporary-Hollywood arterial spray. So when Jesus picks up the wine and says “this is my blood … it will be shed for you,” the same words the priest says every Sunday, THIS is what “shedding blood” means. Similar flashbacks take us from Calvary to the breaking of bread. It’s as if Jesus “remembers” the Last Supper even as he enacts the eucharistic sacrifice it both establishes and memorializes. Unlike most of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the Sermon on the Mount “love your enemies” admonition is shot in the usual Biblical Epic style, but it occurs as they arrive at Calvary, and after we’re already been through the streets and the scourging. It’s a way of saying THIS is what this admonition means, His command is neither abstract nor easy and no man could be exactly faulted for not wanting to live up to it or failing to do so.
As I say, the brutality’s very unendurability and relentlessness, taken in human terms, is pretty much the point. And it’s what gives force to the Sermon on the Mount … what makes it Commandments from a God rather than admonitions from a man. THIS was your ransom, a ransom only a God could or would pay. There’s also a raindrop effect that I don’t want to spoil beyond saying it puts God’s sovereignty and the universe itself in His tears, like in John 3:16. The resurrection itself is just one quick shot that’s barely long enough to qualify as an afterthought. The words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” come right after Caiaphas is shown at the Cross. A critic coming to the movie looking for anti-Semitism would notice Caiaphas’ appearance but somehow ignore what Jesus says.
Which is a longwinded way of saying that I believe THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST really works only if the viewer at least provisionally believes that Christianity is true — suspends disbelief in the same way viewers of comic-book movies allow for the purposes of the film that the sun’s yellow rays can give an alien super strength, x-ray vision and all that. Now this is obviously easier for those of us who do believe it’s all true, and my own Catholicism obviously predisposed me to liking this movie. But what infuriates me about many of the negative reviews THE PASSION is getting is that they are coming from a stance that is at least implicitly anti-Christian (certainly non-Christian) but usually doesn’t acknowledge itself as such (or even as a point-of-view). These critics simply would not or could not suspend disbelief — citations coming in the next couple of days.
There’s been a lot of talk in churches and the Catholic blogosphere and other Christian sites about THE PASSION being a great “teachable moment” in evangelizing a world that has turned away from Christ. And quickie books and pamphlets on the Passion are being published and whatnot. I have my doubts (actually, I have more than mere doubts) of this film’s effectiveness in terms of converting hardcore or convicted non-Christians. I think its impact will be much stronger with genially, uncritically lapsed Christians and in deepening the conversion of those of us who, while practicing, affirming and following Him, are not doing so as well as we should strive to do. Lord knows that’s a great achievement in itself and it doesn’t affect my emotional experience of the film. But I persist in believing this not-exactly-but-almost “preaching to the choir” aspect of THE PASSION to be an imperfection.
Maia Morgenstern as Mary gives by far the movie’s best performance. In fact most of the film’s best moments, as cinema, are scenes she dominates — this is a movie that only a mackerel-snapper like Gibson could have made. For starters, there’s the film’s second-last shot, not just a Pieta, but one that has Mary looking right at the viewer as if to say “look what you did to my son.” It frankly overshadows the rather rote and low-key Resurrection that follows it. There’s also a scene that combines the 3rd and 4th Stations of the Cross, where Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and a lying-in-wait Mary runs up an alley to see Jesus. It flashes back to Jesus as a boy and Mary saying something banal in the earlier context and heartbreaking when she says it in the current one. Then there’s a few short shots of Mary following Jesus by walking down one side of the street while Satan walks down the other. It’s like a kind of pas-de-deux, pairing the two black-hooded women in opposition.
The movie’s other outstanding performance was Hristo Shopov as Pilate, who’s played as the most-modern man in the movie — a bureaucrat who acts from prudence in this to him confusing inter-Jewish quarrel in which he ain’t got no dog. Shopov plays him in the very opposite register from his flamboyantly evil droogs that do the whippings — annoyed, well-meaning, but utterly ruthless in the end as long as he gets to wash his hands. The contrast of evils is brilliant — he’s Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil presiding over some evil Snidely Whiplashes.
The two biggest names in the cast do not quite so well. Monica Bellucci is mostly just wasted as Mary Magdelene. And then there’s Jim Caviezel as Jesus. To compare him to Falconetti in Dreyer’s JOAN movie is unfair (the films’ direction and what is demanded of them as actors is so different that you’d be better off comparing two athletes playing different sports). Caviezel plays this conception of Jesus as well as you can, but there isn’t much there for an actor to do but simply “be.” For the last 100 minutes of THE PASSION, he has to give his performance with one good eye. But his left eye is about the only body part he has in good working order from beginning to end, and it does give a fine performance, mixing defiance and serenity in its gaze.
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