There’s something startling about this Jesus, even to someone like me who doesn’t perceive the very notion of toying with Jesus’ image as blasphemous. It’s his humanity, his fallibility and imperfection—mirrored in the imperfections of Scorsese’s film—that makes him such a compelling figure, and such a challenge to conventional religious representations. The same goes for the film’s Judas, who in terms of the theology surrounding him seems to be derived from certain Gnostic traditions like the Cainites, a sect that believed Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was a deeply spiritual act in fulfillment of God’s plan. That’s one of the film’s core themes, this gap between appearances and reality, between Judas’ seeming betrayal and his actual importance as an instrument of God’s will, without whom Jesus’ sacrifice could not take place. It’s a very humanistic interpretation of the Scriptures, then, especially in comparison to Gibson’s version, where Judas gets hounded to a macabre death by demonic sprites as punishment for his betrayal. Scorsese’s film, following its source novel, redeems Judas and suggests that God would not design a plan that requires a man, one of his son’s followers, to lose his soul in the process.
JB: I would agree with all of that. To expand on it a bit further, what’s interesting about Last Temptation’s atypical portrayals of Jesus and Judas isn’t just that they reveal how ingrained Christianity is in our culture, but also that they reveal how culture has helped to define Christianity. What I mean is this: A fundamentalist Christian might object to Last Temptation’s interpretation of Judas because there’s little to no direct evidence in the Bible that would support it. Fair point. Then again, the Bible has conflicting accounts of how Judas died (the Gospel of Matthew says he hanged himself, while the Acts of the Apostles says he died of a fall), while only Matthew explicitly details the bounty of 30 pieces of silver (although at least Matthew is believed to a be a direct witness to Jesus’ life, which is more than Mark and Luke can say), and only Mark and Luke explicitly suggest that Judas was consumed by Satan when he betrayed Jesus (talk about dramatic license; these guys weren’t even there and now they’re reading Judas’ mind!). The more one looks to the Bible for answers, the more elusive the answers seem to be. So it’s worth asking: Why has Judas and his little bag of blood money become such an indelible image of Christian iconography? Is it because Matthew writes a damn good Gospel? Or is it because he had help, from—among others—Leonardo da Vinci and The Last Supper?
For the moment, at least, this takes us back to The Passion, which portrays the Stations of the Cross, even though some of the vignettes have no biblical support. As you said earlier, the Stations are depicted on the walls of many (mostly Catholic) churches, but they are essentially more a part of religious culture than they are a part of the religion itself, if you take my meaning. Likewise, the almost universally recognizable image of Jesus—bearded, white-skinned and sinewy—isn’t a product of the Bible but of art. We could go down this road forever, but you get the idea. My point here isn’t to undermine Christianity or insult believers. My point is that when we encounter an atypical presentation of Jesus’ life, the complaint that’s often raised is, “That’s not what happened,” when really the objection should be, “That’s not the way we’ve chosen to remember it.” Again, let’s be clear: Last Temptation’s depiction of Judas directly and blatantly defies some descriptions from the Bible. But the film’s Jesus, on the other hand, frequently behaves in seemingly unusual ways that, as it turns out, the Bible in no way contradicts. The Bible, you see, is quite vague. Last Temptation uses that vagueness to very logical ends that make its Jesus as convincingly human as I’ve ever seen. The Passion capitalizes on that vagueness, too, albeit to some more troubling ends.
EH: Your points about biblical vagueness bring to mind the cartoonist Chester Brown, who at one point was working his way through interpretations of the Gospels in comics form. These adaptations were, in terms of text and sequence of events, relatively faithful to the letter of the scripture—and yet in being so scrupulously faithful, without the ornamentation or filling-in-the-blanks that often goes on in Christian mythologizing, these comics present a strange vision of a cold, hard, angry Jesus that seems very unfamiliar. Not to mention, by adapting each Gospel in turn (a project he’s unfortunately abandoned, it seems), Brown was pointing out the surprising number of inconsistencies and differences in these four takes on the same basic story, including the shifts in Jesus’ personality from one tale to the next. Last Temptation is similarly aware of the perils of biblical interpretation, even if Scorsese and Kazantzakis take the opposite approach, abandoning scrupulous faithfulness to allow for imaginative diversions. They’re highlighting just how much of what we understand about these ancient, religiously significant events is filtered and shaped by history and culture. At one point in the film, Saul/Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) tells Jesus that even if he didn’t go through with his sacrifice, Paul would continue to preach as though he did. In its subtle way, this is perhaps the most blasphemous suggestion in the film, the idea that the hope and comfort provided by religious conviction is perhaps more important than the literal truth.
Also implicit in the film is the selectiveness of most biblical readings, which shape narratives around certain details and omit others; any understanding of Jesus’ life, certainly, has to be formed out of a composite picture from the four Gospels, which can’t be easily reconciled with one another. The film’s Gnostic conception of Judas is similarly a reminder of the Bible’s formation from a loose collection of texts into a definitive canon. People forget, or never knew in the first place, that the Bible is not a singular entity but was formed, basically, by various religious figures voting texts in or out of the book at various times—those voted out are deemed “heretical” today, like the recently discovered Gospel of Judas that more or less conforms to the Scorsese/Kazantzakis Judas.
With all that in mind, I think it’s absolutely hilarious that The Passion, in contrast, presents itself like a definitive Bible interpretation, not entirely faithful—there are several points at which Gibson adds his own diversions from biblical texts—but with an aura of serious scholarship that Scorsese carefully avoids. Gibson made his film in Aramaic and Latin, and initially wanted to release it without even English subtitles, which would have been the ultimate act of ascetic faithfulness. Gibson takes every one-line allusion from the Bible—like the Gospels’ extremely cursory account of Jesus’ whipping—and expands it, visualizes it, lingers on what he imagines the gory details would have been. Whether Gibson intended this or not, the film assumes a pose of authority and, as you intimated earlier, certainty: the concrete “this is what happened” of history. I’m reminded of the possibly apocryphal remark that the Pope may or may not have ascribed to this film: “It is as it was.”
That’s nonsense, of course. What I like so much about Scorsese’s film is how completely it recognizes the impossibility of presenting an unfiltered, accurate portrait of Jesus—so instead Last Temptation digs into the emotions and themes surrounding the idea of Jesus. Gibson doesn’t have that perspective or that depth. His film’s aims are much baser: to incite the fear of Hell, to wallow in blood and guts in service to a supposed spirituality that never really appears in the film itself, to strip the humanity and relatability from Jesus, replacing these qualities with an abstracted void. The film indulges in vile caricatures—including the big-nosed, snaggle-toothed Jewish Sanhedrin that so enraged many of the filmís detractors—and assaults its audience with its garish violence. It is a thoroughly unpleasant experience with no real heft behind its grotesqueries. Is that what you mean by its “troubling ends?”
JB: Yep. That’s pretty much it. I mean, you’ve listed as “aims” a few things that in actuality are probably unintended consequences (I doubt Gibson means for Jesus to be “an abstracted void,” for example), but the rest of it is right. The extremeness of the violence is particularly troubling. Is it mentioned in the Bible? Yes. To a point. It says Jesus was “scourged.” And from that one word, we get one of the film’s longest set pieces, one in which Jesus is first caned and then scourged, with the metal teeth of the whip gripping into flesh thanks to CGI. First we see Jesus’ back ripped to shreds. Then he is flipped over so that his chest can be equally ravaged—most likely because once Jesus gets up on the cross we won’t get to ogle his back wounds. Over and over again, Gibson colors the space between the black and white of the Bible’s words with blood. Blood on Jesus’ back, chest, arms, legs and feet. Blood that stains the stones on the ground. Blood that runs down the cross. Blood that spurts from the wound in Jesus’ side and sprays over a soldier in a misty rain.
Make no mistake, this is done in an attempt to fulfill the film’s mission statement. Just as Last Temptation begins with a quote, so does The Passion: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our inequities; by His wounds we are healed.” As I suggested earlier, according to this design, every crack of the whip, every punch, every nail, every thorn is a record of humankind’s sins. I’ve also argued that I think The Passion takes a reductive view of Jesus that shows him to be more of a physical warrior than a spiritual one. (No wonder Cassidy recommends the movie to Randy “The Ram” in The Wrestler.) Beyond all of that, though, I think the violence eventually reaches a level where even Gibson’s aim is lost. The violence is so grotesque and stylized that, as you said, The Passion feels akin to a Saw film, at least for a while. Before Jesus can reach Golgotha, however, The Passion’s violence trends toward Looney Toons. It’s relentless and, while certainly not meant to make us laugh, it’s empty—so much so that by the time Jesus makes it onto the crucifix, the barrage of physical abuse makes it difficult to remember why he was carrying the cross on his shoulders in the first place. In these moments, The Passion is less like a tribute to Jesus than a condemnation of mankind.
Maybe it’s that way by design. The Passion is frequently eager to place blame, which is part of the reason that so many people come away from it feeling that it possesses an anti-Semitic streak; Gibson uses The Passion as a magnifying glass to reveal a multitude of Jewish fingerprints covering the handle of the proverbial smoking gun that killed Jesus. Such vilification of the Jews is considered unfashionable and beside the point by many Christians today, and yet it would be dishonest to imply that The Passion’s depictions aren’t, for the most part, backed up by some comparatively detailed passages of the New Testament. Then again, examination of The Passion’s treatment of the Jews shouldn’t be limited to its narrative details—paying Judas, bringing Jesus to Pontius Pilate, inciting the mob, etc. One should also consider the film’s cinematic compositions, in which the Jewish high priests are frequently bathed in shadow, or shown hunched over on their staffs in vulture-like poses while wearing sinister expressions reminiscent of Snideley Whiplash. The Jewish architects of Jesus’ torture and execution are unequivocally evil in this film, even if you don’t read the subtitles, and their villainy is reinforced by the unusually flattering portrayal of Pontius Pilate, who here seems to be a swell working man just trying to do his job (one of a few Romans in this film who match that description, actually). As usual, the hype and backlash surrounding the film’s release probably overstated the degree to which Gibson himself is responsible for these interpretations. Nevertheless, when the Jewish high priests are the only ones who come and go from Golgotha on undignified braying donkeys, the filmmaker seems to be making some less than flattering notes in the margin.
EH: Yes, and they ride up expressly in order to leer at Jesus’ suffering, bouncing away on their donkeys only when they’re satisfied that he’s going to die. That said, it’d be easy to let Gibson off the hook for this stuff. The film’s narrative does follow the New Testament pretty closely, and even the exculpation of Pontius Pilate has its origins in a Bible verse, from the Gospel of John, that Gibson quotes in the film: “You could have no power at all against me, except it were given you from above: therefore he that delivered me to you has the greater sin.” That line is one source of the anti-Semitic tone of many Passion plays, because it suggests that while Pilate is more or less a lackey with little free will of his own, the Jewish leaders are the real bad guys of the story. To be fair, Gibson’s defenders have never failed to point out that he does include sympathetic Jews as well: Simon, who carries the cross for Jesus; the woman who wipes Jesus’ face after he falls; the few dissenting voices among the Sanhedrin who protest the show trial.
But this defense seems kind of hollow to me; it’s a “some of my best friends are Jews” defense. The film’s positive depictions of some Jews are ultimately more than overwhelmed by the “vulture-like” Jews who preside over Jesus’arrest and trial, who pretty much force Pilate, against his wishes, to sentence Jesus to death. It’s hard to know how much of this subtext Gibson intended, and how much he simply inherited, without critical thought, from the legacy of the Passion play, which has historically been a tool of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda for exactly the reasons we’re citing here. I doubt that Gibson was unaware of this history, and even if he didn’t intend for his villainous Sanhedrin to incite feelings of anti-Semitism, he was at the very least irresponsible in exploiting these ideas and caricatures in such a straight-faced way.
At the same time, it’s possible that the film isn’t even so much anti-Semitic as it is anti-humanist. I think you may be onto something when you describe the film’s effect as “a condemnation of mankind.” The Passion is a never-ending cavalcade of violence, but in many ways it is also a parade of despicable humans. There’s the foppish King Herod (Luca de Dominicis), an obvious gay caricature, accompanied by his court of debauchers. There are crowds of people, presumably mostly Jews roused by the Sanhedrin, shouting for Jesus’ death, even after Pilate hauls out a staggering, bloodied Jesus in an attempt to get the mob to say enough is enough. Gibson even occasionally highlights a member of the mob, and it’s invariably some grinning old lunatic with pointed, gap-filled teeth and a wild look in his eyes. Then there are the Roman soldiers, who whip Jesus with such delight as Jesus just gets bloodier and bloodier, and the blood spreads out in Pollockian smears beneath him. One walks away from this film thinking that everyone must be a sadist at heart.
JB: He does seem to be making that suggestion, and the question is, “Why?” I see several possibilities: (1) Given that Jesus is an acted-upon figure within the film’s narrow scope, Gibson figures the best way to illustrate Jesus’ grace is to contrast his inert bloody pulp with the viciousness of those around him; (2) Gibson, ever mindful that he’s making a movie, shaves away any complexity in order to deliver a marketable “good guy vs. bad guys” product; (3) Gibson really does believe that, at least comparatively speaking, we’re all despicable and cruel. On that last point: Gibson’s one appearance in the film is as an anonymous Roman soldier who nails Jesus’ hands to the cross—a cameo that Tarantino might have done to be darkly cute, but that I suspect Gibson does as some kind of penance. Who knows?
As easy as I find it to dismiss so much of The Passion’s overblown grotesqueries (the blood) and brutalities (the punching, kicking, spitting and even yelling), I can’t deny that the torrent of cringe-inducing images has at least one positive effect: they instill the flashbacks to Jesus’ earlier life with a tranquil, magnanimous elegance. That’s significant because, as we noted, those flashbacks are just thumbnail sketches that cue one’s previous understanding of these events rather than fully developing them. Some of the flashbacks are unnecessary (Mary remembering when Jesus was being picked on as a child and she rushed to protect him) and others are downright curious (Jesus invented the modern table? Really?), but the intervention with the adulteress and the Last Supper are quite poignant despite being delivered to us without any kind of narrative buildup or warning. The work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel on this picture doesn’t rival his efforts in The Black Stallion or The Natural, but his compositions are often striking. To go from the cold, bloody images of Jesus on the cross to the warm, glowing images of Jesus at the Last Supper is indeed to feel we are being wrapped in a heavenly blanket of light and love. It’s a familiar tableau— aesthetically and emotionally—but it does seem, yeah, holy. That’s a feeling that Scorsese’s picture never quite attains in full.
EH: First off, I agree that the cinematography in The Passion is often striking. All that blood and gore gets numbing pretty quickly, but that doesn’t mean that certain images—like that overhead shot of the scene of the whipping, after Jesus has been dragged away and the ground is stained with splotchy red streaks like an abstract painting—aren’t compelling, even beautiful in a certain awful way. Gibson never maintains this aesthetic potency for very long, and the film has little else to offer, but I’ll take what I can get if I’m going to suffer through this monstrosity. That said, I don’t feel the holiness or warmth that you apparently do in those flashback scenes. To me, they seem like perfunctory references, and no matter how competently shot they are, there’s nothing there that suggests anything more than a nice shot.