There is a scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ where the crowd outside Pontius Pilate’s palace must choose to free Jesus Christ or a tongue-smacking, raving killer who might as well be a distant relative of the Tazmanian Devil. At times the film recalls a bad sketch comedy, with actors trying to desperately transcend their respective characters’ singular dimensions, but only during this one scene does this struggle transcend Gibson’s cartoonish representation of good and evil. This educational, primitive evocation of how deep the hatred for Jesus went evokes the simple-minded allure of the Bible stories I was raised on as a child. Sadly, this is something that doesn’t carry into the rest of the film: an inhuman, pornographic, masochistic torture mechanism—a product of aggressive Catholic guilt that should have been born out of love instead.
Passion is a dangerous accumulation of political signs and stereotypes. Satan is represented in the film as an androgynous woman and her minions are deformed children of different sizes. Herod is a flaming Caligula. The Jews are leering and blood-thirsty. This is something that can’t be ignored, and I say this because the film doesn’t live and breathe Jesus as much as it does the hang-ups of its true auteur (its Creator, if you will): Mel Gibson. Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín similarly wears its director’s spiritual baggage, but it’s also a daring, humanist study of the very masochism that remains unaddressed in Gibson’s film (not to mention, how it continues to eat away at the Catholic church). Is Passion anti-Semitic? Christians will turn to the Gospels to defend this accusation, and Jews will recall the way passion plays have been used to oppress their people throughout time. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The Jews in the film are ghouls, and though Passion doesn’t explicitly inspire violence against them, the masochistic quality of Gibson’s images is another thing altogether. I’m troubled by the angry tone of retribution that underscores every image in the film, this feeling of “you’ll get yours” recompense that threatens to crack the matrix of time and space well before Jesus’s death summons the ire of his father. The film’s final moments are implicitly vindictive, and there’s a “boo-yah!”-ness to the way Christ exits the tomb that suggests The Passion of Christ: Lethal Weapon. I have no problems with the real Jesus; he was all about love. It’s this high-octane representation that troubles me, and it’s obvious that Gibson has a cross to bear.
Martin Scorsese celebrated Christ’s humanity and teachings in his clunky but moving The Last Temptation of Christ. Is he the Son of God, or is he being tested by Satan? The meta of the film was the very first Messianic complex, and as such Jesus’s journey becomes one of acceptance—by film’s end, he accepts not only his role as a man, but his role as a savior. In Scorsese’s film, Satan tempts Jesus in the form of a blond, Aryan child—a deceptive symbol of untainted purity. Gibson doesn’t even understand the seductive allure of temptation. Not only is the devil a woman, she talks like a man (gender-bending = bad) and holds a deformed midget in her arms (deformity = really bad). Life is sexy, mysterious, confusing, but where Scorsese and Buñuel make Christ work for his enlightenment, Gibson makes things easy for his stick figure. His symbolism is thick and woefully obvious. Rather than seduce Jesus with something pretty but poisonous inside, he taunts him with what is obviously lethal, and in essence does all the work for Jesus.
You get a sense while watching the film that Gibson would flog each and every one of us if it brought us closer to God. This is spiritual enlightenment via pain. Gibson doesn’t appeal to us as spiritual beings, nor does he attempt to touch us intellectually or philosophically, like Andrei Tarkovsky and Pier Paolo Pasolini did in Andrei Rublev and The Gospel of St. Matthew, respectively. He merely punches us in the gut. Aesthetically, the film is rotten to the core, and I blame the years and years Gibson spent making bad movies for that: the little demon children (Chris Cunningham’s “Come To Daddy” anyone?), the needless slow-mo (all that’s missing is a Matrix-style, bullet-time F/X show), and the misguided satanic imagery.
The problem with presenting a film about Christ sans context (sorry, but spurious flashbacks to the Last Supper don’t count) is that you create a film without human dimensions. I expected, even welcomed, an extremist work of context-free, literalist fundamentalism. Except for a startling montage that evokes Mary’s failure to take care of Jesus the way she used to when he was a child, there’s no love in Passion. Gibson has said in interviews that he wanted to “shock” audiences, and as such Passion unravels as a high-art snuff film for the actor/director’s fundamentalist choir. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except I think there are healthier, more profound ways of psychologically connecting Christians to the death of their savior.
I understand the need for some Christians to defend Passion. I know this is a film some people need, expect this is not a film that appeals to the human spirit, but to primitive, base notions of aesthetic truth and retribution, not unlike Peter Mulan’s anti-Catholic agitprop The Magdalene Sisters. Passion is a film that appears to have been made for those who believe God is an angry, vengeful deity, and as such I challenge Christians to reject this film and embrace a film like Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s devastating The Son instead. It’s a profoundly moving testament to Christian forgiveness, which philosophically and compassionately studies violence instead of using it as an act of mass-cultural oppression.