The hints of Gibson’s concerns that occasionally burble up through the unrelenting blood and beatings are troubling, too. Perhaps the most interesting example is the story of the two criminals crucified at the same time as Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, one of these men is described as insulting Jesus, mocking him, while the other defends him and chastises the other criminal for failing to recognize Jesus’ holy aura. Jesus tells the latter criminal that, because of this redemption, he will ascend to Heaven upon his death. This is, from a Christian perspective, a very important story, a powerful demonstration of the concept of forgiveness, the idea that even a lifetime of crime and sin can be redeemed by a moment of decency and faith. Gibson includes this scene, as does Scorsese, but Gibson puts his own twist on it by following it up with a shot where a crow lands atop the cross of the “bad” criminal and pecks at his eyes and face. It’s a very harrowing image that, as far as I know, doesn’t come from any scriptural source. In fact, it seems to be the dark flipside of the story’s message of forgiveness, suggesting that what Gibson takes away from this episode is not a positive “do good and you’ll be rewarded with eternity,” but a negative “don’t do good and you’ll be tormented.” Moreover, Gibson seemingly couldn’t resist inflicting his own cinematic punishment on the criminal who failed to repent; the insert with the crow has a tone of vengeful bloodlust that runs absolutely counter to the themes of forgiveness and redemption that are so central to the New Testament. It’s suggestive of Gibson’s very cynical perspective on this material, an exclusionist approach to religion that’s most reminiscent of those vile Jack Chick comic pamphlets where non-believers are subjected to eternal punishment for failing to make the “right” choices about religion.
That, to me, says it all about the difference between these two films. While Scorsese is inviting everyone in, suggesting that everyone, Jesus included, wrestles with (or perhaps should wrestle with) questions about spirituality and faith, Gibson is positing a Jesus who’s less about “love thy neighbor” than “you’re with me or you’re against me.” Scorsese’s film adds to the discussion, suggests ideas to consider. The Passion, in contrast, if anything tries to shut down such conversation, to replace it with unquestioning acceptance and a crow ready to pluck out the eyes of those who dissent.
JB: I don’t disagree at all with the last part, and yet I doubt that you’d disagree with me that the dangerousness of dissent is preached—overtly or implicitly—by numerous Christian sects, not just fundamentalist or fringe ones. I’m grateful to say that my religious upbringing was free from fear-mongering by those at the pulpit, and yet even the most positive-minded Christian sects, churches or preachers are being disingenuous if they suggest that the promise of eternity means anything without the threat of some kind of doom. That is, the carrot isn’t a motivator without the stick, or at least without the threat of starvation. Under those terms, I’d argue that the crow scene in The Passion is, while not factual to the Bible, entirely faithful to its underlying themes. Because if the message is that one criminal can atone with a moment of decency toward Jesus, isn’t it insincere to ignore that the lesson the other criminal learns is “Donít fuck with Jesus?” True, in the Bible, the unrepentant criminal’s moment of reckoning is merely implied. Gibson’s film confronts his fate, portrays it, calls a spade a spade. (Last Temptation does this, too, in other ways we’ll get to later.) Granted, I think the crow scene also reveals Gibson’s immature streak and his bloodlust. He doesn’t handle it in the most artful of ways. But to dismiss it as counter to the themes of the New Testament is, I think, to ignore that if the meek shall inherit the earth, some others won’t.
So when you say that Last Temptation is about “how difficult it is to do God’s will when God seems to want something really terrifying and challenging from us,” I say that The Passion is about exactly the same thing. In that regard, the only differences between the two interpretations are their elements of terror and challenge. In Scorsese’s film the challenges for Jesus are to accept who he is, to forgo a “normal” life, to forgo “normal” human relationships (including but not limited to sex) and to, at the end of all that, accept that he must sacrifice himself and endure physical suffering on the way to that sacrifice. Gibson’s film, on the other hand, limits the challenge only to the final physical act. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those other challenges don’t exist for Jesus, but Gibson certainly doesn’t explore them. As I said earlier, I find Scorsese’s version much more challenging and complex. Gibson essentially reduces Jesus to an action hero. His triumph is less spiritual than physical. Still, it isn’t void of spiritualism. Gibson’s film suggests that the physical suffering of Jesus is an intrinsic part of his sacrifice, apparently the most significant part. The implication is that the incredible physical punishment Jesus endures is symbolic of the sins of mankind that he absorbs. In my mind, this is a reductive view of Jesus. Perhaps Gibson felt that by abusing his character like no character had been abused before that he would best evoke the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. But Scorsese’s film suggests that having nails driven through his hands and feet was the least of the trauma Jesus endured. I admire that about Scorsese’s film, and I identify with that reading. And yet I don’t think Gibson’s film lacks “real ideas.” It just that his interpretation of the Bible is different than ours, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
EH: I see your points, and I don’t want to dismiss Gibson’s film merely because I disagree with his interpretations and perspectives on these things. But I think it’s telling that you describe Gibson’s Jesus as an “action hero” and call the director’s understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice “reductive.” That rings true to me, especially when Gibson depicts Jesus’ resurrection as if he’s setting up an action-packed sequel. This is what I’m getting at, really. Sure, Gibson’s “fear-mongering” approach to biblical interpretation just rubs me the wrong way, and would even if the film was more satisfying on other levels, but more than that I object to the film’s essential emptiness, to its aesthetic vacancy, and to its streak of nastiness and grotesquerie. I think you make a good point about the criminal episode, in that Gibson’s addition of the crow does get at something that’s already implicit in the original biblical text. It’s the way he does it that’s the problem. I mean, if Gibson’s “immature streak and…bloodlust” aren’t “counter to the themes of the New Testament,” then what is? It’s not that Gibson is making a totally out-there point, in religious terms—he’s saying that if you do bad, you’ll be punished—but he’s doing it with such obvious glee, taking such clear pleasure in the criminal’s pain and punishment that it contradicts the spirit of the Scriptures if not the text.
There’s another thing about this film: at times Gibson’s treatment of this material is downright bizarre. Just look at the way he occasionally has a bald-headed, Nosferatu-like Satan strolling casually through the scene, holding a creepy little demonic baby at one point, or melodramatically screaming “noooooo” when he realizes that Jesus has completed his sacrifice at the end of the film. It’s silly and inconsequential, the work of a director who doesn’t have the artistic instincts to convey anything of substance about his chosen subject, even if it’s a subject that’s obviously very dear to him. There are flashes of compelling visuals—the snake sidewinding towards a prone Jesus at the beginning of the film—but even these are often betrayed by Gibson’s goofy sense of melodrama. I’m thinking especially of that striking overhead shot of the crucifixion site at the moment of Jesus’ death—a shot that’s then nearly ruined by a single CGI raindrop falling from the sky. I bring these things up to reinforce that my distaste for The Passion is not predicated solely on my distaste for Gibson’s religious ideas: I’m equally dismayed by his aesthetics.
JB: I understand that. But, at the risk of being too repetitive, some of those aesthetic decisions are perfectly in line with Gibson’s religious mindset. As you said earlier, Gibson is certainly cynical about the material, and thus the recurring presence of Satan drives home the point that evil, sin and corruption are everywhere. When Satan watches Jesus during the scourging scene, it suggests that the easiest thing for Jesus to do would be to become hateful of his torturers. Satan strolls through the scene tempting Jesus without a word, as if to say, “I’m here when you need me, when you’re ready to join the Dark Side.” Again, my own religious upbringing was more positive. It was about trying to live up to the model of Jesus rather than trying to avoid the clutches of Satan. Truth is, I can’t remember the Devil ever being brought up at great length in any sermon or class lecture. And yet, again, there are the Pat Robertsons of the world (extreme example, I know) who try to use fear to keep people in line. Clearly, Gibson is a fearful Christian, and so perhaps it makes perfect sense that the guy who starred in Lethal Weapon and Braveheart would imagine Jesus as the ultimate “I can take everything you dish out” badass.
To some degree, then, it could be argued that what you see as exaggerated, someone with a more doomsday view of Christianity might see as merely faithful. And yet I think it’s also true that Gibson’s aesthetics can be less evocative of Christianity than of cinema, and not in a good Quentin Tarantino kind of way. As you said, Satan is reminiscent of Nosferatu; Jesus seems like an action hero; the demonic cherub-like creatures seem like something out of a B-movie horror flick; the flaming King Herod seems modeled after Josh Mostel’s performance in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar; and, as I implied above, sometimes the battle between good and evil seems less Jesus-Satan than Skywalker-Vader. But as soon as I find myself ready to dismiss The Passion as goofy, I think, well, maybe it’s genius. Though Gibson’s picture has obvious appeal to the devout, perhaps it’s also clever propaganda for the uninitiated. What better way to make this ancient character seem relevant than to portray him as a cinematic action hero? In that way The Passion reminds me of those National Guard commercials that appear at many multiplexes. Cut to seem like trailers for the next Jerry Bruckheimer picture, their implicit message is that by joining the National Guard one can become an action hero, a movie star. Likewise, The Passion suggests something along the lines of: If you thought Rambo was tough, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
EH: Excellent—although maybe the more salient Sly Stallone comparison is Rocky, able to take the punches and keep on staggering along, covered in blood. In comparison, Scorsese’s Jesus, as played by Willem Dafoe, is more like a Woody Allen character: neurotic, plagued by doubt, obsessed with sex even though he knows he can’t, or shouldn’t, get any. We both seem to agree that The Last Temptation of Christ is the more substantial and complex of these films. The funny thing is that, in its own way, Scorsese’s film is as “goofy,” as bizarre and stylized, as The Passion. Last Temptation has Jesus tempted by a serpent with a sultry female voice; it has some of Scorsese’s regular New Yawk actors appearing in period costume, but with thick tough-guy accents intact, like Harvey Keitel’s whiny, over-the-top performance as Judas; it has several lurid moments with a sexed-up Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). And all that before we get to its climax, a nearly half-hour reverie in which Jesus, nailed to the cross, is tempted to forsake this sacrifice for a natural life, and death, as a normal man. We’ve criticized Gibson’s film for being an action movie incarnation of Jesus, but it’s not like Scorsese delivered a staid, craftsman-like biblical epic. Quite to the contrary, Last Temptation is messy and wild, prone to drastic shifts in tone from scene to scene or moment to moment.
It’s also a willfully ahistorical film. Not only are the accents hilariously out of place, but there are all sorts of oddball moments that ensure that the film can never be taken as anything other than a very idiosyncratic, stylized response to Christian lore. For instance, John the Baptist’s (André Gregory) riverside rituals mingle orgiastic excesses with incantations that remind equally of Native American chants, the spirituals of the American South, and various other ethnic musics. The film is like a collage in that respect, throwing all these disparate elements against each other, creating this wonderful friction in the images, the soundtrack (which ranges from the clamor of the crowd scenes to the sublimely ’80s-ish Peter Gabriel score), and the religious elements.
In spite of all this stylistic diversity, Scorsese’s film has a genuine grandeur that Gibson can only aspire to—even if Scorsese’s vision of Christian grandeur isn’t quite what one would expect based on the history of biblical epics in the cinema. One of my favorite shots in the film follows Jesus’ frustrated exclamation that God “wants to push me over the edge.” As he says this, he’s sitting on the edge of a cliff, and the camera follows his hand as he waves towards the abyss below, the camera swaying in a dizzy curve over the cliff, conveying the impression of faltering on the edge, gazing nervously into the depths. The film is packed with little surprises like this, moments when Scorsese visualizes his protagonistís spiritual struggles with dazzling, frenetic bursts of invention. Gibson’s film might try to energize audiences with its vision of Jesus as a “badass,” but for me Scorsese’s film has far more pop, more vigor, than Gibson’s lugubrious cliches.
JB: In the least, Last Temptation has more visual, thematic and narrative diversity. The Passion, on the other hand, is so single-minded that it makes 2009’s Precious (I refuse to call it by its full title) seem nuanced by comparison. You’ve highlighted the most significant ways that Scorsese contributes to the film’s heterogeneousness with his cinematic acumen, but the epicenter of the film’s complexity is its main character. Your comparison of Dafoe’s Jesus to a Woody Allen character might be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also extremely accurate. And yet another way to describe him would be mercurial. He’s temperamental, wishy-washy, indecisive and almost bipolar. One of my favorite moments is the scene in which Jesus tells Judas that he’s seen the prophecy and knows he must die. Judas is understandably, well, peeved. “Every day you have a different plan,” Judas says, sounding less like a brother to Jesus than like an exasperated parent wondering when his son is going to get a job and move out of the house. “First itís love. Then it’s the axe. And now you have to die. What good could that do?” The humanness and commonness of that scene makes it seem a little silly, a little snicker-worthy, but at the same time it exemplifies the film’s tremendous accessibility. The avoidance of subtitles or even non-American accents wraps into this, too. Without modernizing the story, as, say, Baz Luhrmanís Romeo + Juliet did with Shakespeare, Scorsese keeps his film from feeling like a museum relic under glass. It reminds that when these events played out, no one—not even Jesus—knew how it would end. At least, not exactly.
Doubt, it seems to me, should be the key ingredient of any Jesus story. Without doubt, faith cannot exist. Without doubt, Jesus’ heroism, if you will, is undermined. Scorsese’s picture is full of doubt, right up until the end. And it’s not just Jesus who doubts. It’s his disciples, too. On that note, I love the film’s nontraditional interpretation of Judas, in which his betrayal of Jesus isn’t a betrayal at all but is instead an act of extreme faith. When Jesus finishes telling Judas about his plans to die willingly on the cross, he says that afterward he will come back to judge the living and the dead. “I donít believe you,” Judas replies, but this time he’s not angry. This time he’s not looking at his friend like he’s crazy. This time Judas is bumping up against the borders of his faith. He wants to believe. Desperately. You can feel it. (In my opinion, this is one of the best performances of Keitel’s career—as emotionally naked as we’ve ever seen him.) But Judas still has doubt. It’s his doubt, it’s Scorseseís doubt and it’s the doubt that, somehow or another, most Christians battle most of their lives. Belief is hard. That’s what Last Temptation teaches us.
EH: Scorsese’s film is anything but a “museum relic under glass.” In fact, as you note, it’s occasionally so raw, so unrestrained, that it risks eliciting laughs of derision. Admittedly, the performances take a little getting used to: the New York accents and unfettered emotions that go down so easy in Mean Streets and Goodfellas produce some real cognitive dissonance in this context. When we come to a biblical epic, we expect certain things. We expect, perhaps, a somber, respectful air, a certain amount of faithfulness to the Scriptures, even maybe a lack of humor. We don’t expect Jesus to seem so human, to waver in his mission, to be funny and inconsistent and prone to emotional outbursts. What this film demonstrates, more than any other I’ve seen, is just how deeply strange extreme religious devotion can be. Christianity is now so ingrained in our culture, such an accepted fact of life in Western society, that people don’t actually think about these stories as stories, or the people in them as people. The fact is, if you accept that the Bible has at least some relationship to historical reality, then the people in these stories really existed, had complex lives, had emotions and thoughts that go beyond the Bible’s simple “this happened, then this happened” narrative. Last Temptation attempts to dig into some of these complexities, to probe what it might’ve meant to live in this era and to be confronted with a man presenting himself as the Messiah, the son of God.
Not to put too fine a point on it: Last Temptation suggests that there’s a very thin line between religious and crazy. (To be snarky for a moment, The Passion kind of suggests the same thing, just in a very different way.) To say that one is the son of God, sent to save humanity by allowing oneself to be crucified, to run through the Jews’ holiest temple overturning tables and shouting at everyone: it’s no wonder that people thought he was a lunatic, possibly dangerous. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is not presented the way it usually is, as this spiritual moment that Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday, with everyone joyfully greeting Jesus as a prophet. Instead, he enters Jerusalem like a rebel warrior, his disciples chanting and working the crowd into a frenzy; there’s an atmosphere of genuine danger in this scene, as though everything is on the verge of falling apart merely because of Jesus’ presence. It’s a vision of Jesus as a revolutionary, as someone who could stir things up and disrupt the status quo, change the world forever—as he did, of course. It’s so far from the conventional “peace and love” cuddly popular version of Jesus—not to mention the evangelicals’ fire and brimstone punisher, or Mel Gibson’s stoic masochist—as to be nearly unrecognizable.