The Passion of the Christ (18)

Losing my religion
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The Independent Culture

Jesus wept. If The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson's idea of proselytising for the faith, I'd like to know what kind of converts he's hoping to make. Anyone even vaguely acquainted with Christ's teachings in the Gospels will know that His was a message founded on love, humility and compassion, qualities conspicuous by their absence in a film that amounts to an appalling pageant of blood-spattered cruelty and sadism. Torture fetishists and horror aficionados may find it of interest, but one wonders how the picture could possibly inspire the faithful, let alone spread the good news to the agnostic.

Jesus wept. If The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson's idea of proselytising for the faith, I'd like to know what kind of converts he's hoping to make. Anyone even vaguely acquainted with Christ's teachings in the Gospels will know that His was a message founded on love, humility and compassion, qualities conspicuous by their absence in a film that amounts to an appalling pageant of blood-spattered cruelty and sadism. Torture fetishists and horror aficionados may find it of interest, but one wonders how the picture could possibly inspire the faithful, let alone spread the good news to the agnostic.

One may detect a line of descent here from Gibson's Oscar-winning Braveheart, a story ostensibly about William Wallace's heroic revolt against the English under Edward I before they brought him to book at Tyburn. You may recall that Wallace, as played by Gibson, spends the last 20 minutes of the movie enduring the torments of the damned, his body broken on a rack and then disembowelled. That gruelling spectacle now looks like a test run for The Passion of the Christ, whose torture and crucifixion is depicted in almost psychotic detail over a two-hour running-time. Gibson wants to show us the physical suffering that previous Christian epics soft-pedalled, but he concentrates upon this aspect to the virtual exclusion of anything else.

The film confines itself to the last 12 hours of Jesus's life, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane, aswirl in a fog reminiscent of early Frankenstein movies. As played by James Caviezel, Jesus seems to be dying even before the soldiers show up to arrest him, spied upon by an androgynous baldie - Satan, apparently - who thereafter makes only fleeting appearances in the background. (He's no fool.)

Interspersed with this is a flashback scene to Judas Iscariot receiving his 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus to the Pharisees; Gibson films, in slow motion, the bag of coins being flung across the room and dropped, clattering, to the floor. In a spirit of mischief and curiosity, I had invited a friend, a Jewish New Yorker, to the press screening, and she later picked out this moment of money-grubbing as an instance of the film's anti-Semitic agenda. I couldn't see it myself - the betrayal of a friend for money is a movie staple, not a racial slur - though I did baulk at the scene on grounds of visual clunkiness (Judas can't even be trusted to make a clean catch).

Does the charge of anti-Semitism hold up elsewhere? When the high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) accuses Jesus of blasphemy and hands him over to Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), the Roman governor of Palestine, the screenplay, adapted by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, goes with the Gospels' version of Pilate as a humane, doubting sort, rather than the murderous brute history relates. He tries to hand over the case to Herod, a mincing nonentity who sends Jesus right back to him. Hard-pressed by the mob outside, Pilate talks with his wife about the nature of "truth", a dialogue nowhere mentioned in the Gospels.

Gibson seems to bend over backwards to exonerate the governor, who supposedly yields up Jesus to the Jews because he fears a rebellion. Yet only Pilate had the authority to order a crucifixion, as Gibson must know; if the Jews had organised Jesus's execution, it would have been by stoning.

One could call this bias anti-Semitic in implication, if not in intention. But it's very unlikely to foment hatred against Jews: anti-Semites don't require an excuse to be anti-Semitic. The movie's tenor is one of rage and disgust, for sure, not towards Jews but humankind in general. To watch the Roman soldiers, sweaty-faced and cackling in glee as they scourge Jesus, is a pretty harrowing experience, yet its emphasis is hopelessly uneven: the raw, bleeding body stirs up revulsion against these sadistic goons more than it does pity for the victim. Once Jesus, already half-dead, is forced on to the Via Dolorosa, Gibson gets so caught up in the excruciation, the minute-by-minute physical agony of his climb to Calvary, that the flashbacks to Christ's teaching (eg, "Love your enemies") take on a hideous irony. His gauntlet of humiliation seems to last forever, and the close-ups of nails piercing flesh, and arms being dislocated as the soldiers hang him on the cross are so savage as to leave you benumbed.

Gibson would argue that the horror is the point - this is what Christ endured for our sake - and one can scarcely be unmoved by its cumulative effect. But what a poor advertisement for Christianity it makes. While the representation of his pain is heartlessly explicit, this is a Jesus denuded of personality: the eloquence, the charisma and the dark wit that make up his distinctive characteristics in the Gospels are almost invisible in this movie. Yes, it has one or two saving graces. The Last Supper, lit by the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel in homage to Caravaggio, has a bleak, claustrophobic tension, and one admires Gibson's nerve in insisting on an authentic spoken language - Aramaic for the Jews, Latin for the Romans - with English subtitles.

There is, too, an inadvertent benefit arising from the various fudgings and misreadings of historical evidence. Sometimes a film-maker's unreliable handling of material provokes such an outcry that the truth becomes vividly present to the minds of people who knew little or nothing of what happened in the first place. The acreage of column inches already devoted to the movie has at least ensured that the arguments are out there, and that audiences have an idea of what to expect. Nevertheless, one feels that a terrible misrepresentation has been perpetrated by Gibson's film, not against Jews or Romans but against the spirit of Jesus Christ, whose essence, for all that he suffered, was love and forgiveness. Neither is discoverable in this lurid venture into Grand Guignol - just degradation, misery and hatred.

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