The Passion of the Christ (18)

Pulp Crucifixion: medieval horror on a biblical scale
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The Independent Culture

What is there left to say about The Passion of the Christ? Months before release, it was already "The Film The Whole World Is Talking About", as the adverts trumpet. (They also proclaim it to be the "Number One US Box Office Sensation" - so much for driving out Mammon.) No recent film has stirred up such debate, with experts scrutinising Mel Gibson's use of individual lines from the Gospels to ascertain whether or not his Passion is anti-Semitic. It's no surprise that the reaction has been so intense; this is a remarkably extreme film.

What is there left to say about The Passion of the Christ? Months before release, it was already "The Film The Whole World Is Talking About", as the adverts trumpet. (They also proclaim it to be the "Number One US Box Office Sensation" - so much for driving out Mammon.) No recent film has stirred up such debate, with experts scrutinising Mel Gibson's use of individual lines from the Gospels to ascertain whether or not his Passion is anti-Semitic. It's no surprise that the reaction has been so intense; this is a remarkably extreme film.

Gibson's Passion is a Bible movie like no other. It's no pious soft-soap image, nor a crowd-pleasing extravaganza in the Cecil B de Mille mould. It presents itself as an out-and-out art film, with a distinctive stylistic approach - notably, the use of Aramaic and Latin dialogue, serving to suggest that the film is itself exalted, as if speaking in tongues.

But The Passion of the Christ is worlds away from the handful of sober, contemplative films that have been made on religious topics. Its realism is nothing like that of, say, Pasolini's energetic, austere Gospel According to St Matthew; it's closer to Pasolini's Sade-inspired Saló, a catalogue of barely watchable horrors.

Gibson's morbidly gory vision exceeds not only anything in classical Christian iconography, it goes way beyond Peckinpah or Tarantino: he should have called it Pulp Crucifixion. Gibson wants to horrify us, to make the suffering real. But his film is far from naturalism, closer to the language of horror cinema. Its sinister feminised Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) has a serpent under her cloak and - in a sublimely idiotic touch - a wee digital worm flicking out of one nostril. This is part of a repertoire of sub-Exorcist effects, such as the bug-eyed demon children that taunt Judas, or the hairy leering baby seen in Satan's arms.

But it's the physical horror that really startles. When Jesus is scourged by the Roman soldiers, his body emerges cross-hatched with weeping scars. We see and hear a barb rip his flesh, a yanked rope dislocate his arm, blood spurt as the nails enter his palms. The Romans don't just give him a crown of thorns but bash it into his head.

The violence is repetitive and relentless; it's hard to see how it is meant to be edifying or exalting. The only possible reactions, surely, are hide-under-your-seat revulsion or vengeful fury at Christ's persecutors. But the real persecutor here is Gibson himself. If, as a devout traditionalist Catholic, he reveres and adores Christ, then why recreate his agony so minutely? Why does he want to punish Christ again? In discussions of Holocaust cinema, the argument has often been made that it is improper to reconstruct Nazi atrocities on screen, since this is effectively to re-enact them. The same could be argued of Gibson's film: that attempting to portray the Passion "as it was" is to partake of the brutality.

There are, of course, differing Jewish and Christian perspectives on representation: the Jewish tradition stresses the unshowable nature of the divine, whereas depicting the Passion has always been central to Catholicism. This film outdoes even the most harrowing painted Crucifixions, such as Mathis Grünewald's - but then, the Flemish masters never had recourse to the groan of wood in Dolby stereo or to the slow-motion drip of blood. Gibson, it seems, wants to go beyond the imaginable. He wants us to feel the pain, and he can only do that by going too far: it's as though he intends to crucify every viewer.

Now, is the film anti-Semitic? Gibson denies it, and certain details remind us that Jesus is a Jew and that the Romans torment him and his disciples as Jews. There is even a token "good Jew" among the elders of the Sanhedrin, who complains that Jesus is being judged unfairly ("Who called this meeting anyway?" goes the priceless subtitle). But Gibson's Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is a thoughtful man of conscience who crucifies Jesus because a Jewish mob forces him to.

Jesus tells Pilate that the greatest sin lies with "he who delivered me to you", and if we're in any doubt how Gibson interprets this line, we later see Satan drift smirking through the ranks of the Jewish elders.

The Sanhedrin here are so merciless that even Pilate is shocked. They are additionally depicted as sycophantic ("We have no King but Caesar") and hypocritical: they want Pilate to do their dirty work, claiming, "It is unlawful for us to sentence a man to death." As for Herod's court of gold-draped decadents, these are out-and-out caricatures that just don't belong in contemporary cinema. Gibson may have thought he was being even-handed in making the Roman soldiers, who actually wield the hammers, into cackling ogres, yet it's quite clear who he identifies as the master criminals in the story; besides, depictions of the Passion never fuelled centuries of persecution of Italians.

This Passion is all shock and awe with no room for the spiritual, the contemplative. The single humanly emotional moment comes in a pietà composition as Mary (a dignified, severe Maia Morgenstern) cradles her fallen son. Incidentally, it's extremely weird that Satan is framed as a parodic counterpart of Mary, cradling her demon baby like an anti-Madonna: heaven knows what the theological precedents are for this.

It's hard to see what the film does for Christianity, or for Christ, whose identity - as man or icon, religious teacher or political militant - is barely visible under the rain of blood. With its punishing sensibility, the film does nothing for cinema either, except to help us imagine how things might have been if the art form had been invented in the 11th century.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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