Mel Gibson's screen violence won't win converts

What one sees is the way the superpower of the day, Rome, behaved - alas as the US now
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The Independent Online

Mel Gibson hopes that his film, The Passion of the Christ, released in Britain later this month, will be an event with consequences beyond those of a normal cinema success. Its purpose is evangelical. Indeed what I shall want to know above all is what impact, if any, it will have on those who have never been to church and have virtually no knowledge of Christianity, even though they may call themselves "Christian" when responding to a questionnaire.

I don't mean people who are now agnostic or atheist or simply bored by Christian religion but who are nonetheless well acquainted with it either because of their upbringing or schooling. It is the unchurched in which I am interested. Thanks to Mr Gibson, some of these will shortly encounter the Christian story and the Church's claims for the very first time. They won't have gone to their local church to find out; rather Christianity will for once have come to them where they are normally to be found, if not at home or in clubs and pubs and football grounds, then in the cinema.

What will strike audiences most forcefully is the sheer violence of The Passion of the Christ. Film violence can be up close and very frightening or distanced, either because the context is far removed from one's everyday life, or because there are elements of fantasy or, at least, stylisation, or because the violent passages are brief or the sound level is subdued or because the camera is repeatedly pulled away just before contact is made.

However, Mel Gibson's film is high on the Richter scale of cinematic violence. Although the setting in unfamiliar in the sense that none of us can easily imagine being flagellated and crucified, the relentless nature of the beatings, the blood running down Christ's body, the graphic nailing to the cross, the humiliation and - what is comparatively rare in the cinema - the sadistic pleasure which Christ's tormentors, the Roman soldiers, obtain from their lengthy beating of a defenceless individual, all these elements make it an unarguable "18" rating.

Which must be unfortunate from Mr Gibson's point of view. If the film is to have the proselytising effect which he wishes - which is why he has spent $30m of his own money in getting the film made - it would be important for 15 to 18 year olds to see it. This is not a problem in the US where The Passion is rated "R", which means that under-17 year-olds require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

What is the justification for the non-stop violence? I imagine it is addressed not to the unchurched whom I have in mind, but to practising Christians. Look, it seems to be saying to them, your familiarity with the story of Christ's passion as a result of its constant repetition has gradually drained away the meaning from the the original events. This film shows what it really must have been like, more vivid than any wall painting, or Renaissance canvas, or hell-fire sermon.

Beyond the violence, however, the film provides an antique presentation of Christ's teaching, of the Last Supper and of his death on the cross. In tone and content it belongs to the Counter Reformation, when the only answer that Rome could give to the rise of Protestantism was define itself as Protestantism's negative image.

In this long period from 1540s to the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic church retained a bad translation of the Bible and it went on conducting services in Latin rather than in the vernacular. This was swept away at the Second Vatican Council, but Mr Gibson has never accepted these reforms. Hence the narrative takes no account of corrections which scholars have made to the New Testament account in light of the known history. Moreover the dialogue is in ancient Aramaic and long-dead Latin - with subtitles.

Will cinema audiences also find a justification for anti-semitism? I don't believe so. What one does see is the way the superpower of the day, Rome, behaved. As, alas, any superpower does in its far-away colonies when bored soldiers are confronted by disturbances. With the same needless brutality that later Empires perpetrated in their turn, including the British and now the Americans in Iraq. The film also recounts the bigotry and moral blindness displayed by conservative clerics, whether in Palestine 2,000 years ago or, say, during the Spanish Inquisition or today on the fundamentalist fringes of the major religions.

What can be seen in the film beyond the violence, if one looks very carefully, is a eucharistic celebration. The camera switches its gaze from the broken figure on the cross to the breaking of the bread at Christ's final supper and then it moves from the blood running down the crucified body to the pouring of the wine. It is what one might encounter in a cathedral, the faithful on their knees at mass glancing up at painted panels above the altar which tell the story of the crucifixion.

Yet I doubt whether The Passion of the Christ will excite the curiosity of the unchurched. For, finally, the sustained violence obliterates the Christian message.

It is a film about suffering rather than about love. It fills one with horror rather than with awe. I conclude that the film wasn't made, after all, for the unchurched or even for Christians of various denominations, but specifically for Mr Gibson's fellow Catholics whom, in his opinion, have been badly served by his church's reforms of the past 40 years.

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