Catholic Realism

For the past three decades Hollywood has pretty ignored the story of Jesus Christ. With the notorious exception of the unorthodox Last Temptation of Christ, no major film on the theme has been made since classics such as Ben Hur, The Cloak and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Perhaps tinsel town has decided that the tale is old news, and no longer commercially viable. Gibson, in contrast, had such faith in The Passion that he funded it himself. It has been something of a surprise that his film – which focuses solely on Christ’s ‘passion’ (from the Garden of Gethsemene to the crucifixion) – should break box office records in the United States. And this despite numerous attacks on its integrity, including charges of anti-Semitism.

The Passion could well have been something of an obscure oddity, lost in art-house cinemas. The fact that the spoken languages are foreign to the English ear (the Jewish characters speak in Aramaic and the Romans in Latin) is not designed to endear itself to the US mass market. And yet, despite all the odds, it is packing the multiplexes. The profile of the film has undoubtedly been raised by its famous director, Mel Gibson. Gibson is something of a modern American icon, revered for his lead roles in films such as Mad Max, Lethal Weapon and Braveheart. Up till now, however, most people were not aware that he belongs to a conservative Catholic splinter church, which celebrates the mass in Latin and rejects many of the reformations of Vatican II.

The Passion is largely faithful to the Gospel records, although the script has been embellished and expanded. Gibson has stated publicly that he read ‘a bunch of stuff’ in preparation, including the writings of the German Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, who had vivid visions of the life of Christ. The relevant edition of Emmerich’s work, which relates to the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life, is published in English under the title The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The book, one feels, must have had a strong influence, because Gibson’s film is dolorous in the extreme.

In tortuous detail, Gibson presents us with every blow, every whip-lash, every hammering of a nail that takes place during Christ’s ‘passion’. Beginning with his arrest in the Garden of Eden, through to beatings, bloody scourgings, and finally the nailing to the cross, we are shown in explicit minutiae the physical suffering Christ endured before his death. This is brutal realism, and our noses are rubbed in the blood of our tormented Lord. Here, Gibson betrays his training, and shows himself to be a true son of Hollywood. He may be a strict Catholic, but he has learned his art in modern cinema, and regrettably he shows little subtlety, imagination or true artistry in conveying these events. As opposed to the understated brilliance of a renaissance painter, this is crude and brash: religion as an emotive Lethal Weapon.

This is not to say that Gibson cannot be subtle. Many aspects of his film are indeed very beautiful. Jesus’ mother Mary, for example, is sensitively portrayed: full of compassion yet with a profound understanding of her son’s mission. Elsewhere, an omnipresent satanic figure – clean-shaven, white-faced and blue-eyed – taunts the Christ. His sinister image is a refreshing and original reading in comparison to most cinematic depictions of evil.

Other very positive aspects of the film are the immaculately researched and conceived sets (filmed on location in Italy), costumes and excellent acting. Brief glimpses of Jesus as a child, of his preaching to the masses, Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and so on, are touchingly presented, and sometimes very moving. The film is complemented by a haunting, dramatic soundtrack that incorporates both modern electronic percussion and ancient melodies.

But given the manipulative power of this film and the director’s clear intention to provoke a strong reaction, one is forced to confront its shortcomings. Apart from the brutal realism inherent in the The Passion’s violence, Mel Gibson’s other great influence – Catholicism – is very much in evidence. The title of the film tells us what to expect. The Passion, after all, is the suffering of Christ before his death. And this, in essence, is what we get (all we get!). We feel the blows administered to his body, hear him grunt and groan as he is whipped, and experience his agony-filled cries during the nailing.

Granted, much of this is all recounted in the Gospels (although the prolonged scourging is added from other sources), but nevertheless we have to ask ourselves why the film focuses on this aspect of Jesus’ life. What is Gibson trying to achieve? Essentially, we are presented with a meek Christ, a victim who is pummeled to death by human malice. There is very little that is spiritual, transcendent or even mystical in Mel Gibson’s Jesus. Instead, we are given the somewhat banal picture of a brave man prepared to take, without complaint, the punishment of his torturers. The chief character of this film is very much that of Jesus rather than the Christ.

Most disappointingly, the film finishes at the crucifixion. There is a half-hearted scene just before the credits – one feels it is something of an after-thought – which shows a physically healed Christ sitting in the tomb. But there is no resurrection, no transformation, no redemption of all the suffering. We are left with the images of torture and physical pain. This is a Christianity that is content to remain with the crucified, suffering Jesus – the man who endured unspeakable physical pain to save our sins – rather than the cosmic, transcendent Christ. Gibson leaves us with the impression that we are indebted to the Lord because of his physical suffering, rather than acknowledging the deed of a God who inhabits a human body in order to redeem our fading connection with the spiritual world.

I wanted to like The Passion, and greatly anticipated seeing it. In the event I was left with very mixed feelings. Despite the above reservations, it has to be said that much of it is enthralling, impressive film-making, and we should be grateful to Gibson for his serious and honest attempt at portraying aspects of Christ’s life on earth – at least in the way he perceives it. But by definition, depicting such earth-shattering events is an enormous challenge, and the end result of Gibson’s effort is marred by bloody Hollywood realism as well as the relentless focus on Jesus Christ’s physical pain and suffering.

In closing, a word about the accusations of anti-Semitism. Gibson conveys the Jewish priests and elders as zealously campaigning for Jesus’ execution. But in this, he is true to the Gospel records. Likewise, he shows the Jewish crowd calling for Jesus’s crucifixion as opposed to Barabbus’s – but again this is faithful to the Gospel record. Does this make the film anti-Semitic? The Roman soldiers who administer most of the violence are painted as bloodthirsty, brutal and ruthless. In a symbolic gesture, Gibson even casts himself as the soldier who hammers the first nail into Jesus’ hand – emphasizing humanity’s common ‘responsibility’ for Christ’s passion.

Sevak Gulbekian is the author of In the Belly of the Beast, Holding your own in Mass Culture (Hampton Roads, 2004), and Chief Editor of Clairview Books, Rudolf Steiner Press and Temple Lodge Publishing.