Mel Gibson’s Passion Play

Mr. Gibson has fashioned a blunt instrument of propaganda, edged with artistry, whose visceral power gives it the potential to become his most lethal weapon of all.

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
March 2004

    At last cornered into viewing The Passion of the Christ by an invitation to review the film, I made my way to the Lyceum 6 in Red Hook, New York. Nothing I heard during the weeks beforehand, from Mel Gibson’s boosters or his detractors, prepared me for what I saw. This film has nothing to do with historical debates; it is a passion play, both successful and abysmal in representing that genre. Mr. Gibson has fashioned a blunt instrument of propaganda, edged with artistry, whose visceral power gives it the potential to become his most lethal weapon of all.

    Medieval passion plays entertained their audiences and at the same time drew them into the sufferings of Christ. These efforts indulged flights of fancy and superstition, manufacturing perfidious Jews, assorted demons, buxom Magdalenes, gargoyle-faced demons, and the like, but they also offered vivid realizations of how Christ, by following the way of the cross, was transformed into his resurrected glory. The intent was to open the path of Christ to all believers.

    That pattern of transformation was embedded in Christian theology long before the Middle Ages. Cyril of Jerusalem during the fourth century made Jerusalem a site of international pilgrimage by urging Christians to follow the way of the cross in the city where Jesus died. In the Gospels, Jesus himself tells his followers, “If anyone would follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The Passion in the Gospels reflects the liturgical practice of Christians during the first century, who recollected Jesus’ suffering during Lent when they prepared new believers for baptism and committed themselves afresh to walk in the footsteps of Christ. The Passion is at the heart of Christian identity, and Mel Gibson is wise to focus on it.

    The pace of the film is courageously slow throughout so the viewer can see and reflect on the beautiful tableaux that are created, beads of Caravaggio-like images strung on a thread of relentless pain and violence. In medieval style, Satan plays a prominent role, calibrated so that the film embodies the doctrines of the Catholic Reformation (prior to Vatican II) that Mr. Gibson is committed to. The opening scene features Satan mocking Jesus in Gethsemane, ridiculing the belief that one man can suffer so as to expiate the sins of others.

    Jesus’ psychic pain is at its height at this point. In fact, the film reaches is climax within three minutes or so; everything that follows is denouement. This is a very brave dramatic gamble and a success. Jesus’ hands tremble manically, as they will later during his pitiless flogging because the savior of the Counter Reformation knows everything that is going to happen to him in advance and has to embrace that pain as his personal sacrifice and payment for the sins of the world. This theory that Jesus ransoms the sins of the whole world has also made its way to become one of the “fundamentals” of Fundamentalism, which is presumably why Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell have taken up positions in support of the film. Once that payment is made, salvation is secure. If Jesus fails, all is lost.

    But he will not and cannot fail. As he lies on the ground in his prayer to God in Gethsemane, Satan releases a snake. But once again on his feet, Jesus crushes the snake’s head and marches out to meet his tormenters. No, of course that scene is not in the Gospels; Satan and his snake are imported from medieval imagination. They represent a Christological reading of Genesis 3:15, tinged with the imagery of the Revelation. That is allowed in a passion play, as are all the scenes Mr. Gibson invents from legend and imagination. And as in the case of any passion play, the artistry consists in what is invented, not in fidelity to the Gospels, and history is beside the point.

    There are many more Jewish tormenters than in the Gospels. Satan weaves in and out of their midst as Jesus is betrayed, mocked, and denied. Satan’s hairless face and head somehow seemed familiar to me, but I could not quite place him at the beginning of the film. I lost my curiosity about that for a while, diverted by the baroque portrayal of the violence inflicted on Jesus by the high priest Caiaphas and his colleagues. They are all opulently but darkly dressed; their interior corruption is manifest. If we have any doubt about the moral standing of the high priesthood, one of Caiaphas’ colleagues wears an eye-patch. Pirates of the Caribbean meets Ben-Hur.

    These vivid images do tip into camp from time to time. Judas hangs himself by taking the rope off a rotting donkey, a rope big enough to pull a barge. He ties himself to a tree overhanging a cliff. The viewer is left wondering how he got up there: Did Satan levitate him? Caiaphas seems to sleep walk through the action, a stock villain driven by no specific complaint against Jesus, simply miming hatred and finally whimpering in his destroyed temple after the crucifixion when an earthquake destroys the place. Herod Antipas wears a wig and has kitted out his palace as a brothel. One of his hookers – a black lady – shows sympathy for the battered Jesus in the only gesture towards political correctness that Mr. Gibson allows himself. Pilate, on the other hand, is a wise but ineffectual ruler, who not only asks “What is truth,” as he does in John’s Gospel (18:38) but takes up the question in a private seminar with his wife.

    Pilate’s wife plays a big role in this film. She tells Pilate first thing off that Jesus is a “holy” man and does what she can to intervene. When she can’t stop the execution, owing to Caiaphas’ manipulation of the crowds with the “Pharisees” (with whom he is supposed to be allied, despite being a high priest), she hands out big sheets of linen to Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene. That way, they can mop up huge quantities of blood after Jesus’ scourging, just as Veronica is later placed on the Via Dolorosa to have her famous piece of linen imprinted with the bloody image of Jesus’ face. Reliquaries of nails and crown are also conveniently left by the cross so that they can be “discovered” during the fourth century.

    When Jesus finally dies, people in the audience with me have been reduced to loud weeping on several occasions. Some of them have even stopped eating their popcorn and drinking their cokes. (When they do cry, it is pretty obvious because they are as supersized as their drinks.) Jesus, however, pursues the resolve forged in the crucible of Gethsemane so they can go back to eating and drinking while he is raised from the dead. Jesus stands apart from the altar-like stone on which he had been laid in his monumental tomb. The burial, by the way, completely eliminates the role of Joseph of Arimathea that is pivotal in the Gospels: an opportunity to portray crucial sympathy by one of Jesus’ contemporaries in Judaism is squandered. In any case, his immaculate linen shroud trembles in the breeze, awaiting shipment to Turin. He stands, his face, butt, and punctured right hand in profile. He marches out of the tomb much as he marched out to his tormenters in Gethsemane but to the marshal beat of a drum.

    As a passion play, this film is a hokey but reverent meditation on the death of Jesus. The music sustains the stately pace through what amounts to the Stations of the Cross that Cyril developed in Jerusalem and that Christians still use for devotion today. The score is derivative, sounding much like some of the work in Gladiator, but it comports well with the film’s tableaux and occasional bursts of violence and splattered blood. (Acting in this case requires no comment because there is no room for it in between static images and violent outbursts, most of which involve flaying latex skin.) More successfully, the camera work affects the aim of a passion play. We look on the action, appalled and uplifted by the various characters. The blind hatred of Caiaphas, the crazed disorientation of Judas, the mute betrayal of Peter, the dithering good will of Pilate, the magnificent loyalty of Jesus’ mother, the smoldering devotion of the Magdalene, the chaste quasi-conversion of Pilate’s wife, the sadistic pleasure of the Roman soldiers, the clueless cross-bearing of Simon of Cyrene: all reflect and heighten our own responses. We ask, as we should, where would we be and where are we in this action? As the film’s deliberate rhythm proceeds, Jesus himself looks up from his agonies to fix his gaze on the characters and on us so as to underline that question.

    As I looked into his face and his latex wounds, however, I found myself more and more distant from this Jesus and his torments. The action finally became so removed from any reality that the film lost its way. The power of this passion play is dissipated and finally undermined by its claim to authenticity. Much has been made of the “Aramaic” spoken in this film alongside Latin. In fact, the Semitic-language scenes are a wild brew of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Syriac with grammatical mistakes in all three. The Latin is pretty good, but to have Jesus conversing learnedly with Pilate in that language is just too funny for words. There is not a word of Greek in this film, not even in the titulus on the cross, although John’s Gospel specifies that the charge against Jesus was written in Greek (19:20) as well as in Latin and Aramaic.

    But this mistake is no lapse. Gibson uses the conversation between Jesus and Pilate to preview the future that the Counter Reformation desired: a Latin-speaking extension of the Roman Empire into the world of spirit. What is wrong with Pilate in this portrayal is not that he is corrupt and violent and anti-Semitic (all of which is historically attested) but that he lacks backbone. Jesus is there to give him that, and Pilate’s wife is present to help with the transplant. The fact that prefects of Pilate’s lowly rank were not permitted to bring their wives with them on postings is as lost on Mr. Gibson as the simple truth that, as prefect, Pilate lived in Caesarea Maritima, not Jerusalem. Pilate and Jesus together, and then Pilate with his wife, provide the only moments of tranquil power in the midst of mob violence.

    Only Latin counts, not Greek (only Roman Catholicism, not Orthodoxy), and Roman sympathy outweighs Jewish sympathy. There are Jews who care for Jesus, chiefly his mother and the Magdalene. Both dressed as peasant versions of Dominican sisters, they have a unique insight into Jesus. His mother is with him in Nazareth in a truly bizarre flashback in which Jesus, pottering in his shop like a suburban householder in Los Angeles, completes a handsome but high table in a Swedish contemporary style. He predicts he will make chairs to make it serviceable: prophesying the use of kitchen tables (‘round which his followers will presumably one day sit and discuss this film with admiration). The Magdalene does not have big breasts but a pouty mouth from an earlier profession: she is the woman taken in adultery in John 8, and her big earrings mark her as a prostitute. (This identification, of course, contradicts what is said about Mary Magdalene and the woman taken in adultery, a triumph of pious imagination over the biblical text.)

    She is nearly stoned by a ring of people with rocks, much as in the stoning scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian rather than by the method of being thrown from a cliff and crushed with a large rock, which both the New Testament and the Mishnah refer to. When Jesus is about to be crucified, the crowd also turns back in his favor, if inarticulately and half-heartedly, and the beloved John is sympathetically portrayed. But the power of the Romans makes their support of Jesus more magnetic than Jewish sympathy, and even one ofthe sadistic soldiers who torment him converts at the end, awed as much by Jesus’ mother as Jesus himself.

    In the scourging scene, I finally realized who Satan reminded me of. Although the Gospels place this scene in the praetorium, Mr. Gibson locates it in a square with easy access for disciples, high priests, and for the two Marys to mop up blood. Satan makes his way among Jewish high priests and sadistic Roman soldiers. This time, alone among his several cameo appearances, Satan is carrying a child, a truly ugly tot with a face somewhat reminiscent of the children who taunt Judas prior to his suicide, seeming sometimes to be demons. The child also is bald and hairless, his head shaped like Satan’s. And I am transported to the Austin Powers series my sons are fond of, Dr Evil and Mini-Me incarnate assisting at the torture of Jesus.

    In consideration of the weeping popcorn chompers around me, I did not laugh aloud. But reflective silence only confirmed my conviction that this is the funniest Jesus-movie since The Life of Brian.

    Monty Python tried to be funny and succeeded because Brian was not about Jesus, but Brian. Putting this cockney hero into situations like those Jesus faced, under obviously phony historical circumstances, makes for brilliant parody. In Mr. Gibson’s case, the parody is equally powerful, although unintentional. By mixing together the genre of the passion play with the pretension of historical accuracy, Gibson has inadvertently made his passion play into pious vaudeville. Claims that this film reflects the Gospels or history are cynical. Critics who treat it as a historical work have confused their profession with self-promotion. Were this film directed by Mel Brooks, we would have something to watch with pleasure. But Mr. Gibson’s Passion is libelous farce, poor art, and an incentive for credulous viewers to confuse Christian faith with hatred. After I went home, I watched Die Hard with my younger son and felt morally restored.

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