NOW THAT Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has reached thousands of screens around the world and the frenzy of editorializing, pre- and post-release, has died down, two of the early questions about the film have been answered. Once the film entered the public domain, most of the fears about whether the film was anti-Semitic dissipated, leaving only some concern about the possibility that in certain parts of the globe anti-Semites might use the film to incite violence. The other question—would The Passion’s graphic violence keep people away from the theaters—has been answered with a resounding no. The numbers are such that any attempt to characterize interest in the film as mere curiosity strikes me as strained. Indeed, the controversy over Gibson’s film has become something of a mirror-image of the earlier culture-war shouting match over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ: in the case of the present film, it is the critics who have turned up their noses and the public who have filled the theaters.
I was prepared to dislike this film. Having had a few unpleasant run-ins over the years with hyper-traditionalist Catholicism at its most ideological and eccentric, and hearing that Gibson might have a similar worldview, I was ready to seize upon any sign of anti-Semitism, esoteric religious symbolism, or political paranoia. What I encountered was something far more centric, more deeply grounded in the aesthetic and theological traditions of Christianity than I had expected. Disturbing and emotionally draining as The Passion may be, it is a remarkable achievement, a daring recovery of iconographic and theological language that had all but disappeared from the public realm.
That the film has its share of flaws and misjudgments I will readily grant. For example, there is the fundamental difficulty of translating the words of the Bible into a different medium. The history of film is strewn with abject failures in this genre, large and small. A few years ago the writer Virginia Stem Owens touched on this issue in a book review of Frederick Buechner’s novel, The Son of Laughter, which recounts some of the Genesis narrative from Isaac’s point of view. In the review, Owens quotes from Erich Auerbach’s classic work, Mimesis, to make her point: “The Son of Laughter definitely succeeds in terms of entertainment and passionate narrative. Yet, like other novels borrowing from biblical stories, it simply fills in too much, closing the gaps which, Auerbach says, are intended ‘to overcome our reality.’ Any reality we add will always be exasperatingly partial. Instead of explaining the biblical world in our terms, we must ‘fit our own life into its world’ and allow ourselves ‘to be elements in its structure of universal history.’ The gaps are meant to swallow us.”
A director of consummate artistry like Wim Wenders would probably endorse the point Owens made. For someone like Wenders, the frontal approach is doomed to failure: better to refract the ancient story in oblique ways through contemporary narratives that give us situations and characters to which we can relate. The invisible reality of faith is something best made visible when it haunts the edges of consciousness and memory.
However compelling these points may be, it would be obtuse not to recognize that there is a fundamental human need to re-imagine the ancient stories in whatever media are available. In the smorgasbord of aesthetic choices, there will always be a corner of the table for more direct approaches, however fraught with risk they may be.
Gibson’s use of sustained, graphic violence in The Passion is another gamble that many people have questioned. Even a sympathetic Christian viewer like theologian Gil Bailie (interviewed in this issue of Image) feels that Gibson miscalculated here. The danger of this level of violence is that it will turn Jesus into the gold medalist in the Olympics of Suffering. Bailie writes: “Christ’s death changed the human condition forever, not because he suffered more than anyone else ever did, but because, as ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,’ he suffered the fate of every victim everywhere…. The shocking thing about the cross of Christ is that God’s Anointed One dies on it, revealing once and for all the otherwise unimaginable truth about the depths of God’s love.”
It is at this juncture where one bumps up against the limits of even the best acting and cinematography. Gibson does make an effort to have Jesus look with ever deepening love and compassion as the Passion progresses. But his film is far more effective in tracing the transformative effect of Christ’s sacrifice on bystanders like Simon of Cyrene and the centurion, and on the two Marys, than he is able to convey divinity through his protagonist.
Ultimately, the strongest defense for the use of violence in this film is the issue of sacramentality, the Christian belief that the Incarnation hallows our human, corporeal condition. In the history of the church, Christ is always being etherealized, rendered comfortably abstract, by liberals and conservatives. One of the enduring strengths of The Passion is its use of gesture, touch, and gaze to convey presence. Once again, it is the figure of Mary, superbly played by Maia Morgenstern, who conveys this most vividly. When, near the end of the film, Mary kisses her son’s foot on the cross, her face is smeared with blood, as if she is drunk on wine—an allusion both to the wedding at Cana and the Eucharist.
Moments like this abound in the film, though they can be hard to retain in the midst of the engulfing horror. But they are there, from the hand of the fallen Magdalene inching across to the foot of her savior (both paralleling and opposing the snake that crawls toward him in Gethsemane) to Mary’s homing movements as she hunkers on the ground above the place where her son is being held in the hellish womb of captivity below. When he is given his cross to bear, Jesus hugs it to himself like a man being reunited with his lover. Mary’s willing embrace of Christ’s suffering—the “Yes” that parallels the Annunciation—gives the film emotional and spiritual ballast.
Gibson’s decision to introduce a number of supernatural elements into the story, including the figure of Satan (who does not appear in the Gospel accounts of the Passion), seems to be a crime against the very sacramentalism that otherwise gives the film its power. I wish he had kept the story relentlessly on the human plane, so that by focusing on the visible and tangible, the invisible would register there and there only.
The religion scholar Stephen Prothero has criticized what he calls Gibson’s “blood and guts sacramentality.” But what other kind is there? If God cannot become present in blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva—He vanishes into the ether. In short, this is not the Messiah of the Jesus Seminar, who increasingly seems to resemble a divinity being graded on a curve. In his New York Times op-ed on the film, Kenneth Woodward aptly quoted the famous formula coined by theologian H. Richard Niebuhr to criticize the modern therapeutic vision of Christianity: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Does The Passion represent an excessive reaction? Does it signal the resurgence of some sort of dark, atavistic religion? The return of a manly Christ as opposed to a more sensitive and inclusive savior? I’m not so sure. Gibson’s Jesus puts me in mind of a column from a British newspaper that my wife once read out loud to me. In an article on the relationship between the sexes in the early 1980s, numerous women were quoted as losing patience with men who had become too accommodating and passive. “I want a man I can push up against,” one woman wrote. It seems fair to say that a lot of people today are longing for a Jesus they can push up against.
That unnerves some people, including a number of our cultural gatekeepers. That The Passion has violated something akin to a tacit social contract established during the Enlightenment can be seen in a reflective essay by New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott. He not only argues that the film ignores “pluralism and interreligious politesse” but also says that it dangerously blurs the lines between “sacred and secular.” It seems that some of the film’s most fervent admirers regard the film not as a work of art but something like the Authorized Version, a videotape of biblical history. Scott also notes, with evident distaste, that some of those involved in making the film had a number of intense spiritual experiences during the production process.
If Scott’s argument were merely that some people are naïve and partisan enough to forget that The Passion is work of art, a human artifact, then one could hardly object (although his condescension remains revolting). But Scott goes further, I think, suggesting that it is a sinister development for our society when religious believers develop a devotional attitude toward a work of art. Here I think he is forgetting his history. Until the modern era, very few works of art in the history of man that dealt with religious texts and symbols could be cleanly divided into sacred and secular, aesthetic and liturgical. The Divine Comedy is a secular poem, but the hymn to the Virgin in the Paradiso can and has been said as a prayer. The same dynamic relationship between the aesthetic and liturgical can be said of many of the classic paintings that Gibson drew on for The Passion, from Caravaggio’s Deposition to the heart wrenchingly beautiful Avignon Pietà, the penultimate image of The Passion. In the modern era the same positive tension can be found in paintings by Georges Rouault or poems by Eliot, Auden, or Levertov.
Admittedly, the borderland between art and liturgy is rarely an inspiring place: it’s more likely to be populated by kitsch than by works of tragic grandeur. But The Passion inhabits that sphere with some distinction; it is devotional in nature, an extended cinematic version of the Stations of the Cross.
A.O. Scott feels that The Passion changes the cultural rules in a way he finds threatening. In that sense, the film is what the postmodernists might call “transgressive.” Of course, that’s high praise when intellectuals use the word to denote works that challenge certain traditional values and institutions. But there are times when the word “politesse” is just a euphemism for a particular brand of censorship: in this case, the insistence that the public square be stripped of unsightly expressions of faith.
Roger Ebert called The Passion a “personal message film,” and there’s some truth to that, but not in the sense that one would use that phrase of, say, Oliver Stone. However individual and controversial and subject to criticism his rendition may be, Mel Gibson’s message is nourished and shaped by his respect for an ancient tradition. And at the heart of that tradition is the belief in the unimaginable depth of God’s passion for us.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.