Appassionato April 12, 2023

Over Easter weekend my partner persuaded me to watch The Passion of the Christ with her. I was pretty resistant; I didn’t want to watch this thing. We watched in two parts and on the small screen, which is about as much as I think I could take–I can’t imagine seeing this in theaters. But even under these diminishing circumstances, and against my will!, it was astonishing, moving, even illuminating. It worked for me, is what I’m saying.

I get why it doesn’t work for a lot of people. Passion is an intensely personal vision, and the person having the vision is, you know, Mel Gibson. If you were revolted by it, I think you’re reacting to things that are also really there in the movie. Below are some thoughts on specific aspects of the film.

The Violence: This is by far the most noticeable thing about The Passion. It is just extremely gory. And its violence goes beyond the horrific events described in the Gospels. Gibson adds violence! It’s already The Goriest Story Ever Told–you don’t have to add violence! Ancient Rome was a horrifying place and it’s good that their empire collapsed, we should all be so lucky. Passion‘s violence can illustrate reality: When Jesus is being beaten I found it hard not to think of Tyre Nichols. But there’s so much violence that it becomes fantastical, wallowing and even prurient, I think that word is justified.

But it’s also wracked: self-accusing. I can’t remember at what point in our viewing my partner told me that it’s Gibson’s own hand holding the nails as they’re driven in, but you don’t need that bit of IMDB trivia to feel it. The camera itself is in anguish, idk quite how to talk about it, it’s not about the stage blood and definitely not about Jim Caviezel’s blank performance, but the suffering of Jesus is depicted in a way that evokes awe and pity. The pity is an urgent need to help Him and an acknowledgment that you can’t, that in fact you are a part of the punishing crowd–now that I’m writing all this out, I wonder if this is part of why Gibson gives so much screen time and even a moral arc to Simon of Cyrene. This is Christ the Victim, with the capital letter; we can’t identify with Him, we can only worship.

That isn’t how like Saw or whatever presents its victims. Gibson doesn’t follow the strictures of (my constant example of a filmmaker really thinking about how to depict violation without replicating it) Salo, but he also isn’t making a horror movie. Passion‘s depiction of violence is intended to take us through being horrified, although I get why you would stop there, and into humiliation.

Is there a machismo of suffering here? Sure, yeah. But that is the (wrongheaded) path Gibson takes to his real destination, which is a complete surrender to the helpless Christ.

The Jews: Tbh Steven Greydanus said most of what I’d say here. (And more from him on the movie in general here.) The problem isn’t that the Sanhedrin etc are costumed like they’re in a 19th-century painting; everybody is, it’s that kind of movie. And I disagree with Steven that Gibson should have cut entirely the line about His blood being on us and on our children. The compromise Gibson ended up with, where that line is spoken but left untranslated in the subtitles, seems like a good way of acknowledging both the real text of the Gospels and the way that text became a justification for evil in the long centuries of Christian hatred of the Jews. The real problem is that Caiaphas and the Jewish mob are mere villains and plot devices–this in a movie that gives Pontius actual Pilate a rich inner life! Caiaphas has no doubts, no complexity, not even an intelligible motive for his actions. In my most charitable mood I could say that Gibson did it that way because he identified more with Pilate. But by contrast to the human failures of the Romans, the non-Christian Jews’ cardboard villainy becomes not only false to the Gospel texts but dehumanizing.

The Theology/The Weirdness: Love the Eucharistic theology in the flashbacks and cuts. Love the moment where Jesus starts speaking Latin! Love the guilt and spectacle, two areas where Christian theology really meets the needs of the moment, my friends.

And I love the weirdness. Gibson gives you the weird stuff that happens in the Gospels: the earthquake, the dream of Pilate’s wife. And he adds weird stuff! What even is that crinkleface demon baby? There’s this collision between precise, catechetical theology and bonkers “God is wilding out” phantasmagoria, and that seems very true to both the Bible and, like, reality.

There’s maybe something to be said about the theology of making a movie about the Passion in the first place. I’ve sometimes heard other Christians say that their church focuses on the Resurrection, not on suffering. Okay???? Lol sorry, obviously I think that’s good and beautiful. But my own spirituality is pretty intensely Crucifixion-centered, and I’m gonna go ahead and say that that’s good too. There are various ways of talking about why: Resurrection is an exercise of power, whereas the Crucifixion calls us to worship (and imitate) Christ in His surrender of power, and to see God not solely in power but in humiliation. We live in a terrifying tabloid world, and the Gospels don’t give us a respite from that world; mere respite might feel fake. But really in terms of The Passion as a movie I’ll just say that when Gibson does depict the Risen Christ, he shows us light and hope with as much conviction as he showed us horror. It’s brief but visceral and vivid.

Effeminacy as Decadence and as Love: Never let it be said that Mel Gibson is at ease in his masculinity. Between the soft-butch Devil and Herod in eyeliner you get plenty of #problematic androgyny and camp. I would probably rouse myself to be irritated by that if we didn’t also get John the Beloved insistently paralleled with the women, Mary and Mary Magdalene (especially in his costuming). That’s also #problematic but in a much gentler key: the feminine man as icon of tenderness and constancy.

We don’t get to see John’s physical intimacy with Jesus, and his anguish is kept low-key, a one-perfect-tear kind of thing. My partner speculated that intimacy and emotion from this John would be too challenging, too queer. Well, maybe in the post-apocalypse Gibson and Derek Jarman will collaborate on the Passion play we need though we could not deserve it.

A much more normal Crucifixion, painted by Murillo, via Wikimedia Commons.

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