After months of speculation, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was finally released this year. Predictably it divided audiences, whether through its graphic violence, its alleged anti-Semitism or simply its declaration of some kind of religious belief. Yet apart from the debate over the possible anti-Semitic elements in the film, critics and supporters have tended to separate their analysis of the film from any wider context.
The film’s supporters see the Passion as an important ‘conversion tool’ — its historical ‘authenticity’ allows for an appropriate distance from the present (whether the Pope really said ‘it is as it was’, this is certainly the reaction Gibson hoped for in making the film). Detractors regard the Passion as something of a freak event — violent, fundamentalist, quixotic in its aspiration towards literalness, in its use of Aramaic, of subtitles — and so on.
Both positions are limited. While the Passion is likely to go the way of any other Hollywood blockbuster, it is interesting insofar at it connects with contemporary sensibilities rather than transcends them. It’s worth exploring how the film resonates with the political and cultural climate of today, how it speaks to a logic of persecutors and victims, and how it depicts suffering in an age of ‘global terror’.
While the Passion concerned itself with the persecution of Christ, the theme of persecution came to dominate all aspects of the film’s production, not simply its content. Even before the films release, Gibson launched a pre-emptive strike against those likely to accuse him of being anti-Semitic. When the inevitable accusations came, Gibson took on the mantle of the one who was persecuted, claiming:
I didn’t realize it would be so vicious … The acts against this film started early … There is vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there, and they don’t want it. It’s vicious … There’s a huge war raging, and it’s over us!
After removing the infamous curse from the gospel of Matthew — ‘His blood be on us, and on our children’ — from the subtitles (if not the soundtrack) of the film, Gibson argued: ‘[If] I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me’.
The result was that the real issue of anti-Semitism often degenerated into claim and counter claim of persecution by interest-groups in the US, while the film itself received a publicity bonus. As Gary Wills has noted, Gibson’s apparent empathy with Christ’s persecution allowed the film’s critics to be dismissed as ‘Christophobes’ out to undermine religion itself.
This is no coincidence. The Passion connects strongly with ‘victim culture’. The rise of personal litigation, talk-show culture and the self-help industry are evidence of this growing phenomenon. Gibson presented himself as a victim of religious persecution to such an extent that it almost became impossible to ask him about anti-Semitism, let alone about his father’s well-known dismissal of the Holocaust. The fact that victim culture is merely the flipside to an excessively individualised society meant that Gibson’s singular focus upon persecution both on and off the screen resonated with many people. Anyone scanning religious websites or discussion-groups looking for reactions to the Passion will find that those who praise the film tend to do so by attacking its detractors. This defensive gesture is entirely consistent with the logic of victimisation.
In this sense, the fixation of the film itself upon the excessive suffering of Christ is appropriate. Christ is whipped, gouged, kicked, nearly drowned and slowly tortured to death beyond any level of plausibility. The whips that scourge his body have hook-like fixtures specifically designed to tear flesh — we know this because the camera makes a fetish of the process. The scourging scene mentioned in only one or two lines in the Gospels is drawn out to extreme lengths in the film. Blood repeatedly gushes from Christ’s wounds, yet there’s enough blood in his body to spurt all over the crowd when he is finally pierced with a spear to signal his death. Any claim to literalness is thus enabled only through contemporary cinematography — repeated close-ups, slow motion shots, carefully framed shots of Jesus’ face so that we can see him cry out and writhe in pain, all to a pounding musical soundtrack. The crucifixion becomes a forensic spectacle. An arm is brutally pulled out of its socket; nails are driven into Christ’s hands. We see it all — again and again.
Violence of this kind is generally seen only in horror movies, yet even the goriest of horror films are marked by a series of quick violent displays rather than an extended portrayal of one individual’s pain and suffering. The New Yorker reports that Gibson’s stated aim was to make the film resemble a Caravaggio painting, however Caravaggio’s own depiction of Christ’s torment is relatively unmarked by blood of any sort. If anything, the film resembles the more gruesome sixteenth century work of Matthias Grünewald whose pierced and tormented Christ similarly annuls the redemptive possibilities found in mainstream Christian iconography.
In Gibson’s Passion, Christ endures more torture and punishment than any human being could tolerate. He’s more like contemporary film heroes: tough guys who get beaten up, slashed, shot and somehow keep on going. Indeed Gibson’s films — from Mad Max onwards — have a distinctly masochistic flavour about them. Still, the Passion’s protracted display of violence resonates beyond any standard Hollywood frame of reference. It reflects wider cultural anxieties concerning embodiment. In his book on serial killers, Mark Seltzer noted that we are increasingly a ‘wound’ culture that is both fascinated and horrified at the site of opened bodies and graphic injuries. Think of the endless series of bodies and body parts on shows such as ER, or the spectacles of corpses and new technologies in the popular sub-genre of forensic programs such as CSI. Such shows are fixated with bodily dismemberment, but in a highly rationalised techno-scientific manner.
At some level they reflect our concerns about the posthuman threshold — the cultural significance of organ transplants, cloning, of techno-embodiment in general. In Gibson’s re-enactment of the crucifixion it is Christ the body, rather than Christ the subject, that evokes a response.
If the Passion is a conversion film, as supporters claim, just what are people being converted to? What is the effect of rewriting Jesus’ final hours so that we know virtually nothing of the meaning of Christ apart from his graphic dismemberment? Bach managed to avoid anti-Semitic sentiments in his St Matthew Passion by having the entire chorus call for Christ’s death, not just a discernable group of Jews. Gibson claims to have intended the same — claiming the meaning of the film is that we are all responsible for Christ’s death. However the film allows us no space to identify with Christ’s persecutors — they are simply too excessive. Instead, the only means of identification lies with the victim.
If the central meaning of the film is victimisation, does the film alter, as David Denby suggested in the New Yorker, ‘Jesus’ message of love into one of hate’? If so, the question remains as to exactly at whom the hate will be directed. It’s pretty easy to find anti-Semitic elements in the film. The visual characterisation of many Jews in the film fit cartoon stereotypes. Nowhere in the Gospels do Jewish guards whip Jesus, or dangle him over a bridge so as to nearly choke him. Nor does Satan appear to mingle with the largely Jewish mob as it demands his crucifixion. The historical inaccuracies involved in making many Romans in the film relatively benign and easily manipulated by the Jews have been widely noted. Yet if the film is anti-Semitic at one level, I’d argue that it is more encompassing in its forms of inclusion and exclusion than a charge of anti-Semitism can allow. One only has to look at who has lent support to the film. If conservative Catholic groups such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ have put aside their differences with Gibson to praise the film, it is more surprising that many Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists, even some conservative Jewish leaders have done the same. This is despite the films obvious Catholic context — the reverential focus upon Mary and upon Christ’s blood. Theological differences can be put aside in favour of an ecumenical hard-line. As Gary Wills observes, ‘the bond is religious extremism’. The film allows the suffering of Christ to become a blank (if bloody) slate across which can be written all manner of extreme pronouncements. Here victim culture reaches its potentially violent extreme.
Does not a similar ‘victim logic’ pervade the national culture of the US? The framing of the September 11 WTC attack as an assault on American ‘innocence’ is indicative of the apolitical and ahistorical identity the US has adopted as both world saviour and victim. Take Black Hawk Down, a film about the US ‘rescue-mission’ that went wrong in Somalia. In that film, a few US soldiers die horribly violent and graphic deaths, while numerous Somali aggressors die without undue attention on the camera’s part. Victim-heroes are graphically celebrated in their dismemberment, while their enemies are quickly and cleanly dispatched.
Similarly, the obsessive replaying of footage of the WTC attacks by the media parallels the obsessive destruction of Christ in Gibson’s film — it is simply the logic of victimisation carried to the level of the nation. Both Gibson’s film and the US’s characterisation of itself as current world saviour (and occasional victim) lack a grounding in context. Both portray a world where good and evil, innocence and guilt, are violently demarcated.
Terry Eagleton has noted the difference between first world and third world experiences of suffering. For the former, suffering is experienced as a catastrophic event while the third world endures suffering as a prolonged and banal experience of oppression, devoid of spectacle. While Christianity has always contained the possibility of a global ethic, it is unlikely to achieve this through a preoccupation with persecution and victimisation. It is worth remembering that the logic of spectacular victimhood is shot-through with aggression. Gibson’s film effectively marginalises any message of peace and tolerance attributed to Christ that might point towards an alternative ethical framework:
Blessed are the poor … Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the merciful … Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Yet, like their Roman precursors there is little compassion in evidence from those who oversee the current Empire. The true-believing neo-cons who want to ban gay marriages at home and declare war abroad would no doubt gain solace from Gibson’s film. I wonder who else will?
Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.