|Cast:||James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Christo Jivkov, Francesco De Vito, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Shopov|
|Screenplay:||Mel Gibson & Benedict Fitzgerald|
I tend to avoid writing about films I don’t like. Partially because I realize that, regardless of objective effort, a certain amount of subjectivity is going to seep its way in. To often one may not be in total sync with the filmmaker’s vision. With that said, I am breaking my standard rule here because Mel Gibson’s 2004 “Lethal Jesus” seems an even more vivid symbol today of what exactly is wrong with the direction “spirituality in film” has taken, what is wrong with the Catholic Church, what is wrong with Christianity in general, and what is wrong in the overall, current state of film as an art form. Oh, and I do get this film’s vision all too well. Hell, I saw it first in a Jack T. Chick fundamentalist comic tract from the 1970′s which depicted the Passion with a suffering Christ who looked like Hamburger Helper as hooked nosed Jews screamed for his death. The same company produced numerous, blatantly anti-Semitic tracts, including one in which a Rabbi was fried in the fires of hell by a faceless God, sitting on a large white throne. I saw it next in a protestant passion play that I was forced to sit through in which a muscle bound Jesus got involved in a barroom type brawl (in his descent to Hell) with demons who looked suspiciously like caricatured Jews, dressed in black with false noses. Gibson’s Passion of the Christ does not lead to regressive behavior, it is a 21st century manifested promotion for the medieval lynch mob which precedes it.
The Passion of the Christ is not only blatantly anti-Semitic, it is also the most blatantly anti-Christian film ever made. Two-dimensional thinkers will instead point to films like Bunuel’s Milky Way (1969), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Rapture (1991), Dogma (1999) or Religulous (2008), as anti-Christian. Yet, all of these edify the spiritual Christian movement.
Gibson’s frighteningly pedestrian take on the passion is a far cry from the spirituality in cinema espoused by master Andrei Tarkovsky. Passion of the Christ also sits on the polar opposite end of films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), City Lights (1931), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943), I Confess (1953), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966), Andrei Rublev (1973), The Scarlet and the Black (1983), The Mission (1986), and Dead Man Walking (1995).
Independent cinema, at one time, did not actually mimic the formulaic Hollywood recipe. The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Rapture are remarkable examples of highly original, spiritually enriched films. When the former was released in 1966, Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton was moved by its originality and refusal to cater to pre-conceived notions. Of course, the era of Paolo Pasolini and Merton was also the era of John XXIII, The Second Vatican Council, and Flannery O’Connor, who may very well be the most poignant Catholic writer who ever lived. Much has changed since then, and certainly not for the better. Indeed, Gibson’s “independent” sadistic porno, wrapped in 25 million dollar market savvy linen, is the cinematic equivalent of multiple misguided directions.
When this was released in 2004, churches took their congregations by the busload to see it. Corporate giants like Wal-Mart stocked their shelves by the hundreds of thousands with the DVD. Yes, you could purchase your Passion of the Christ movie to take home and enjoy for family viewing, along with Passion merchandised plastic spikes and your buckshot, all in one trip. Amazingly, there was no fast food tie-in deals but, then, who needs them when you have the almighty Wal-mart behind you? The movie as a marketing event has seen never seen such a shameful moment because it was “this” movie.
Even the Vatican got involved, giving the film a wink and an official thumbs up. This is not the Vatican of John XXIII, who, as a cardinal, issued false baptismal certificates to Jewish children, in an effort to keep them out of Nazi ovens. It is also not the church of sweet Bernadette or the Little Flower, Saint Theresa. No, this is a post Second Vatican Council Vatican which has desperately sought to reverse the reforms of the 60′s and return to the middle ages. It is a Vatican of extremes that revels in sadistic, racist tripe like The Passion of the Christ and permits bishops like Thomas Olmstead to excommunicate a nun for allowing doctors to save a mother of four over her eleven week old fetus. This is the same Vatican whose current pope actively covered up for predatory pedophile priests, refused to defrock them and, instead, tries to shift and place the blame on homosexuality and promotion of women in the priesthood. It is a Passion of the Christ styled Vatican which continues to promote misogyny well into the 21st century, has a Crusade inspired pope who has uttered racist epitaphs towards Muslims and pooh poohs his own past in Hitler’s Nazi youth. Sounds like Gibson’s version of Christendom after all, even if it is well known now that he and his Holocaust denying pappy actually belong to a splinter Catholic group which, among other things, still insists on women covering their heads during mass and has rejected Vatican II’s rejection of referring to Jews as “Christ-Killers.”
When numerous critics pointed out the overwhelming Antisemitism of the film, they were pounced on by apostles of James Caviezel’s “Take it like a man” Americanized macho Jesus who is completely alien to the Christ of the Beatitudes. No apologies were issued to those spoil sport critics when Gibson’s Antisemitism became common public knowledge because the religious right arrogantly presumes it is the sole owner of the faith and Church, with nothing to apologize for. Gibson’s Passion is as twisted, ugly and spewing as the hook nose “Jews” he grossly misrepresents in the film.
Blame shifts entirely from Roman procurator Pontius Pilate to the Jews, despite historical documentation for Pilate's ruthless lack of mercy. In this, the film echoes Christendom, elevating Pilate to near saint. After all, it was Rome who gave the official stamp of approval. Echoing Christendom's big, wrong turn, yet again, the film entirely shifts a 2000 year old blame and, through caricaturization, the door is swung wide open for the much bullied upon high school geeks (Christianity) to become the new, improved and licensed bullies. Gibson targets the Jews, of course. The Jews are in league with a very fem looking Satan who, later, actually morphs into a woman and produces a reptilian sidekick, both of which come off as hackneyed rejects from George Lucas' execrable second "Star Wars" trilogy. Of course, effeminacy is certainly the root of all evils and, quite obviously, a Jewish trait. Gibson expressed those views previous in a scene depicting Prince Edward from the Academy Award winning "Braveheart" (1995). The Jews in "Passion of the Christ" are also in league with the excruciatingly Jewish Judas Iscariot, who is the sole apostle here that tactlessly refers to Jesus as? his "Rabbi."
In this version of the Passion, Christ and his apostles did not evolve from Judaism, they were, with the exception of Judas, never Jewish to begin with. Gibson even manages to outdo Richard Wagner in re-writing history in order to suit one's hate inspired agenda, but at least Wagner could produce great art. Gibson's film takes a sublime, existential, metaphoric icon: the Stations of the Cross, and transforms it into race bating pornography for fundamentalists. Even Peter is transformed from a very human apostle who, through immense struggles and missteps, became the rock of the Church, into a pre-made rock who comes across more like a Sylvester Stallone styled first century cop. One keeps expecting to see Our Lady; She-Devil of the SS. Like much in the post Vatican II Church which aspires, in part, to "progressively" morph back into the pre-Vatican II Church, Gibson avoids an real emphasis on Our Lady and drops her organic, spiritual presence like a hot potato. He-man misogyny and Antisemitism are bows on Gibson's "gift to the world."
Ironically, this "Wrath of Jesus", with a medieval Roman Catholic agenda, connected most to fundamentalist protestants, or perhaps, it's not so ironic after all. In choosing to bypass the whole of Christ's startling, diaphanous, radical and uncompromising, charismatic message of love and forgiveness, Gibson takes his dirty magnifying glass and homes in on the bloodshed detail, expanding it far beyond what Gospel writers ever fathomed.
Gibson's passion play is a grimy, ultra violent video game (complete with a Garden of Gethsemane straight out of a George Romero 'Dead' movie), packaged by a brand of corporate Christendom and sold as a bill of goods that takes us to a "new level in realism" because "this is what Jesus went through for you, Johnny", all the while fanning the medieval and fascist flames in stylized post "Matrix" Christian propaganda.
"Passion of the Christ" is mockingly titled because there isn't an ounce of passion in this film. It is a dumbed down, two hour scourging completely removing us from Christ, the compassionate revolutionary. Here, the historical flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth is reduced to a one dimensional cardboard deity who can take whatever is physically dished out because, unlike you and I, he is a god. What's missing is the human soul and tragedy of the Nazarene. If Christ were simply a divine figure who endured suffering, we would not be discussing him two millennium later, nor we would still be grappling to come to terms with the meaning of his life and death.
The complex Christ of the gospels is, at times, paradoxically irritable, empathetically patient to human folly, aloof, accessible, matriarchal, patriarchal, an inspiring leader, servile, the quintessential outcast, communal, philosophical, emotionally charged, ambiguous, crystal clear, fearful, bravely determined, devoted to his mother, and impatient with her. The Christ of the four gospels is divine because he is the most human of humans.
Even in solely focusing on the passion of the Christ, which Gibson's film purports to do, these qualities are still vividly present in the gospel accounts and in the countless artistic depictions of the Stations of the Cross. A visit to a random half dozen parishes will reveal an illuminating, rich diversity in the Stations iconography, ranging from the traditional to modern and post-modern representations. The beauty of the Catholic tradition can be found in its expansive egalitarianism. This egalitarianism is metaphorically expressed in the journeyed stations, which confirm and celebrate the humanity of Christ for the laity.
Carl Theodore Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" homed in on the passion of its subject without dehumanizing her, quite the contrary. Unfortunately, Gibson did not follow Dreyer's example. Instead, Christ' life and ministry are substantially missing meat in a film superficially charged with the odor of divine, flayed flesh. Gibson's film is so lost in its hierarchal simple mindedness that the egalitarian celebration of humanity, found in the Stations, eludes him.
Gibson's recent tirades and outbursts are not surprising at all when viewing this film. Indeed, this is an instance where one cannot separate the creator from his work because Gibson's militant misogyny and Antisemitism underpin every single frame of this "Passion" as much as Carl Orff's fascist leanings underpin the bawdy, militaristic "Carmina Burana."
By comparison, Picasso's "Guernica" is a work of art that inspiringly captures the sense of startlement towards the horrors inflicted in this world; the kind of startlement that Christ must have felt when he realized he had gone too far and was doomed to be murdered by his frightened, confused, beloved brethren. Gibson's film is the equivalent of anti-Guernica. Instead of inspiring empathy or a sense of human identity, which is what it should do, Gibson's film retroactively harks back to "us vs. them."
The Gospels report that Christ "learned" from the Samaritan woman. Gibson's Christ is incapable of learning, especially from a weak and sinful woman. According to Gibson, Christ's death is not the consequence for bravely espousing a world changing message. Gibson's Jesus undergoes two hours of torture to "teach" us a lesson about what it takes to be a god and this is depicted as penance for our human wretchedness. Gibson even counts himself among the wretched, undeserving of Christ' sacrifice, by utilizing his own hand to hammer a nail into the flesh of Christ. Of course, Gibson widely publicized that fact, along with the fact that he financed the film himself. The middle aged multi-millionaire artist as humble saint has rarely rang so arrogant or so phony. Gibson serves as his own elitist pope.
Gibson's carefully placed and publicized hand takes on a masturbatory symbol in this exercise of titillation. Titillation equals pornography, and "Passion of the Christ" is pornography reprehensibly promoted and sold as an artistic vision. I have yet to see a pornographic film which can actually qualify as art and Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" certainly does not qualify as art and, like most pornography, it reduces itself to a series of unimaginative vignettes, climaxing with one repetitious, dull money shot after another, appeasing an audience of Christian thugs.
However, contrary to what Gibson and his like-minded supporters think, the "money shot" is not in the orgasmic, titillating climax, it is in the loving, intimate embrace afterword, which pornography always (and predictably) fails to show. The money shot is in that moment when two people in love, after having made love, fall asleep, one's head resting on the other's chest, entwined in their bed together. Oh, Gibson does, all too briefly, depict the fifteenth station; the Resurrection, but, after two plus hours of grinding, one had better give more than a three second embrace in the loving comfort of the ascension. "Passion of the Christ", naturally, fails to do that and it is, ultimately, an immature, mud and tractor pull styled adolescent fantasy aimed for attention span challenged moviegoers, fundie porn hounds, and their boxes of Kleenexes.