Saturday, February 28

Okay so I saw "Passion" last night.
A. O. Scott writing in the New York Times sums up my feelings:

"The Passion of Christ" is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus' final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace.
Here are a few more observations; I'll assume you guys have seen the film, or at least read about it by now.
One thing that disturbs me is that Gibson has appealed to his movie's fidelity to scripture when it has suited him, as in the case of the "Matthew Blood Curse", (which, though absent from the subtitles, remains in the Aramaic dialogue of the film) but has departed from it in other places, e.g., the androgynous satan with the demon-baby (more below). Indeed there are several respects in which Gibson's Passion departs from the gospel accounts. I'm sure someone has compiled a more exhaustive list, but here's what I noticed:
1) The dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin, but Romans and Jews of the period, outside of highly formal situations, would have defaulted to Greek, not Latin. 2) Satan appears as an androgynous voyeur in Gethsemane, at the flogging (with demon-baby in tow), on the road to the crucifixion, and at Golgotha. 3) Judas is tormented by demon-children. 4) There are a couple of flashbacks to spurious scenes from Jesus' childhood and young adulthood. 5) There is a brief and pitiful encounter between Pilate's wife and Mary the mother of Jesus. 6) Lines of extra-Biblical dialogue are given to every major character. 7) The nails are driven into the palms of the hands (a capitulation to centuries of Christian iconography no doubt), rather than into the wrist as was the practice. 8) The unrepentant thief gets his eye pecked out by a menacing raven perched above him on his cross (an homage to Hitchcock?).
Now I don't have a problem with any of this, but if you're already taking such liberties why leave in elements like the Blood Curse?
Much has been made of the film's fidelity to the historical setting. Yet overall the visual aesthetic struck me as equal parts medieval and magical realist. Jesus' limbs are gnarled, his countenance dark, the film reeks with buzzing flies and fetid flesh. It is definitely not the "Saving Private Ryan" of Jesus films, but feels more like another film in which James Caviezel endures man's cruelty, "The Thin Red Line".
The film ends with a very brief scene of the resurrected Jesus preparing to exit the tomb. What does it mean that Gibson gives us the first half of the revenge formula but not the second? It's like watching "Death Wish" up to the point where, with murdered wife and raped daughter seared into memory, Bronson's "bleeding-heart" Paul Kersey buys the gun. As A. O. Scott points out, it's a rather unsatisfying revenge flick that ends before the revenge can be taken. So what is the audience supposed to take from this? What sort of imaginative exercise are we supposed to engage in to supplement the lack of a revenge sequence? Holding hands and singing "Kumbaya My Lord" doesn't seem adequate. Somehow this film feels dangerous.
I have heard several reviewers now say that the anti-semitism wasn't as pronounced as they had expected. Well, I think it was there in the foreground, but it seems to me that the treatment that Gibson gives it is not so different from its treatment in the gospels, so the real question is whether it is appropriate to make a Jesus film that apes the anti-semitism of the gospels (see especially Matthew 27:25). There's a history here. As A. James Rudin, writing in beliefnet, explains:
Lethal bloody reactions against Jews often followed Passion play performances. Physical attacks were so appalling that in 1338 the councilors of Freiburg banned the performance of anti-Jewish scenes of that town's play. The Frankfurt Jewish ghetto was protected in 1469, and in 1539 a Passion play was forbidden in Rome because of the violent attacks against the city's Jewish residents.
But with the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and the positive teachings of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, many Christian leaders publicly taught that traditional Passion plays are a source of negative and false teachings about Jews and Judaism.
Is it responsible to make a film like "Passion" given the levels of anti-semitism in the world today? (The latest Harpers Index tells me that Jews are six times more likely to be targets of hate crimes in the U.S. than Muslims. It only gets worse outside of the U.S. The situation in France is frightening.)
This may seem preposterous, but for me it was hard not to notice how James Caviezel, with his long, thin face, rangy body, olive skin and dark hair and beard looks like, well, Osama Bin Laden! Since I watched the film with my Iranian friend, I asked her if she saw the resemblance, and if she thought that certain young muslims who saw the movie might make the connection (after all, I did). She agreed, and went on to tell me how, in the muslim school she attended as a young girl in Iran, anti-semitism was propounded right along with a contrasting (and complimentary?) reverence for Jesus and (this is still sinking in) Mary the mother of Christ. So think about it from the perspective of a young muslim boy who has grown up in poverty and been exposed to militant Islamic ideology: Jesus=Bid Laden (or Bin Laden-types), Romans=Americans (at best well-meaning but bumbling imperialists), and the Jews=well, the "Zionist entity." As I think about it, I'm beginning to think that Gibson's portrayal of the Passion, stripped of any back-story, de-contextualized as it is, truncated to leave the revenge sequence to the imaginations of its viewers, is fuel for diverse fanaticisms.
Let's not forget here that in the Christian tradition, behind Jesus' injunction to forgive is the promise that our heavenly father will judge with a degree of accuracy and punish with a measure of vengeance far beyond our human capabilities.
Something about the movie is at home in our Post 9-11 era. Roderick Hart, my former rhetoric professor at the University of Texas, pointed out that Kennedy's rhetoric appealed to the "head," Reagan's and Clinton's to the "heart," and Bush's to the "gut" (the charkra apparently activated by the explosions that brought down the Twin Towers). Something similar could be said about Jesus films. Zeffirelli's (along with his "Brother Sun Sister Moon") appealed to the heart, Scorsese's adaptation of Kazantzakis' story to the (existentially anxious) head, and Gibson's most certainly to the gut. There is nothing mellifluous about the film--the dialogue and sequences follow the cadence of the sucker punches thrown at Jesus' body, and the prayers he mouths before another one lands.
Some reviewer has pointed out the the gospels are somewhat circumspect about the details of the scourging and crucifixion. Certainly the ancient world had its poets of lavish battle gore, Homer comes to mind. But that's not what we get in the gospels. And yet, I remember as a child meditating on the violence of the Passion. Warning, I'm going to be very biographical here.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home in the rural south. As a child I distinctly remember trying to imagine, in an act of sadomasochistic piety, what it must feel like to have nails driven through my hands. I remember there was something oddly pleasurable about the imagination of such unimaginable pain, as if the imagination, in imagining it, was pushed beyond its limit in a way that resembled the ecstasy experienced by a body pushed beyond its. In my imagination the crucifixion represented the degree zero of sensation. And it stood between every body and heaven. It was necessary to try to imagine it to understand the depth of your sin, to appreciate the price that was paid for your soul. If you had things given to you you might not appreciate them--better if you had to work for these things, then you wouldn't take them for granted. But you could never work your way into salvation. Thus grace. Thus the best you could do was to hoist your imagination onto the cross.
Though I still pray, I am no longer a Christian. But in the years that have followed the loss of my faith, I have found these new feel-good, clap-your-hands-for-Jesus, pop-psychology, self-help, gospel-of-affluence-and-success churches to be insufferable. I'd rather have Christianity the old-fashioned way. From where I sit at my desk I can see my small print of Matthias Grünewald's "The Small Crucifixion," which I purchased at a college bookstore years ago. I've toted it from apartment to apartment, state to state. It's always been with me, from the time I was trying to hang on to my faith with the help of Kierkegaard, Dosteoevsky, and Stolichnaya, through a few years of post-college hedonism, an aborted attempt to become a Buddhist, and for the last several years a sort of riskless, professionally innocuous (and mostly sober) postmodernism. Grünewald's Jesus stares down at me, contorted, flayed. It might as well be a picture of James Caviezel as seen through Mel Gibson's lens.