Features Regulars School News Reviews Comics grey

Open to seduction

The Passion of The Christ “As it was” ?

By Eli Ungar

Illustration by Jen Tobias

I have a confession to make. I was extremely excited to see Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of The Christ. I know, I know, what’s a good Jewish boy like me saying a thing like that, right? Well, to tell you the truth, my excitement was in large part due to the fact that I was raised an Orthodox Jew. From the time that I was ten years old and began studying the Talmud, I always hoped that the day would come when, like a super-hero, I could swoop in and, using my Aramaic skills, save some unwitting academic from making a terrible error. The time has finally come! All those years that I spent crouched over obscure sixth century Babylonian texts were not endured in vain. For how many film critics can say that they are actually equipped to understand Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ in its original language?

The film begins in the garden of Gethsemane where we see Jesus (Jim Caviezel) on the night of his arrest, being tormented by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), an androgynous character who is disturbingly beautiful. Satan tries to put doubt in Jesus’ mind, telling him that the sacrifice he is about to make is too much for one man. For me, this is the high point of the film. The all-too-human quality of spiritual doubt is embodied in the struggle between Jesus and Satan here in a truly evocative way. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is extremely problematic.

From the moment that Jesus is captured, which occurs five minutes into the film, the story disintegrates into a series of brutal beatings. The violence is of a magnitude and realism that has rarely, if ever, been put on celluloid. We watch as Jim Caviezel is reduced to a bloody pulp of flesh, first by the High Priests’ guards and then all over again by the Roman guards. Using the latest in digital technology, Gibson gives us an unrelenting vision of a man being flayed alive, complete with close-up shots of whips ripping into his flesh. The flashbacks to Jesus’ life and teachings are simply not given enough screen time to counterbalance this extreme and fetishistic attention to the details of his torture.

When queried about the extreme nature of the violence, Mel Gibson argued that it serves to engage the viewer in understanding the enormity of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us all. I believe that this is the central failing of the film. Far from inspiring awe for the suffering that the Jesus character is enduring, these brutal scenes move us to loathing and hatred of the characters inflicting it upon him. This is especially true in light of the fact that the voluntary aspect of Christ’s suffering, which is so important in the Gospels, is profoundly understated in the film.

The concern over anti-Jewish sentiments is entirely legitimate. The Passion of the Christ is very much a film version of the “Passion Play” that dates back to the Middle Ages. The “Passion Play” is a dramatic reenactment of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus that is traditionally performed around Easter. These dramatizations have a long and ignoble history associated with violence against Jews who have, throughout the ages, been held collectively responsible for the killing of Jesus Christ.

The most inflammatory part of the Gospels, from a Jewish perspective, is Matthew 27:25: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” Contrary to what you may have heard, this line has not been omitted from the film. It is true, that in response to focus groups, who reacted badly to this particular line, Mel Gibson removed it from the subtitles. However, for the close listener, the Aramaic “Damei Alaynu Wai al baneinu. His blood is on us and on our children,” is still discernible. The irony, of course, is that the only people who could understand this line without the subtitles are a handful of scholars and Jews versed in Talmudic texts! Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that despite the aforementioned concerns, the anti-Jewish feel of Gibson’s interpretation merely reflects the bias of his source material.

The real problem with The Passion is that when Mel Gibson looked at the gospels, what he saw was extreme and fetishistic violence. Is he working within a religious tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages? Without a doubt. The Christian tradition of inspiring spirituality through depictions of the suffering of Christ runs so deep that when I asked my Christian friends about it, they had trouble understanding my question. It was so self-evident to them that people would be spiritually inspired by this particular violence that they felt it strange for me to ask how such a thing is possible.

Sitting next to me in the theater were people who were literally moved to tears. These people live in a different universe than I do. For them, spirituality is inextricably bound to this particular “historical” event which they imagine to be as bloody, if not more so, than Mel Gibson’s depiction. Realizing the depths of the gulf that divide me from my neighbour, I am tempted to throw in the towel and choose sides in this latest expression of the culture wars. It would be so easy to just admit that I don’t share a number of very basic assumptions with religious fundamentalists. I would save myself the trouble of bending over backwards to understand views that are so foreign to me. But wouldn’t such a move simply amount to my falling prey to the immature endgame that Gibson has set up here? Wouldn’t I be allowing someone else to tell me what the essence of spirituality is? Is not bridging the gulf between the fundamentalist and the liberal, one of the most important spiritual challenges of our time? I, for one, refuse to buy the take-it-or-leave-it approach that Gibson and his minions are selling.

The phenomenal financial success of The Passion will most likely have at least one positive repercussion. It will succeed in opening the commercially-driven mainstream market to more works of religious cinema. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, The Passion of the Christ proves to be a superficial interpretation of the Gospels made by a wealthy artist, whose vision of spirituality and religion seems to be limited to a narrow obsession with violence.






Features Regulars School News Reviews Comics grey