Friday, 25 March 2016

FRIDAY, BLOODY FRIDAY: GIBSON'S "PASSION"

"By his stripes we are healed": Jim Caviezel as
Jesus Christ in Gibson's gory "Passion" play


Twelve years ago, at the inception of the 2004 Lenten season, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released into theaters worldwide. Passion had already attained notoriety due to a concerted media campaign—led by the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman as well as other assorted “usual suspects”—to condemn the violent, gory New Testament drama as “anti-Semitic.”

Passion’s overwhelming success at the box office provoked hand-wringing aplenty, as well as some brow-furrowing puzzlement, from the chattering classes. Judging from its content, one never would have thought that the film would hold such mass appeal. Nevertheless, anomalous circumstances predominated, leaving cultural critics scratching their heads, befuddled by what would prove to be the cinematic sensation of the "oughts" decade.

Fundamentalist evangelicals, who normally reflexively shun R-rated movies, turned out to be Passion’s most enthusiastic boosters. That much-reviled species known as "Middle Americans"—those Boobus Americanuses who have a long history of making crap merchants like Adam Sandler, Steven Segal, Thomas Kinkade, and Nickelback, inter alia into millionaires—suddenly showed up in droves to watch a subtitled foreign film with a generally-unknown cast, featuring characters speaking entirely in ancient variations of Latin and Aramaic. Even large pockets of thoroughly secular people seemingly couldn’t resist relinquishing ten bucks of their pocket money and two hours of their lives just to see what the fuss was all about. 

By the end of its run, Passion, which had been funded mostly by Gibson himself (since he had a difficult time finding a willing producer in Hollywood), exceeded everyone's expectations, grossing more than $370 million domestically, and pulling in an additional $241 in the international market. 

 For most of 2004, Passion had the attention of the world, for better or for worse. No less a luminary than Pope John Paul II reportedly raved about the film’s theological acuity and historical accuracy, before public relations-wary Vatican bureaucrats hastily backpedaled onthe pontiff’s alleged initial assessment. Still, the fact that Passion so grandly succeeded-- even while the power-brokers of the world most ardently wished it to fail-- makes it a kind of postmodern miracle of counter-marketing, the sort that hasn’t been seen since a certain toupeed Manhattan real estate mogul descended that fateful escalator a few months ago.

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Passion
’s pre-release hype certainly did much to enhance its marketability. Yet its unrelenting aesthetic brutality must surely have caught many a viewer up short. Some Hollywood pundits condemned it as “torture porn,” a genre that has since been established as a sort of niche among a certain segment of the moviegoing public. (Of course, it need scarcely be pointed out that most of these critics are of the socially liberal variety, who would generally scoff at those who use “pornography” as an epithet, yet nevertheless feel no compunction about puritanically condemning Gibson for his ostensible “sadomasochistic” rendering of the scourging and crucifixion of Christ; the same sort who fulminate against “homophobia” but like to engage in furtive innuendo about their ideological enemies secretly being flaming queers.) Others went so far as to depict Passion as a patently obscene “snufffilm.” While such assessments were generally offered in a haughtily dismissive vein, they do ironically offer an insight into Gibson’s bold and uncompromising directorial approach. Gibson openly admitted that his aim was to “shock,” and at this he succeeded, for Passion is indeed a powerfully shocking film.

In a previous article, I made reference to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as a depiction of the dramatic scenario of "man against the mob." In that play (recently made into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler), the fiercely proud warrior-protagonist avidly courts the hatred of the commoners of Rome, whom he repeatedly disdains as “curs,” unworthy of his martial glory.

In Passion we see a similar conflict play out. This time, however, the dynamic is reversed. If Coriolanus displays an instance of “man against the mob,” Passion presents the converse case of “mob against the man.”

Pharisees Annas and Caiaphas: Oy vey!
Of course, striking and significant similarities between the protagonists can indeed be remarked. Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Gibson’s Christ is a man of implacable spirit and indomitable resolve. Both men face an unruly, murderous crowd thirsting for their blood. In both Passion and Coriolanus, the braying mob is led by a claque of ruthless, calculating demagogues; Coriolanus’s nemeses are scheming Roman tribunes, while Christ’s sworn enemies are arrogant Hebrew Pharisees (more on them later).

Needless to say, Christ—being, well, Himself --is not saddled with Coriolanus’s numerous character flaws. Where the Roman is self-centered, conceited, and temperamentally choleric, the Nazarene is stoic and endlessly forbearing, never "passion’s slave," always effortlessly maintaining a graceful mental equilibrium, even while enduring terrible strain, beastly pain, and unfathomable abuse.

Yet Gibson is not content to implore the viewer to admire his tormented hero, nor is he interested in imparting some blandly antiseptic Sunday school lesson about redemption or substitutionary atonement. Instead, he means us to feel the full weight of Christ’s suffering, in all of its ghastly manifestations and permutations: a graphic, cinematic Stations of the Cross. This filmic Passion is full-blooded, both figuratively and literally.

"Dogs surround me. A pack of
villains encircles me."—Psalm 22
To be sure, the savage violence and awful cruelty is truly unbearable to witness, even for the most jaded of viewers. Over the course of 125 minutes Christ gets slapped, punched, whipped, kicked, and dragged around in chains. At one point that always elicits gasps from audiences, a chunk of flesh is torn from his back by a hooked cat-o’-nine-tails whip wielded by an especially apt scourger; at another moment, brutish guards hoot with oafish delight as they press a plait of pointed thorns over his head before regaling him with the mocking proclamation, “Hail, wormy King!” 

Christ then is spat on, jeered at, sneered at, laughed at… then beaten, kicked, and whipped some more, and on it goes... The man who would be Savior gets roughly paraded from one setting to another, from the lair of the Pharisees to Herod’s castle to the proscenium of Pilate’s judgement hall, en route to his gruesome crucifixion at Golgotha.

To some critics, this relentless string of recorded outrages strains credulity. It hardly seems realistic that one man would manage to survive a pummeling of such luridly sustained intensity for such a duration. Yet the theological rationale here is totally sound: to be sure, it’s exactly the point that Christ would suffer in ways that would strike us as utterly unimaginable. In fact, this is the essence of the temptation Jesus faces in the movie’s opening scene at the Garden of Gethsemane, wherein he is visited by Satan (represented here as a weirdly androgynous creature with a woman’s face and a man’s voice), who tries to induce him to relinquish the notion of taking the sins of the world upon himself, as this is “just too much for one man.”

Rosalinda Celentano as Satan
Yet Christ vanquishes this demonic temptation and faithfully carries his assigned burden through to the end, effectively putting the Devil in his/her place (i.e. Hell). And just as we, the audience, have been forced to share in the full extent of his humiliation during his painful trek to his unjust execution, we can also bask in the stately triumph of the subtly suggestive final scene, wherein we see a hand roll away the stone from the entrance of his tomb as an exhilarating flourish of battle drums on the soundtrack announces the Christ's glorious Resurrection.

(In my next article, I will examine Passion of the Christ with regard to the, ahem, Jewish question.)


Andy Nowicki, assistant editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the NihilThe Columbine PilgrimConsidering Suicide, and Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so. Visit his Soundcloud page.


 

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