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February 25, 2004

The Passion of The Christ

So I can't decide if I will go see it or not. If I do, I'll be buying a ticket to something else (anything else) and slipping into the cathedral to Mel Gibson's ego at the last second.

The NYT's A.O. Scott gives me pause:

"The Passion of the 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.

The sublime David Edelstein's review in Slate, which is even more negative, ends with a critical question:

What does this protracted exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christian faith? I'm asking; I don't know. Gibson's revenge movies end with payback--or, in Braveheart, the promise of payback to come. When Jesus is resurrected, his expression is hard, and, as he moves toward the entrance to his tomb, the camera lingers on a round hole in his hand that goes all the way through. Gibson's Jesus reminded me of the Terminator--he could be the Christianator--heading out into the world to spread the bloody news. Next stop: the Crusades.

I'll ask another tough one: Shouldn't a devout Christian thank the Jews for bringing about a horrible event that was entirely necessary to the completion of prophecy, the miracle of resurrection, and the intercession? After the Diaspora, centuries of persecution by Christians, and the Vatican-complicit Holocaust, can't we say, "Wow, we're sorry for all the trouble it caused you but somebody had to do it"? Apparently not, as Mel shows blood-thirsty Jews hissing for crucifixion through rotten teeth.

I cannot say it in any other way: It is hard to be, in the grey spring of 2004, a thinking, caring Christian--let alone a gay one. It is hard to look my Jewish friends in the eye these days (or my Muslim ones, or my atheistic ones). A movie this bloody and hateful resembles a Santeria ritual more than it represents the faith I hold.

If there is anything positive to come from a film that lingers on the most imflammatory and politicized (as in, polticized-when-written, by writers locked in a messy market-share battle against a much better-established multinational organization) and passages of the Gospels, it may be this. The film captures perfectly the dominant strain in current American Christianity. Paranoid, beset by a thousand enemies, triumphally convinced not just of its goodness but of its good-versus-evil-ness. In other words, a Christianity that has for decades been steadily distilling itself down from the worst dregs the religion ever had to offer--bitter as the cup Christ asked be taken from him, but devoid of the promise of grace and forgiveness the crucifixion really stands for. The Christianity that this movie both reflects and panders to is not real Christianity at all. To follow Edelstein's phrase, it is "Christianatorism," a perversion whose slogal should be "Jesus is coming back--and he's pissed." Bravo, Mel Gibson, for serving up the false prophet in such great Hollywood fashion.

Mix in a little crass commercialism, a little transparent demogogery, and it's a spectacle as disgusting as the moneychangers in the Temple. (No, really... follow the link.)

I suppose I should see the movie before damning it, but even the clips turned my stomach. I've used the phrase "theological porn" here before, but nowhere does it seem more apt. In every quivering mortification of the flesh, in every ecstatic moan, in every glistening drop sacred bodily fluid, in every voyeuristic insistence that the faithful wash themselves in the hot, sticky blood of the Lord--the film's incandescent realism leads its lambs not only to slaughter but also to an orgasm of spritual violence. In that empty moment after, there is no embrace or consolation--only incitement to the spirit of vengenace that, in the slander the film seems designed to deliver, Mel wants to pin on the Jews some two millennia later.

Posted by jay at February 25, 2004 10:35 AM | TrackBack
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That "Christianator" bit made me think of "The Wanderer" from Zooropa, with Johnny Cash's pseudoautobiographical vocal:
I went out walking
With a Bible and a gun
The Word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one

I haven't yet even considered seeing this film, and despite my compulsive use of Google News and headlines about the film frequently appearing on the top page, I don't think I've done more than skim one article.Personally, I'm not yet done celebrating my freedom from the Christianity in which I was raised, and seeing this film seems like an unfortunate pause in that. (If someone wanted to organize an outing to view the film and there would be drinks afterward—I'm not sure what's most appropriate here, PBR or Grey Goose—then it could still be a celebration.)

Posted by: Gary on February 26, 2004 10:34 PM

Good god, I'm finally reading David Edelstein's review, and I think drinking—heavy drinking—might need to commence prior to the end of the film. I don't think I want to see that, even after it gets to the Crest. I'll just qualify any criticism I decide to make, to inform the listener about my lack of first-hand knowledge.

Posted by: Gary on February 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Letís suppose Jesus had been executed in some quick painless manner--by Guillotine or lethal injection. Would his message have been diminished? The faithful would say no. Would participation in a bloody Hollywood dramatization be diminished? No doubt, but Iím sure Mel and his slo-mo camera would do their best.

BTW, I read the Slate review, and you've added a thoughtful and well-written bit of commentary here.

Posted by: Jeff on February 27, 2004 09:12 PM

Thanks for the kind comments, Jeff.

I do believe that the crucifixion actually happened, but at the same I see it as an archtype of human suffering, a symbol of the worst that man can do to man (or in this case, the worst man can to do God-as-man). So I can't entirely blame Gibson for his desire to show the suffering of Christ in a realistic way. By again, realism need not be an exercise in sadomasochism. Quite literally, it is overkill.

But to return to your point, I think that the nature of Christ's death is signficant in several ways--most importantly from a historical perspective, crucifixion was the standard manner of execution for criminals.

Posted by: jay on March 3, 2004 11:52 AM
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