Suffer Unto Mel
This Jew has spent several hours in the past week reading all four Gospels and various supplementary texts, the work upon which Mel Gibson based his The Passion of the Christ. I’ve read the interpretations of scholars, the apologies of popes and the damnations of zealots. I’ve read dozens of articles documenting the making of the film and dozens of columns condemning it. To avoid the attendant furor surrounding The Passion of the Christ, and to ignore the reasons for its existence, would be like stepping into a minefield without a map. And the Jewish film critic who would damn the movie for being anti-Semitic or praise it for being an act of devotion is just asking for it, either way.
Gibson’s Passion is the most critic-proof movie ever made. It has two built-in audiences: the anointed and the appalled. The former will receive what they have come for, a horrific rendering of the death of Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel, who always looks like he’s suffering) that “proves” how great was his sacrifice.
The torture scenes are fetishistic, almost pornographic. By the time Jesus carries the cross up the hill, he is little more than pulp; the blood pours from him until it seems to flood the theater. You might miss subtitles while averting your gaze from the gore. A colleague walked out of an advance screening, dismissing The Passion of the Christ as the work of a “Jesus freak.” To many, that will be the ultimate compliment.
But those of us who grew up being taunted as “Christ killers” will see The Passion of the Christ and wonder whether it will inspire a new wave of anti-Semitism — not that some folks need the star of What Women Want to inspire them. Gibson sticks to the texts that drown the Jewish priests in Jesus’ blood. The Hebrew priests are stock Hollywood villains, with dark skin and crooked noses. They sneer at Jesus, spit at him, beat the hell out of him and threaten rebellion unless Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) crucifies him. Gibson has managed the unthinkable: He makes Pilate look like the good guy — weak, yes, for caving to the Jews, but saddened and guilt-ridden by his decision. It’s as though Pilate, regarded by history as a sadistic man who killed thousands of Jews on the cross, is the conscience the Jews do not have.
But if Gibson is to be taken to task for anything, it’s for making only half a movie. He isn’t interested, as Pier Pasolini or Martin Scorsese or Nicholas Ray or the Monty Python boys were, in Jesus the prophet, the teacher or even the man, but only as sacrificial symbol. Gibson has made the crucifixion the whole story, with only fleeting flashbacks to his saving of Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and to the last supper. His Jesus speaks in sound bites and offers up a quick medley of his greatest hits, then it’s back to the suffering — his and the audience’s.
If this had been made by anyone other than Mel Gibson and marketed by anyone other than Bob Berney, who made a hit out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Passion of the Christ would have attracted little notice. It’s too turgid to awe the nonbelievers, too zealous to inspire and often too silly to take seriously. (Its demonic hallucinations look like escapees from a David Lynch film; I can’t find the devil carrying around a hairy-backed midget anywhere in the text I read.) But maybe Gibson really did need to make this; I doubt Bird on a Wire or Lethal Weapon 4 were going to get him that express ticket to heaven he craves.