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March 03, 2004

Church of the Grisly Christ

I have returned from seeing the latest Mel Gibson movie. It was painful.

We Episcopalians say "He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures." A good third of this movie stops at about the second word. Mel Gibson has beaten Jesus to a bloody pulp in this film and I'm wondering if there is any sect of Christianity that has made such a graphic iconography of his torture. I hope not because I've had a wonderful lifetime of 'hating' Baptists; they'd have to step aside for the Church of the Grisly Christ.

The film's opening is off to a lurching start. Jesus suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane realizing the weight of his doom. As we watch, we know he's going to die, but his trembling seems overdone. There are not enough words to carry us forward - indeed this film is almost subliminal. Only knowing what Christians know gives any clue of the pain to come, but even the most seasoned Christian in the audience can only guess at the horrors in store.

I found myself asking, especially at Golgotha - the place of the actual crucifixion, how is it that Christians chose this particular moment as a focus for the great symbols of faith. The answer is obvious from the film's perspective. In essence, the Christ is the one, the only and ultimate martyr of Christianity. The sacrifice of body and blood are not merely symbols but the gritty gorey reality of ancient Roman brutality, and what was so monumental about Jesus' sacrifice was that he knowingly, preciently perhaps, walked directly into that hell on earth. For all the films ever made of the life of Jesus, certainly one should give contemporary audience the full weight of the pain of that bloody sacrifice. In that, the Passion is an extraordinary success, the Saving Private Ryan of its genre. Mel Gibson can now be acclaimed as the master of period violence. If he had only been the director of Gladiator, that fate would have been sealed forever. But the Passion could have done it on its own with little need for Mad Max, The Patriot or Braveheart.

This is a subliminal movie. Its script is the merest suggestion of familiar scripture and it does little to give us anything but our own memories to underlie the drama. It provides a modern vision for ancient stories, a realization as graphic as movie technology can provide but it does so without so much narrative as necessary to hold an ordinary film together. One is left with the distinct impression that Gibson studiously avoided adding a single word that might contradict some bibilical interpretation, and so left the talking, literally to the camera. By having all the dialog in Aramaic and Latin he has created an authentic, if claustophobic, world. The film provides no context, it refuses the backstory of John the Baptist, for example. It doesn't allow the man on the street to be heard or the mob to shout anything more than 'Free Barrabas'. One must come to such a film with a great deal of subtext already in mind because the story is told like a courtroom drama where only the prosecution speaks. He could be any man, and perhaps he was. As he stands accused and for much foreground story, Jesus is mute. He stands oddly defiant, neither subversive, nor superior as the Pharisees led by Caiphus denounce him and ask for his head. So I can understand why some Jews would become upset with what they might percieve as a dramatization of that which many [failing] Christians insist binds all Jews as Christ killers. There is no subtlety in the portrayal of these religious leaders, these are the Bad Guys, outraged at the impiety of this Nazerene. The slap and spit, they manipulate mercilessly, they call for blood.

The film handles Judas' anguish at his betrayal with some brilliance, his madness, grief and desparation are perfect material for Gibson's macabre touch. Yet in all of this there is but one actor who takes us onto our toes. Only Pontius Pilate, played brilliantly by Hristo Shopov head and shoulders above any previous Pilate, gives us something studied, even Shakespearean. His inner conflict gives the film its only mystery and tension. The rest is a kind of eyes open grand guignol one can only bear to watch once.

Of the dramatic depiction of Jesus himself, the stroke of genius is the actors' single, open amber eye. This one unblemished spot on the body racked from head to toe with ripped flesh conveys the silent dignity of a man condemned and resigned to that fate. In the single open eye of Jesus the Nazerene it is possible to see divinity.

But it is not divinity which is the subject of The Passion. The great wincing weight of this film is found in the lacerated body of Jesus himself. I defy anyone not to be moved by watching, over and over in slow motion, a mother's tears as her son is flayed to the bone. The unmerciful cruelty is so wrenching that it is nearly impossible not to feel compassion. The Roman thugs so delight in their brutality, the throngs so transfixed by the spectacle, the Marys so pitiable and traumatized that there is nothing left to do but cry. Through this unflinchingly goulish lens, Gibson does damage to the import of the message of Christ. I immediately thought, this must certainly have happened a thousand times all over human history, so what difference does it make that the torturers are Romans, that the accusers are Jews, that the martyr is Jesus? It matters and yet it doesn't. If it weren't Jesus, we'd walk out of the film having endured the bludgeoned point quite long enough, and yet because it is Jesus we stay, waiting for him to be Jesus. But he's just a man beaten into a gelatinous hulk stumbling up a hill, we pity him, we cry for him, we wish it were otherwise. Is the film heretical? No, it casts Jesus in the light of a warrior rather than as a teacher. Jesus has his heroic moment while chained to the whipping post, standing courageously as the King of another otherwordly kingdom, bloodied but unbowed. And then the beatings come with even more cruel ferocity. He is beaten into oblivion. It is surprising in many respects that nobody loses their lunch in this film as half the audience is wont to do. It must be the blood, the blood of Christ that gets to you, not the vomit, teeth and piss any other man would have shed under such torture. So what makes this the perfect sacrifice for the whole world is not the consistency of Jesus deportment as teacher to the end, but his willingness to soldier through the greatest pains imaginable. This is the point slammed home in Gibson's Passion, the sheer bonecrunching agony of it all.

Can one person's death be so significant? One could watch this film as a cautionary tale about inhumanity or about what happens to justice during occupation. So much of the import of the life of Christ is bound up in the travesty that someone unfamiliar with many Christian principals, while getting it on this basic physical level would lose sight of the transcendance. It wasn't that Christ died so horribly, but that he loved so transcendently, that he taught so wisely, that he lived with such integrity.

Gibson has created more than a film but an event which will prompt discussion about the nuts and bolts of Christianity. It marks us all that the incitement for this is such a grisly affair.

Posted by mbowen at March 3, 2004 10:30 AM

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