Just Above Sunset Archives

I've long felt that religion was nothing but trouble in this world. I try to avoid it.

Home | Odds and Ends | Music Notes | Book Notes | Sidebars | Culture Wars Lost | Culture Wars Won | Gay Marriage | Jesus Flogged Repeatedly | Photography | Quotes | Links and Recommendations | Archives | Daily Commentary (weblog)

The controversial film finally opened this week.

This is it:
The Passion of the Christ

MPAA rating: R, for scenes of graphic violence.
An Icon Productions presentation in association with Newmarket Films.
Director Mel Gibson.
Producers Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety.
Executive producer Enzo Sisti.
Screenplay Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
Production designer Francesco Frigeri.
Set decorator Carlo Gervasi.
Editor John Wright.
Music John Debney.
Special makeup and visual effects Keith Vanderlaan. 

Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes.  In general release.

If you go to the Links and Recommendations and click on grittybits.com youll see my long-time friend, who has young children, has actually taken a formal position on this film and has undertaken a letter writing campaign.  Parents should not take their children to see this film.  Of course that is what Christian evangelicals are doing all over the country this week.

What is up with this?  For the first time that I can recall, this week the Los Angeles Times actually ran a film review on its front page, even if it was below the fold.  And it was about Gibsons movie. 

You can read it here - if you go through their complex registration process. 

If you don't care to do that here are highlights from:
A narrow vision and staggering violence
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, February 24 2004

Turan is the senior film critic of the newspaper and he's not happy. 


Combining the built-in audience of the Bible, the incendiary potential of "The Birth of a Nation" and the marketing genius of "The Blair Witch Project," the arrival of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" feels like a milestone in modern culture.  It's a nexus of religion, celebrity, cinema and mass communication that tells us more about the way our world works than we may want to know. 

The film left me in the grip of a profound despair, and not for reasons I would have thought.  It wasn't simply because of "The Passion's" overwhelming level of on-screen violence, a litany of tortures ending in a beyond-graphic crucifixion. 

And it wasn't because of the treatment of the high priest Caiphas and the Hebrew power elite of Jesus' time - a disturbing portrait likely to give, I feel sure unintentionally, comfort to anti-Semites. 

Instead, what is profoundly disheartening is that people of goodwill will see this film in completely different ways.  Where I see almost sadistic violence, they will see transcendence; where I see blame, they will see truth.


Of course Turan gives an analysis of the film's structure and technique, as one would expect out here in movieland.  But in passing he does hit a few key cultural issues regarding the film. 


It has the potential to foster divisiveness because of the way it exposes and accentuates the fissures in belief that otherwise might go unnoticed.  We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads, and it is not to the gates of heaven. 


Don't tell that to Mel Gibson. 

Gibson is sincere in believing this film is highly moral and will lead people to some higher plane, although Turan disagrees:


... it shouldn't be surprising that what's immediately most evident about "The Passion" is its complete sincerity.  This is Gibson's personal vision of the greatest story ever told, a look inside his heart and soul.  Gibson even personally provided, according to composer John Debney, the despairing wail that accompanies Judas' suicide.  When the director writes in the introduction to the film's coffee-table book that he wanted his work "to be a testament to the infinite love of Jesus the Christ," there is no reason to doubt him.  Which makes it even sadder that "The Passion of the Christ" does not play that way. 


Well, how does it play? 


The first hint of trouble is in a brief flashback to Caiphas, the Jewish High Priest (Mattia Sbragia) arrogantly tossing a purse containing the legendary 30 pieces of silver to Judas (Luca Lionello) in such a way that they fall and humiliate the traitor. 

In the iconography of the passion, Judas is one of the great villains, and he's usually portrayed in Western art as well as previous films as the most wretched of creatures.  Yet in this scene he is treated with more dignity and sympathy than Caiphas, who gives a first impression of smug and unctuous arrogance that the rest of "The Passion" only reinforces. 

And we do see a great deal of the richly dressed, obviously well-fed Caiphas the rest of the way.  In addition to paying Judas, this powerful Jew is the one who sends armed men to arrest Jesus, manipulates his trial before the Sanhedrin and stage-manages his appearance before Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov). 

The Roman governor, nominally in charge, is portrayed as a study in impotent agony, reluctant to hand over Jesus but powerless before the strength of the Jewish mastermind's manipulations.  He gives up Jesus to be first tortured and then crucified after a huge crowd of Jews, which earlier had taunted and spit on the man, screams over and over for his head. 

What are we to make of this front-and-centering of the Jews in Jesus' plight?  In dramatic terms, Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald likely decided a great hero needed an equally powerful and well-defined antagonist to enhance the story, so why not Caiphas?  As Paul Lauer, marketing director for Icon, Gibson's production company, told the New York Times, "You can't get away from the fact that there are some Jews who wanted this guy dead."


So Mel is just telling it like it is?  The Jews carry a collective guilt here? 

Maybe so.  Maybe not. 

Some of the detail is here:


As for the film's violence, it too starts early and stays late.  Jesus is badly beaten and humiliated, dangled over a bridge by the chains he's bound in, before he's even brought before Caiphas.  He's accused of blasphemy and black magic and then shunted back and forth between Pilate and King Herod, neither of whom, absent the persistence of the Jewish elite, would have the stomach to pass any kind of judgment. 

Finally, in desperation, Pilate orders Jesus flogged by Roman soldiers. 

This is no ordinary movie flogging.  This is an unspeakably savage, unrelenting real-time beating, first with a cane, then with an especially barbarous instrument the press material identifies as "a flagrum, or 'the cat o' nine tails,' a whip designed with multiple straps and embedded with barbed metal tips to catch and shred the skin and cause considerable blood loss." All of which is shown in a kind of horrific detail that would be unthinkable in a film that could not claim the kind of religious connection this one does. 

When this torture, gruesome enough to disgust even the hardened Romans, is done, the Jews, to Pilate's evident disbelief, are still not satisfied, even insisting that the subhuman murderer Barabbas be released and Jesus, soon to be fitted with a graphically embedded crown of thorns, crucified.  Which is what happens, but not all at once. 

For "The Passion of the Christ" spends a considerable amount of time on meticulously detailing the agonies of the road to Calvary as well as the tortures of the actual Roman crucifixion, including unblinkingly graphic close-ups of the actual nailing and a shot of a bird pecking out the eye of one of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus. 


Well, that will cause you to think twice at stopping at Noah's Bagels for a snack. 

Okay then.  That is the film.  The children of the editor of grittybits.com might find this all a tad disturbing. 

And Turan isn't happy either:


As an actor, Gibson has always had a taste for playing heroes who are physically martyred and put through the tortures of hell.  His William Wallace is disemboweled in "Braveheart," the characters he plays in both "Payback" and "Ransom" are savagely beaten and his "Lethal Weapon" hero is nearly electrocuted.  The violence in "Passion" is stomach-turning in part because that's the way Gibson likes it.  In fact, he likes it worse.  When asked by a friendly questioner during an outreach screening if he could have toned the film down, the director replied, "Dude, I did tone it down."

The problem with "The Passion's" violence is not merely how difficult it is to take, it's that its sadistic intensity obliterates everything else about the film.  Worse than that, it fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins.


I guess the guy didn't like it. 

David Edelstein over at Slate didn't like it either, but he takes a lighter view of things. 

See Jesus H.  Christ: The Passion, Mel Gibson's bloody mess. posted Tuesday, Febrary 24, 2004, at 4:28 PM Pacific Time

Edelstein gets in Mel's case directly:


Ever since his star began to rise after the 1979 Australian thriller Mad Max, Mel Gibson hasn't seemed fully alive on screen unless he's being tortured and mutilated.  In the Road Warrior and Lethal Weapon films, as well as such one-shots as Conspiracy Theory (1997) and The Patriot (2000), Gibson courted martyrdom, and he achieved it.  He won an Oscar for his labors in Braveheart (1995), which ends with its hero managing to scream "FREEEEE-DOM!!" as he's drawn and quartered.  Gibson snatched the pulp movie Payback (1999) away from its writer-director, Brian Helgeland, to make the torture of his character even more gruelingly explicit: He added shots of his toes being smashed by an iron hammer. 

Payback: That's what almost all of Gibson's movies are about (including his 1990 Hamlet.) Even if he begins as a man of peace, Mad Mel ends as a savage revenger. 

A devout Catholic - albeit one who believes that Vatican II, which formally absolved the Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus, is illegitimate - Gibson has said that what moves him most about the Christ story is that Jesus was whipped, scourged, mocked, spat on, had spikes driven through his hands and feet, and was left to die on the cross - and that he didn't think of payback; he thought of forgiveness.  But by wallowing in his torture and death for two hours, the director of The Passion of the Christ (Newmarket) suggests that he's thinking of anything but.


What follows, of course, is a deconstruction of Gibson's personal psychological problems, and they are many. 

Edelstein also does give, in detail, the images of the bulk of the movie, the torture of Jesus, and adding them all up finds them so over the top he come to this conclusion:


I know, it sounds like a Monty Python movie.  You're thinking there must be something to The Passion of the Christ besides watching a man tortured to death, right? 
Actually, no: This is a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie - The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre - that thinks it's an act of faith.  For Gibson, Jesus is defined not by his teachings in life - by his message of mercy, social justice, and self-abnegation, some of it rooted in the Jewish Torah, much of it defiantly personal - but by the manner of his execution. 


So if you want to see Gibson work out his martyr complex, by all means go see the film. 

Or don't.  Edelstein finds the film exhausting and puzzling. 


Gibson uses every weapon in his cinematic arsenal to drive home the agony of those last dozen hours.  While his mother and Mary Magdalene watch, Jesus is lashed until his entire body is covered in bloody crisscrossing canals.  When he rises, amazing the Roman soldiers with his stamina, they go for the scourges, which rip and puncture his flesh in slow motion - all while the Romans and the Jews cackle wildly.  Carrying his cross, he falls again and again in slow motion on his swollen, battered body while the soundtrack reverberates with heavy, Dolby-ized thuds.  It is almost a relief when the spikes are driven into his hands and feet - at least it means that his pain is almost over. 

What does this protracted exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christian faith?  I'm asking; I don't know. 


I suspect Edelstein is not a born-again evangelical Christian.  Otherwise, I guess, he'd know.  I sure don't. 

David Denby over at The New Yorker is similarly puzzled:


In "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson shows little interest in celebrating the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world.  He largely ignores Jesus' heart-stopping eloquence, his startling ethical radicalism and personal radiance - Christ as a "paragon of vitality and poetic assertion," as John Updike described Jesus' character in his essay "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew."  Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus' life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus' temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus' pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life.  As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony - and to say so without indulging in "anti-Christian sentiment" (Gibsons term for what his critics are spreading).  For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death.  Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagerly involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate. 


Well, I suppose Mel, his father, and a good many evangelical Christian would ask the obvious question - Isn't hate sometimes appropriate?  That does seem one way many here and, more particularly, many outside the United States, would feel after seeing this film. 

Denby does ask how people become better Christians if they are "filled with the guilt, anguish, or loathing that this movie may create in their souls?"

Good question. 

Denby too suggests the problem is Gibson:


By contrast with the dispatching of Judas, the lashing and flaying of Jesus goes on forever, prolonged by Gibson's punishing use of slow motion, sometimes with Jesus' face in the foreground, so that we can see him writhe and howl.  In the climb up to Calvary, Caviezel, one eye swollen shut, his mouth open in agony, collapses repeatedly in slow motion under the weight of the Cross.  Then comes the Crucifixion itself, dramatized with a curious fixation on the technical details - an arm pulled out of its socket, huge nails hammered into hands, with Caviezel jumping after each whack.  At that point, I said to myself, "Mel Gibson has lost it," and I was reminded of what other writers have pointed out - that Gibson, as an actor, has been beaten, mashed, and disembowelled in many of his movies.  His obsession with pain, disguised by religious feelings, has now reached a frightening apotheosis. 


Apotheosis?  Mel Gibson finally make all his sadistic and masochistic issues holy?  Maybe so. 

And Denby agrees with grittybits.com -


What is most depressing about "The Passion" is the thought that people will take their children to see it.  Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me," not "Let the little children watch me suffer."  How will parents deal with the pain, terror, and anger that children will doubtless feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead?  The despair of the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson's timing couldn't be more unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need.


Agreed.  But did Denby just lump Gibson in with Isalmic fanatics in the mountains of Afghanistan filled with hate and obsessed with death and pain and suffering?  Yep.  And appropriately so. 

Those guys hate us.  And Gibson, though he claims it is not so, has a problem with the Jews. 

Jami Bernard is the film critic and columnist for The Daily News, and author of the film books "Chick Flicks," "Total Exposure," "First Films" and "Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies." She has this to say. 


No child should see this movie. 

Even adults are at risk. 

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II. 

It is sickening, much more brutal than any "Lethal Weapon."

The violence is grotesque, savage and often fetishized in slo-mo.  At least in Hollywood spectacles that kind of violence is tempered with cartoonish distancing effects; not so here.  And yet "The Passion" is also undeniably powerful.  

... Is it anti-Semitic? 


Jews are vilified, in ways both little and big, pretty much nonstop for two hours, seven minutes. 

Gibson cuts from the hook nose of one bad Jewish character to the hook nose of another in the ensuing scene. 

He misappropriates an important line from the Jewish celebration of Pesach ("Why is this night different from all other nights?") and slaps it onto a Christian context. 

Most unforgivable is that Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the Roman governor of Palestine who decreed that Jesus be crucified, is portrayed as a sensitive, kind-hearted soul who is sickened by the tortures the Jewish mobs heap upon his prisoner. 

Pilate agrees to the Crucifixion only against his better judgment. 

The most offensive line of the script, which was co-written by Gibson with Benedict Fitzgerald, about Jews accepting blame, was not cut from the movie, as initially reported.  Only its subtitle was removed.  

... Religious intolerance has been used as an excuse for some of history's worst atrocities.  "The Passion of the Christ" is a brutal, nasty film that demonizes Jews at an unfortunate time in history. 


But Gibson says it just the truth.  Well, as he sees it. 

Am I being too negative? 

The Los Angeles Times does the heavy lifting for us all and gives us a scan of other views:


"Relentlessly savage, 'The Passion' plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade.  The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see.  To these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion."
- David Ansen, Newsweek

"It's a very great film.  It's the only religious film I've seen, with the exception of 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew' by Pasolini, that really seems to deal directly with what happened instead of with all kinds of sentimentalized, cleaned up, postcard versions of it."
- Roger Ebert in "Ebert & Roeper"

"Where, one wonders throughout, is the 'tolerance, love and forgiveness' that Gibson has promised his audience?  Where, beyond some furtive snatches of back story, is the buoyant embrace of life and hope that Christ's message represents to millions?  This movie is little else besides a depiction of punishment so ruthless and unyielding that watching it unfold feels like punishment."
- Gene Seymour, Newsday

"What is the audience for this Passion?  Many Christians -- who would appreciate the message -- may be repelled by the film's unrelenting bloodletting.  The teen boys who make box-office winners every Friday night may like the blood, but they want their heroes to fight back and blow stuff up.  Nor is this exactly a date movie.  No, the audience profile for 'The Passion of the Christ' is fairly narrow: true believers with cast-iron stomachs; people who can stand to be grossed out as they are edified.  And a few movie critics who can't help admiring Mad Mel for the spiritual compulsion that drove him to invent a new genre -- the religious splatter-art film -- and bring it to searing life, death and resurrection."
- Richard Corliss.  Time

"The bloodiest story ever told.  Gibson's fervor belongs as much to the realm of sadomasochism as to Christian piety."
- Peter Rainer, New York

"Gibson, as director, producer and co-writer, is fetishistic in his depiction of the pain Jesus suffered during the last 12 hours of his life.  The beating and whipping and ripping of skin become so repetitive, they'll leave the audience emotionally drained and stunned. 

"Yes, yes.  That's the point, Gibson has said he wants his film to be shockingly graphic to show the humanity of Christ's sacrifice. 

"But the idea that children should see 'The Passion' as a learning device that churches are organizing screenings and theater trips for their parishioners and catechism classes is truly shocking.  Grown-ups even true believers will have difficulty sitting through the film.  Just think of the trauma it will inflict on kids."

- Christy Lemire, Associated Press


Well, Roger Ebert liked it.  And Laura Bush said she really wants to see it. 

Finally, late in the week Christopher Hitchens really nailed the problem.


As some readers know, I usually don't have much use for Christopher Hitchens, at least for the new, pro-Bush Christopher Hitchens version 3.1 as it were.  But sometimes he hits one right out of the park.  (Sorry about the baseball metaphor - but spring training is starting and I've been thinking about the "new" Dodgers now that Rupert Murdoch has sold the team and gone away to count his money and giggle with Bill O'Reilly.)


Hitchens does a number on "Mel Gibson's ghastly movie The Passion" - and it is really something.  He even compares Mel to the persecutors of Dreyfus!  Cool.  And Hitchens even works in Francisco Franco (still dead).


Mel is unbalanced?  "... he's become the proud producer of a movie that relies for its effect almost entirely on sadomasochistic male narcissism.  The culture of blackshirt and brownshirt pseudomasculinity, as has often been pointed out, depended on some keen shared interests.  Among them were massively repressed homoerotic fantasies, a camp interest in military uniforms, an obsession with flogging and a hatred of silky and effeminate Jews.  Well, I mean to say, have you seen Mel's movie?"


Anti-Semitic?  "... if someone denies the Holocaust one day and makes a film accusing Jews of Christ-killing the next day, I have to say that if he's not anti-Jewish then he's certainly getting there.


Mel with his history of crude jokes about gay men and now his new Jesus movie?   "A coward, a bully, a bigmouth, and a queer-basher.  Yes, we have been here before.  The word is fascism, in case you are wondering, and we don't have to sit through that movie again."


You will find the whole thing here:


Schlock, Yes; Awe, No; Fascism, Probably
The flogging Mel Gibson demands.
Christopher Hitchens, SLATE.COM -
Posted Friday, Feb. 27, 2004, at 3:21 PM PST


I'll pass on this movie.


Mel Gibson can work out his own psychological problems without my nine dollars.  And I've long felt - long before the Muslim fanatics took town the World Trade Center - that religion was nothing but trouble in this world.  I try to avoid it.