The Passion of the Christ (2004)

So I haven’t watched a film in over a year. I haven’t really had the interest or the desire, and the handful of films I did watch between my last post here and this one I just wrote cursory notes about on Letterboxd. Not feeling like writing either.

This was on TV for Christmas night. Counter-intuitive programming from SBS, marking the alleged anniversary of Christ’s birth by showing a film about his death… And for some reason I felt like watching it, and writing about it like I’m now doing. I saw this on the day of its cinema release back in 2004, and I saw it with my Mum. Mum was a far better Christian than I was or am, insofar as she actually was one, so we made an interesting pair going to this movie… and, remarkably, we both came out of it with much the same negative opinion of it. It did as little for her as it did for me.

As I’ve said elsewhere on here, I felt the fears that it would promote antisemitism were overstated, but all the reports of how excessively violent it was? It lived up to those. After this rewatch nearly 16 years later, I’m not quite so sure about that first point. With the dubious benefit of hindsight, we know now what Mel Gibson evidently really thinks of our Hebraic cousins, and it’s hard to watch the film without that knowledge; and we do know he leaned quite heavily on the “work” of Anne Catherine Emmerich (and/or of Clemens Brentano, who may or may not have faked her “visions”) which is apparently quite anti-Semitic. Accordingly I felt a lot more antipathy going on towards Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin, to say nothing of what the hell’s going on at Herod’s palace. Equally, though, I doubt the film would serve to actually make anyone an anti-Semite if they weren’t already one, and the film is just as horrible with its Romans; I’d forgotten just how psychopathic they were.

Equally, though, I can’t imagine that the film would make anyone a Christian, either; if you haven’t already read the gospels or otherwise have some familiarity with the stuff that happens before the film’s story starts, some of it’s going to be kind of incomprehensible. It presupposes a lot of its viewers in that respect, so it hardly works as a tool for evangelising to prospective converts. Which raises the question: who and what the hell is this movie for? What’s it about, really?

Because The Passion of the Christ is certainly not about Jesus’ resurrection, which is passed over a few seconds before the end; I mean, I’m not a Christian but I do understand that the whole point of Jesus kind of is the resurrection, you know, he dies and comes back to life and that‘s the important thing about him if you do subscribe to his newsletter. The film cares so little about this detail it may as well have left it out entirely. Similarly, it has only marginally more interest in Jesus’ actual message and teachings, which are also kind of important if you’re into that, and that makes it theologically useless.

So Gibson doesn’t care about the resurrection or the teachings of Jesus, he’s fundamentally interested in spectacle much like Cecil B. DeMille was with The King of Kings 80 years earlier. But this is a far more vicious spectacle than DeMille’s, not just because the latter couldn’t have got away with depicting this much violence in 1927 (and the violence isn’t the only thing even DeMille would’ve found unnecessarily vulgar). There’s no religious feeling underlining this film like there is in King of Kings; this is purely Gibson getting off on extreme violence. Gibson could talk all he liked about how he played the hands that nail JC to the cross cos “[his] sins put him on the cross”, but I don’t buy that for a second. He’s enjoying these atrocities being perpetrated against his putative lord and saviour—remember, this isn’t a fictional character to Gibson—so much so that he just had to take direct part.

Who and what is this movie for? It’s for Mel Gibson, as a kind of pornography. The Passion of the Christ is frankly the work of a ghoul, and I hate it now in a way I didn’t upon that first viewing on Ash Wednesday 2004. Like I said, I thought at the time the film lived up to the reports of its violence, but on rewatching I found I’d actually forgotten just how wildly excessive it really is (e.g. even when Jesus is finally up on the cross, Gibson has to have one of the other men being crucified—the one who mocks Jesus—be attacked by a crow that picks his eye out). David Edelstein famously christened the film “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”, which sums up the splatter aspect of the affair nicely, a chainsaw being about the only thing not used on Jesus; the miracle that the film really depicts isn’t that Jesus returned from death at the literal last minute, but that he didn’t die before he could even be crucified. I used to say I was afraid for anyone who claimed, as many did, that their religious faith had been strengthened by this grotesque nonsense; now I’m afraid OF anyone who would say that. How any of it was ever supposed to serve someone’s religious faith is beyond me.

Anyway, we’ve been promised a somewhat belated sequel in recent years, which is apparently currently scheduled for April 2021, and which will supposedly cover the period between the death and the resurrection and may be set at least partly in Hell. Which means it’ll be even less biblical than Passion but we can probably at least expect spectacle again, and though I’ve no desire to see Passion ever again I could be tempted to see just how Mel handles the underworld…

 

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