Mel Gibson's Jesus epic stirred a whirlwind of controversy then rode the self-invented storm into a big pile of money. It wasn't any good, though, and its success bothered me. I saw it just after its video release. These were my thoughts, at that time:
Written very early in the morning, on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004:
I just watched Mel Gibson's much-talked-about opus and find that I'm unable to sleep without at least trying to put some of my thoughts on it into writing.
First, the more mundane comments:
This is a bad movie. Not just run-of-the-mill bad, either--we're talking suck-fest of epic proportions. Whatever else one wants to say about it, it just doesn't work as a movie at all.
The performances are almost universally awful, and not at all disguised by the director's insistence on using archaic period languages. Star Jim Caviezel is particularly bad, playing Jesus as a near-comatose idiot who refuses to say much of anything in his own defense through nearly the entirety of the film. The recurring comments, in critical reviews, about the "superb" quality of the acting are... amusing.
The movie really is, as several reviewers complained on its initial release, plotless. We're merely invited to sit and gawk at a man being tortured and murdered in drawn-out fashion. In a sense, "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" moniker hung on the film by one of its more irreverent critics was entirely appropriate. The much-touted violence is there, but it's so over-the-top that it becomes cartoonish. The scourging of Jesus is a violent scene, but as we're seing flesh being ripped from his body, it begins to take on that edge of the absurd. The beating goes off camera and gets really ridiculous, going on and on, enough to have killed anyone dozens of times over. When we cut back to the beating, Jesus isn't even remotely injured as badly as such a beating would have left him. Movies abuse our willingness to suspend disbelief all the time, to be sure, and this would have been a relatively small thing if the movie had anything else going on, but it doesn't. The rest is just more of the same, and I'd already gone past my tolerance point by the beating. As Jesus is made to haul his cross through town, Gibson throws in a scene of Jesus, weakened and being driven by the lash, collapsing into the dirt, shot in slow motion so as to make it more dramatic, or, more precisely, to make it what hack directors think of as "more dramatic" (and what conscientious film fans will tend to see as cliche'd crap). Then, it happens again. Then it happens again, and by the third time, I was laughing at the idiocy of it. By the, yes, fourth reoccurance, I was beginning to get hysterical, and it wasn't even close to over--we get a variation on the same scene no less than 8 times, by my count (with "the Black Knight always triumphs" echoing in my ears). And they haven't even nailed him up yet.
One of the things that genuinely surprised me about the movie--and that was no laughing matter--was that the anti-Semitism it was said to contain was far, far worse than even the harshest critics had alleged. The Jews in this movie are portrayed as nothing more than mindless sadists thirsting for blood, led by Caiphas, who is Evil Incarnate; a guy who makes Darth Vader look like a pussy. Pilate, bizarrely enough, is the hero of the film, if it can be said to have one. He comes to Jesus' defense over and over again, and only consents to allow him to be killed after exhausting every other means at his disposal to placate the Jews, and, more importantly, after being threatened with an open rebellion. A pair of Roman soldiers charged with roughing up Jesus are shown as ruthless sadists, in what looks like an amateurish bid to provide some sense of "balance," but the movie makes clear their actions are frowned upon by their superiors, which sort of defeats that point. Pilate's lieutenant is shown as sympathetic to Jesus throughout--he yells at his sadistic underlings over the beating they deliver, and, later, seeing Jesus exhausted during one of those "falling down in slow motion" scenes, orders them to help him along. His frequent looks of disgust are quite a contrast with Caiphas' smug sadism, taunting Jesus even as he's nailed up. Overall, I think the anti-Semitism angle was actually grossly underplayed by the film's critics.
(This strong anti-Semitic angle comes from the text from which the film is actually adapted, which isn't any biblical text but, instead, an 1833 book called "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Gibson has tried to downplay this fact, and for good reason: the book catalogs the delirious ravings--or, if one prefers, "visions"--of an insane 19th century nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich. Gibson is much enamored of it, and reportedly carries around in his wallet what is purported to be a piece of Emmerich's habit.)
Last, I come to the heavier remarks, the ones I've so far been putting off by writing about other things at such length:
I'm disturbed by this film. Not by the movie itself, which, as I've said, is a ridiculous cartoon. What bothers me is the reaction to the movie by a not inconsequential contingent of my fellow man.
A few remarks by way of set-up: I don't often write about religion in public forums, and only discuss it very rarely in private with close friends. I've always felt it was a profoundly individual personal matter, and I know many people would be offended and perhaps hurt if I was to vent my true feelings. I don't go out seeking to antagonize anyone over such a personal matter, so I usually don't touch the subject. I'm going to touch it a bit, here, though, because it's the real reason I started writing about this movie at 5 a.m. this morning, no matter how much I beat around the bush to avoid getting to that point.
After my laughing spell while watching "The Passion," I started turning over, in my head, the reception the movie has had. A huge money-maker. A cadre of devoted fans. A friend told me, yesterday, that it sold by the truckload when it hit the video market Tuesday. What are these people seeing when they watch the movie?
I'm a pretty radical fellow from a small town in the American south. My regular thoughts, feelings, views tend to, shall we say, set me apart from those around me. It's been a good, long while, though, since I had thoughts that made me feel this distant. I sometimes entertain the idea of Christianity as a death-cult. It's a thought that can't help but occur from time to time to ancient world buffs like myself--early Christianity clearly was a death-cult. Throughout history, hardcore Christians have always been nasty, brutish people who go around trying to spread their doctrines with a fist in the face, and proactively take to barbecuing their fellow man for (mostly imagined) heresies. The real sequel to "The Passion" wasn't a bright, shiny day where the world is redeemed and everyone goes skipping through the tulips singing "Kumbaya." The real sequel is the Dark Ages, where the newly redeemed death-cult very nearly destroyed civilization, bringing human development to a screeching halt for centuries. It was only when their influence began to wane that we sort of got back on track. These are some of the thoughts that run through my mind at times, and, boy, did "The Passion" ever revive 'em with, well, a passion.
Those sorts of ruminations are all good and fine as historical analysis, but I almost never see those around me--by which I mean friends, family, acquaintances, etc.--through that prism. Those days are over, and the world has moved on, right? I know these people and know they aren't really like that, right? Except maybe, in some way, they are. There's virtually nothing in the movie of any of the philosophy of Jesus which Christians insist, when trying to recruit, is so wonderful. It's just a lengthy torture/murder staged as a spectacle. I know contemplating that is the point of any passion play, but that, alone says something. What have people seen in this movie that makes them so devoted to it? I find myself thinking very bleak thoughts about what must be going on in their minds. I feel as though I'm seeing a manifestation of some ugly little corner of their soul, one I've never noticed, and one of which I don't like the looks.