The passion

The passion
: I have not seen Mel Gibson’s Passion and certainly don’t want to but probably will feel as if I need to so I can write about the film rather than write about those who are writing about it.

Today’s reviews are disturbing because Gibson wanted so badly to make his movie disturbing. He told Diane Sawyer last week that he wanted it to be shocking; he wants to emphasize the pain and sacrifice of Christ.

I’m not sure why.

Does making us 20 percent more disgusted make us 20 percent more holy? Does it make us 20 percent more angry? 20 percent more humble? 20 percent more grateful? Why revel in the violence so?

Judging by the reviews, it doesn’t seem to enlighten us more on the meaning of the crucifixion.

I’ve never fully bought the idea that Christ had to die for our sins. Had to? That would make it seem as if God planned and willed that; hard to believe a father would do that to his son (and that doesn’t speak well for our fraternal relationship, does it?). And I still can’t fathom the logic of dying for our sins — why, because God demanded some vengeance?

Only lately have I come to view the crucifixion in a new light: It is the ultimate guarantee of our free will. If God would not intervene in our murder of his son, then he would let us get away with anything. He would let us get away with the Holocaust, by the way. We are that free.

Whatever your interpretation of the crucifixion and the resurrection, I’m not sure how they are better served by recording and dramatizing and amplifying the violence of it (if not to make us angrier at those who perpetrated the act). Still, violence was Gibson’s goal and judging from the reviews, he succeeded. A.O. Scott’s review in tomorrow’s Times:

“The Passion of the Christ” is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace….

His version of the Gospels is harrowingly violent; the final hour of “The Passion of the Christ” essentially consists of a man being beaten, tortured and killed in graphic and lingering detail. Once he is taken into custody, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is cuffed and kicked and then, much more systematically, flogged, first with stiff canes and then with leather whips tipped with sharp stones and glass shards. By the time the crown of thorns is pounded onto his head and the cross loaded onto his shoulders, he is all but unrecognizable, a mass of flayed and bloody flesh, barely able to stand, moaning and howling in pain.

And here’s Jonathan Foreman in the NY Post:

In “Passion,” the relish for pain and bloody cruelty that has marked his career as both a director and an actor – a relish that would almost be sensual in the hands of a less vulgar artist – boils over into a full-blown fetish.

The relentless whippings, beatings and scourgings (the latter is barely mentioned in the Gospels but takes up a whole reel of film) start early and then intensify, in slow-motion and close-up, with the impact of each blow amped up like in “Rocky.”

Eventually, “Passion” becomes a kind of pornographic catalog of Christ’s suffering. And like pornography, it’s initially powerful but eventually becomes numbing.

This would matter less if there was much else in the film besides blows and slashes accompanied by gasps of pain and ribbons of blood. (The procession to Calvary is a kind of orgy of savagery.)

What distinguishes the film from the long tradition of gruesome martyrology in religious art is its lack of any sense of the meaning or reason for Christ’s sacrifice.

The message of Jesus’ death is all but drowned in Gibson’s morbid enthusiasm for shots of metal tearing flesh, as if Christ was crucified so that Gibson – along with his hard-working make-up and sound people – could indulge his obsession with torture.