Magazine article Cross Currents

Mel Gibson's Alter Ego: A Male Passion for Violence

Magazine article Cross Currents

Mel Gibson's Alter Ego: A Male Passion for Violence

Article excerpt

The new millennium now has its own Jesus film: Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. At its core is the visual display of a human body systematically beaten into a bloody pulp. Even before opening night, the movie has unleashed controversy, and the gap between critical voices and staunch supporters has only widened since its public release.

Gibson's filmic choices are unique, although there is no shortage of Jesus films in the history of modernity's new art medium. Each decade has produced its own filmic version of the life of Jesus. Already in 1897, a brief film called The Passion of Christ was produced--in France (no copy of it survived)--followed by several episodic silent films about Jesus at the turn of the century. In the 1920s, Cecil B. DeMille cast a 49-year old "Jewish-looking" actor in the lead role of Jesus in The King of Kings, with "Mass celebrated on the set each morning." (1) The 1950s saw the Twentieth Century Fox production The Robe and MGM studio's Ben Hur. The 1960s produced Nicholas Ray's King of Kings, once praised as the "definitive cinematic life of Christ," (2) and the epic The Greatest Story Ever Told--at the time the most expensive Hollywood biblical epic, starring Max von Sydow in the title role as Christ. The musicals of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell followed in the 1970s, and Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Arcand's Jesus of Montreal challenged audience expectations with new ways of viewing the gospel in the 1980s.

Controversies are not new in the history of Jesus films: they were either grand failures at the box office or they managed to stir religious passions and strife. But Gibson's excruciatingly violent imagery, combined with the breathtaking financial profits at the theatres, should make us pause and ask: why does the depiction of a religious founder being ripped apart with graphic realism attract such widespread popularity? What does it tell us about the present cultural moment that brings forth such a movie?

Gibson has been justifiably criticized for reverting to a historically untenable assumption that Jews are to be exclusively blamed for the death of Christ, while portraying the Roman Pontius Pilate in a benign light. Gibson's intentional portrayal of Jews as Christ-killers--as spiteful, untrustworthy, largely irrational people--ignores fifty years of productive dialogue between Christians and Jews. In light of the historical charges of deicide (the murder of God) hurled against Jews as well as of the persecution of Jews, especially after the Holocaust, Gibson's choices can no longer be read as innocent. The history of religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism cannot be divorced from the movie's merciless imagery. But besides pointing to the anti-Jewish stance, we may also ask if the display of gratuitous violence ultimately leaves the film empty of religious content.

The Passion of the Christ is more iconography than theology, that is to say, it relies almost exclusively on image rather than dialogue (hence, the fact that all actors speak in Aramaic or Latin makes hardly any difference). We learn little about the preaching and teaching of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, even astoundingly little about that which is at the core of the Christian tradition: that the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection because suffering is not just an annihilating and nihilistic experience but, instead, carries some redemptive meaning. However, as critics we must also be aware that countering The Passion with a new kind of ecclesiastical orthodoxy or a neo-Protestant iconoclastic critique can only go so far. Each director must make artistic choices, and a new Bildersturm would be an inadequate response to a medium relying on images. The question rather is why the director chose certain visual plots and why, in turn, they have been accepted as a form of religious entertainment by a large number of people.

Images of a violated and bloodied Jesus dominate the screen. …

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