Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Passion: Getting medieval

In all the words that have been spilled over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- including my own -- pitifully little has actually been said about whether the film is any good as a moviegoing experience.

The answer: Well, no, not really. In fact, it's kind of dull.

It's all conditional, of course, depending on what the moviegoer brings to the film. If one is a devout Catholic or fundamentalist Christian, there is considerable likelihood you'll actually be moved, because you don't need to make the usual kind of emotional connection to Jesus that a regular moviegoer might need to find the story at all compelling.

On the other hand, there is a grim monotony to the violence that even practicing Christians will find somewhat stupefying, if not simply overdone to the point of fetishism. Gibson goes over the top so many times in demonstrating to us -- in scenes and shots that simply have no scriptural foundation -- that Jesus suffered worse than any other of the millions of victims of crucifixion, Roman style, in this era, that the story ceases to be credible as an attempt at realism, which it otherwise appears to be.

More to the point, the storyline arc, beyond being merely predictable, is strangely flat. It is, as I mentioned in the previous review, a revenge melodrama minus the revenge. It's all about the horrific brutalization of an innocent man, but there's no expiative payback.

Neither is there anything satisfying in the way of character enrichment. All of the roles, in fact, are as flat as the plotline, and the participants -- Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene, the disciples, the Jewish high priests, Herod, Pilate, even Satan -- are all two-dimensional, mere vessels for the Manichean symbology at play here.

Most of all, Gibson's rather ham-handed manipulativeness makes painfully obvious the point of the film and its propagandistic agenda. Watching an Oliver Stone film was always like getting hit over the head with a hammer within five minutes of the opening, and then being hit repeatedly for the next two hours (or longer). Watching a Mel Gibson film, in contrast, has become rather like being disemboweled for two hours -- and told to like it.

In truth, I was disappointed. I happen to have liked a number of Gibson's films, including some of his cheesy revenge melodramas (The Road Warrior is one of the great action films). But the revenge genre is the most openly manipulative of the audience's emotions of any genre besides romance (it is, in fact, the male counterpart to the romance), and Gibson as an auteur has clearly never outgrown that simple-minded kind of narrative. The Passion is, well, painfully manipulative.

Taking on the meaning of Christ's life and sacrifice especially calls for a thoughtful and theologically meaningful approach -- but Gibson has eschewed all that for a primitive bloodbath that is a direct reflection of the origins of Passion dramas: namely, medieval Europe.

And that, more than anything, may be why the film fails as a convincing drama. At its heart, its worldview is medieval, and so are its dramatic principles. Neither makes for convincing a modern audience, practicing Christian or not.

Indeed, this same medievalism is the source of the controversy about the film's alleged anti-Semitism, which as I've observed previously in fact reflects the film's radically reactionary Catholicism.

Leon Wieseltier recently addressed this in his incisive attack on The Passion in The New Republic:
The Passion of the Christ is the expression of certain theological and artistic preferences. It is, more specifically, a noisy contemporary instance of a tradition of interpretation that came into its own in the late medieval centuries, when (in the words of a distinguished historian of Christian art) "the Passion became the chief concern of the Christian soul." In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as a consequence of persecution and war and pestilence, the image of Christ hovering over the world in gilded majesty was replaced by the image of Jesus nailed in the world to the cross. Passion plays were devised for Holy Week. The lacerated Jesus became a commonplace of religious art, in which the Man of Sorrows plaintively displayed his wounds, which were venerated. This Jesus came to be drawn with a brutal realism, which climaxed in the grisly masterpieces of Grunwald.

So the kindest thing that may be said of Gibson is that he is an extremely late medieval. He contemplates the details of pain ecstatically. But this is still too kind, because the morbidity of the Man of Sorrows, even in its most popular versions, was rarely as crude as what Gibson presents. Does Christian dolorousness, a serious reflection upon the fate of Jesus, really require these special effects, this moral and aesthetic barbarity? The Passion of the Christ is the work of a religious sensibility of remarkable coarseness. It is by turns grossly physical and grossly magical, childishly literalist, gladly credulous, comically masculine. Gibson's faith is finally pre-theological, the kind of conviction that abhors thought, superstitiously fascinated by Satan and "the other realm," a manic variety of Christian folk religion.

One of the real cornerstones of medieval theology, in fact, was the view of the Crucifixion that is rendered perfectly crystalline in Gibson's film -- that is, one in which the suffering itself (and not the resurrection) is the wellspring of mankind's redemption. In the medieval worldview, the Crucifixion itself, by virtue of its manifest brutality and unjustness, became a kind of magical act that enabled Jesus to take on the sins of all mankind. Both the teachings of Jesus and the resurrection fade in significance by comparison to this magical act -- and so, in Gibson's film, are they given only fleeting mention.

Modern theologians, and most mainstream religions, place Christ's sacrifice and redemptiveness in a much broader context. The Crucifixion's meaning can't be separated from the love and forgiveness of Jesus' teachings, neither can its import be separated from the Resurrection -- the latter of which is most often seen as the heart of mankind's redemption. For most, the greatest meaning of the Crucifixion is in the example Jesus set by submitting himself to God's will, come what may. This is not an act of magic but something that has meaning to our everyday lives.

But the older, and narrower, meaning of the Passion has never really died out, and through the succeeding centuries has seen various levels of revival.

James Shapiro described this in his recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, "There's Never Been a 'Passion' for the Truth" [link is now defunct]:
In reality, this image of Jesus on the cross comes from the detailed Passion treatises of the 12th through 15th centuries, written to help the pious visualize the events at Calvary. It's hard to underestimate the effect these books had on the paintings, sculpture and dramatic renderings of the Passion in the centuries that followed. What their writers imagined, we now imagine. These stories were compiled at a time when Jews were regularly accused of poisoning wells and committing ritual murder, so it's no surprise they demonized Jews. But the Passion plays that the stories inspired didn't at first make Jews Jesus' main antagonist. Through the late medieval and Renaissance periods, and as late as the 18th century, Satan was the enemy. But by the 19th century, with the rise of realism (and the Catholic Church's growing displeasure with seeing ribald devils onstage), bloodthirsty and money-grubbing Jews took over in the role, with Pontius Pilate, in this streamlined version, becoming something of a hero.

The script now had to follow Mark and Matthew, in which the chief Jewish priests mock Jesus, rather than Luke and John, in which they don't. But then it had to veer back to Luke and John for Pilate to insist that Jesus had committed no crime, something Mark and Matthew never claim. A line that only appears in Matthew -- the famous blood curse, where the Jews, in accepting responsibility for the death of Jesus, cry out, "His blood upon us and upon our children" -- became the centerpiece of 19th century interpretations.

But even when edited selectively, the Gospels didn't go quite far enough in providing a relentless and incriminating story of Jewish perfidy. So 19th century directors turned to ideas offered by the likes of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), whose ecstatic visions offered damning and dramatically satisfying details nowhere mentioned in Scripture, such as the notion that the Jewish high priests passed out bribes and that the cross was built in the Temple. (Emmerich's influence on Gibson was at first acknowledged, then hastily denied.)

Indeed, Emmerich's material -- from her work The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ -- clearly forms the core of the non-scriptural material that appears in Gibson's film: the appearance of Satan in Gethsemane and his verbal sparring with Jesus, the details of which are drawn almost word for word from Emmerich; the subsequent appearance of Satan throughout the ordeal, most often associated with the Jewish high priests; the presentation by Veronica, Pilate's wife, of a gift of cloth to Mary; and the excruciating levels of punishment given to Jesus.

Moreover, Gibson's focus on the Passion as the real transformative event of Christianity is especially clear in a scene in the film specifically drawn from Emmerich -- namely, the sequence in which she catches up to Jesus as he carries the cross and he falls. When she speaks and tells him she is there for him, he replies -- in a line neither from the Gospels nor Emmerich, but rather, from Revelations -- "See, mother, how I make all things new!" Delivered gaspingly through blood-caked lips, at one of the lowest moments in the ordeal, the line has a peculiar effect -- namely, of emphasizing the magical regenerative purpose of his suffering.

Emmerich's work is clearly anti-Semitic, but it is in many regards an attempt to revitalize that medieval Catholicism. And so it is probably unsurprising that her work played a prominent role in the reactionary pietism of 19th-century Catholicism. This manifested itself in a number of ways, particularly in the revival of Marianism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in a flood of visions of the Virgin Mary that brought out some of the most primitive impulses in the Catholic laity. This pietism also was responsible for the appearance of the principle of papal infallibility.

It was also, of course, a significant factor in the revival of European anti-Semitism in the 19th century, a revival based on conspiratorial scapegoating that had its final fruition in the Holocaust. As James Carroll described it in his book Constantine's Sword:
The explosion of Jew hatred in France essentially ended the great turn in history that was the post-Revolution emancipation of Jews in Europe. Despite the witness of the exceptions cited above, that explosion was ignited and fueled by Roman Catholicism. Later, the strategic use of overt anti-Semitism as a way to restore Catholicism was rejected by Leo XIII, but the French Church, for a crucial time, rallied around just such a policy. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Catholic priests -- . . . attended antisemitic congresses, gave Jew-baiting speeches, and, in their sermons, inflamed Catholic congregations all over France. The usual stereotypes were invoked; the Jew as revolutionary, as financier, as traitor, as the killer of Christ, as the ritual murderer or Christian children. These priests were never chastised or reined in by their bishops, who themselves never raised a protest, as one injustice followed another in l'affaire Dreyfus. Catholic bishops in other countries, like Bishop John Ireland of the United States, spoke up for Dreyfus, but not in the country in which the scandal unfolded: "No authorized voice was raised in the Church of France against their judicial monstrosities," ... "The universal silence of the French episcopate appeared as a crime. . . The great moral authority which the Church represents was dumb. . .it did not protest, it did not wax indignant, when forgery, collusion and perjury combined in broad daylight to mislead the conscience of Christians."

Many observers, of course, have weighed in on the nature of the film's Catholicism. One of the more insightful pieces was the review by religious-studies scholar James D. Tabor, who is an expert on contemporaneous history of the Gospel period, and he points out how Gibson's film overthrows history for the sake of dogma:
Time and time again I saw the film as an unabashed attempt to present a Roman Catholic version of the story. Throughout the film Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, were presented in both dress and pose as Catholic nuns, their costumes coming about as close to the traditional Catholic habit as I have ever seen in a Jesus film. Mary especially, in almost every scene, was scripted to look fully the part of The Blessed Virgin Mother of Catholic tradition. The brothers and sisters were not included of course, even at the death, because Mary could not be presented as a normal Jewish woman with a large family of five boys and at least two girls, given the dogma of the "perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of God." The Catholic tradition of Veronica and her cloth were included. Jesus carried this unbelievably huge full cross, just like in all the traditional paintings, and at times that part of the film bordered on the ridiculous. This portrait, however appealing to tradition, is unsupported in either the Gospels (Greek word stauros means stake) or what we know of Roman history. It is worth noting that the two "thieves," crucified with Jesus, as this film portrayed things, had only to carry the "cross beam" to which the arms would be tied or nailed, not the entire cross. This would be in keeping with Roman practice, so why have Jesus bend and break for nearly 30 minutes of the film, carrying a "cross" that surely would have weighed over 100 lbs. Here, as in other places, presumably Gibson read his English Bible where the term "cross" is used, and guided by Sister Emmerich's visions and Church tradition, decided that this was the way things were. Gibson also had Jesus' nailed to the cross in the hands and feet, rather than through the wrists and the heel bones, as we know was actually the case. Thanks to an amazing accidental archaeological discovery made in 1968 -- the skeleton of a crucified man contemporary with Jesus found in Jerusalem (see the informative article by anthropologist Joe Zias), we are now quite certain about what Roman crucifixion at the time involved and how it was carried out. These might be seen as irrelevant details, but their overall effect I think was an important one, in terms of reflecting Christian tradition. The Romans, contrary to the portrayal in this film, would have considered the heavy loss of blood, a botched job. The trick was to nail the victim to the wood, but draw very little blood; otherwise one would go unconscious quickly from loss of blood and not suffer for more than a few minutes. Crucifixions, according to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, were intended to last for several days. The victims eventually died from trauma, dehydration, and shock -- not from blood pouring out of severed blood vessels in the hands and feet.

Tabor identifies five specific cases where he found "the portrayal in the film to be seriously misleading, historically unfounded, and theologically loaded," including this one:
Finally, at the end of the film, when Jesus has died, there is an earthquake and one sees the inner rooms of the Temple in shambles with everything destroyed. The priests are groveling like fools on the floor, heirs of this now defunct faith. I saw this as a rather blatant attempt of Gibson's to signal -- Judaism is dead; it died with Christ, and now the new faith of the Christians has replaced it. In interviews a week before the film was released Gibson said as much. He said he was not anti-Semitic, that he loved the Jews, and wished every one of them could be written in the Lamb's book of life -- clearly expressing his view, contrary even to Vatican II, that Jews without faith in the Christian Jesus are hell-bound. His hope is that his film will convert the Jews and all the rest of humanity, to Christianity.

My friend Jean Rosenfeld, a Senior Research Associate at UCLA's Center
for the Study of Religion, observes in an e-mail that Gibson's radical brand of Catholicism also does violence to the reality of the close histories of Christianity and Judaism:
I find myself, personally, in a peculiar spot. While I am Catholic, I realize that Catholicism au fond is a spinoff from proto-Rabbinic Judaism. About 1700 years of developing in a European milieu affected this Levantine "mystery religion" (I believe this is Tacitus' phrase for Christianity) and seemingly separated it from its Jewish-"God-fearer" (Greeks who were attracted to Judaism, but did not undergo circumcision) roots in the first-century Jewish diaspora. Because Catholicism developed a strong monastic and separate identity in Ireland, Italy, France, and Germany, we mistakenly assume that Catholicsm and Judaism are antithetical, when they are actually parent/child religions. One sees their continuities in liturgy and ritual. Actually, their seeming separateness is more one of culture and ethnic identities, than of religion. Much of what Christianity emphasized comes from the tradition of the Isaiah prophecies.

It is especially the late pietism of 19th-century Catholicism (part of the monarchical/ authoritarian reaction to the early 19th century Napoleonic era) that has reasserted itself lately in the Pius X movement and our current "Christ with a Sword" Christian state militancy, appears highly antithetical to the roots of Christianity. The disturbing thing is that Gibson is ignorantly asserting, through his narrow focus on the late European crucifixion midrash, all that is antithetical to Judaism in the long accretive history of Christianity and virtually nothing that is continuous and cognate with it.

There is a reason The Passion of the Christ is so violent and Manichean -- because its worldview is rooted in an epoch of authoritarian brutality when dualism was the dominant mindset. Harkening us back to those halcyon days may seem like a good idea, religiously speaking, to Gibson and a host of other right-wing religionists.

But they probably should not be shocked if, in the long run, most Christians decide it doesn't make for a very good expression of the meaning of their faith. After all, it doesn't even make for much of a good movie.

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