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Mel Gibson's alter ego: a male Passion for violence.

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. This is not altogether new in the history of Christianity. Images can be powerful, and they can convey meaning through emotional identifications. Images of the Stations of the Cross have helped, for example, illiterate, agrarian societies to participate in the suffering of Jesus without having to read the Latin texts; and European paintings about the crucifixion from the 13th to 16th centuries highlighted the wounded and tortured body of Jesus. In many ways, one could say that Gibson turned these traditional depictions into moving images. Perhaps the famous crucifixion scene of Matthias Grunewald's 16th century Isenheimer Altar has just become a still in Gibson's The Passion. But there is a difference: the Stations of the Cross always invited the believer to active, devotional contemplation; and the paintings of late medieval and Renaissance artists were read within a theological context that emphasized the humanity of Jesus (by showing a wounded body) while simultaneously de-emphasizing his role as Pantocrator, the divine ruler. (3) Gibson's screen images, in contrast, need to be seen in the context of Hollywood's secular fondness for violent movies. What this film shows is the undoing of a human rather than a story of the resurrected Christ. Hence, it should be more appropriately called The Passion of the Man Jesus rather than The Passion of the Christ.

Gibson's borrowing of late medieval and Renaissance iconography as well as his reliance on forms of popular piety (including the 19th century visions of the German nun Anna Katharina Emmerich) have been noted by several reviewers. (4) But Gibson's film must also be read as an attempt at re-masculinizing Christianity, a movement that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century when some men reacted to what they felt was a feminization of the Church and a romantically feminized depiction of Jesus. Charles Kingsley in Great Britain and the American Billy Sunday preached a Christianity that was supposed to replace the sentimental and emotional aspects of Christian devotion with masculine and muscular values. Christ on the cross, Kingsley wrote in 1865, revealed "the true prowess, the true valor, the true chivalry, the true glory, the true manhood." (5) Muscular Christianity, as this movement became known, favored visual depictions of Christ that emphasized his manliness and served as "exemplar of the virtues of hard work, thrift, obedience and sobriety." (6)

Gibson's selection of a well-built male body supports the ideology of Muscular Christianity. The chosen "body" of Christ accommodates to audience expectations of the current ideal of the male physique: tall, athletic, muscular, white, with a touch of stern gentleness. Parallels to Mel Gibson's acting roles in Mad Max, Braveheart and Signs are to be located precisely in such an aesthetic ideology that features a chivalrous, heroic masculinity. It is a kind of muscular martyrdom of the white man played out against an apocalyptic background of otherness. As director, Gibson packed this ideology into the role of Jesus Christ, played by James Caveziel. Not surprisingly, Gibson identifies with the persecuted, white, male Christ. "I'm subjected to religious persecution," Gibson told a reported from the Los Angeles Times, "persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man." (7)

As Kinnard and Davis have pointed out, all directors and actors "portraying Christ in any film [are] trapped in a maze of dramatic contradictions," because Christ "must be believably human, yet also believably divine, gentle yet forceful, charismatic yet humble." (8) We need to take note of what the body of Christ in Gibson's The Passion is not: a Jewish body, a dark-skinned body, a black body. And it is certainly not the effeminized Jewish male body ascribed to Rabbinic men and Talmudic scholars by the Christian imagination (and only recently reclaimed as a Jewish way to resist hegemonic masculinities). (9) Certainly, an analysis of the racial and gender implications of such a muscular, white body in relation to The Passion's physical depictions of "others" (Judas, Jews, Romans, the disciples, and the few female characters) could be more fully developed. Here, however, I want to return to the problematics of the screening of relentless violence.

Positively put, the film reminds us that crucifixion is a drawn-out and intense form of cruelty. Gibson shows us Roman torture instruments ripping, tearing and penetrating the body of a gentle human being. Knowing that thousands of people have died at the hands of tormentors in similarly brutal ways, we can relate emphatically with the victim. But by the end of the film, I doubt that many of the viewers are motivated to support Amnesty International campaigns against torture. The film may make us realize that the cross itself is a torture instrument--and not just a piece of silver jewelry on a necklace--but it does not shock us into action.

Each scene of physical torment happens as a public spectacle (with one exception: when Christ is mocked in the Roman dungeon and the crown of thorns is forced into his scalp). While the crowd watches gleefully, a few disciples, especially Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, look on in horror and grief. And another strange companion mingles repeatedly with the Jewish crowd: the devil. Clothed in black, with a gothic pale face and steely cold eyes, the androgynous devil moves among other malevolent onlookers. Neither male nor female, the devil scrutinizes Jesus, tempting him wordlessly to abandon his faith. The devil seems to say: "Jesus, there is an easy solution to your pain. Give up your ideas, and I save you from your suffering." But the devil also stares at the audience and dares us: "How long can you watch such carnage?" The devil challenges our capacity for watching the violence unfold. Will we stop looking? We won't. We don't. In the end, the devil seems to have the last word, because the film renders us passive bystanders and onlookers.

Just as the filmic figure of the devil tempts Jesus, Gibson tantalizes his audience with images of unceasing bloodshed. The devil is Mel Gibson's alter ego. But Gibson is too much of a 21st century director to be aware of his shadowy double on the screen: he is--as we are--caught up in the voyeuristic attraction of violence that characterizes our cultural moment in history. Albert Schweitzer wrote in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus that "there is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus." His insight can certainly be applied to film, modernity's preferred medium for telling stories. "No vital force," Schweitzer continued, "comes into the [Jesus] figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more life-like is the figure which is produced." (10) It is the verisimilitude of the torture inflicted on Jesus' muscular white body that has found wide appeal among American audiences. Gibson does not say much about Jesus' prophetic vision. Rather, he restricts himself to breathing new life into the public spectacle of violence. Are the viewers supposed to find a new love for Christianity, as Garry Wills sardonically asks, or a love for "philoflagellationism"? (11)

When I saw The Passion on the opening night at a local theatre, the mixture of sadistic and masochistic suffering did not inspire me to what the Christian tradition knows as imitatio Dei. Rather, I would describe my viewing experience as aesthetic and spiritual distress over having been exposed to prolonged scenes of graphic violence. The strong visuals of this otherwise slow-moving film had the effect of keeping me simultaneously fascinated and detached, and when I left the theatre, I was speechless and stunned. None of my students, with whom I went to see the movie, was able to talk either.

Public spectacles of violence immobilize. They shock, attract, stimulate, but ultimately paralyze. They rarely call us into action. Forced into the role of onlookers, we are no longer witnesses, because being a witness implies an active and moral response to the event we are witnessing. Throughout the centuries, Christians have understood themselves as being witnesses, taking an active (and sometime prophetic) stance toward the world by working against injustices and intervening when people's bodies and rights are violated. The fact that The Passion of the Christ ends with only but the briefest filmic allusion to the resurrection comes, then, as no surprise because it mirrors the religious and spiritual barrenness of the screen.

As viewers of Mel Gibson's spectacle, we may be forced into the role of the stunned consumer of violent imagery. Alternatively, we can be called to take a morally active stance toward our viewing experience and speak out against the deadening habituation to gratuitous violence and against Gibson's prejudicial and inaccurate portrayal of Jews as hostile and alien "others."


1. Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1997), p. 12.

2. Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis, Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen (New York: Citadel Press, 1992), p. 131.

3. See, for example, Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), who interprets the Renaissance focus on the sexuality of Christ as a symbol of God's humanation. To render the body of Jesus Christ as a fully human and also sexual body signified Jesus' power to control his desires, not because he was biologically impotent, but because of divine choice. Had he not been fully a man, the belief that he was able to control fully his manly desires would have been less inspiring.

4. See, for example, the review by Richard Corliss, "The Goriest Story Ever Told" (Time, March 1, 2004), p. 64-65. For Gibson's inspiration by the German Catholic visionary Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824), see Will Winkler, "Mad Man im Munsterland" (Suddeutsche Zeitung, Wochenend-Ausgabe, March 20, 2004), and Garry Wills, "God in the Hands of Angry Sinners" (New York Review, April 8, 2004), p. 68-74.

5. Charles Kingsley, David: Four Sermons Preached before the University of Cambridge (London: Macmillian & Co, 1865), p. 61.

6. Sean Gill, "Ecce Homo: Representations of Christ as the Model of Masculinity in Victorian Art and Lives of Jesus," in: Masculinity and Spirituality in Victorian Culture, ed. Andrew Bradstock et al. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), p. 171. See also Donald Hall, Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), and Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free Press, 1996), p. 175-181.

7. Quoted in Garry Wills, "God in the Hands of Angry Sinners," p. 68.

8. Divine Images, p. 16.

9. Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

10. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. W. Montgomery (New York: Macmillan Co, 1910), p. 4.

11. "God in the Hands of Angry Sinners," p. 68.
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Author:Krondorfer, Bjorn
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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