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The Gospel according to Mel Gibson.

Mel Gibson's film, The Passion Of The Christ, has stirred up great controversy, much of it rooted in the incendiary issue of antisemitism. The difficulty, it would seem, has less to do with assessing the character of Gibson's film (which is undeniably antisemitic), than with determining its relationship to the Biblical source on which it is based. Is it Gibson's poisonous vision that imbues the film, or does this vision convey something of the true spirit of the Gospel story? The question risks an uncomfortable confrontation with issues of Church-sanctioned bias that, understandably, film critics might wish to avoid. Certainly, they see evidence of antisemitic bias in Gibson's film and are prepared to expose it. But there is a very real reluctance to associate such bias with the Gospel itself. For his part, Gibson claims to have produced a truly faithful, cinematic realization of the Gospels. What the critics object to, he contends, is the extraordinary authenticity of his film. What they deny, in other words, is the essence of the Biblical story.

Admittedly, Gibson's conception of the truth requires some elucidation. It is certainly a quite particular and fairly regressive religious outlook that he represents. A born-again convert to a fundamentalist Catholic sect, Gibson sees himself as the guardian of the original, the true faith. From his purist standpoint, he repudiates those guidelines of the contemporary Church that presume to alter the time-honored fixtures of the liturgy. Recommended changes in the wording and tone of the church service, indeed accommodation of any kind to the habits and inclinations of a contemporary religious community, are dismissed by Gibson and his co-believers as deviational impurities. More seriously transgressive are those substantive changes in the Gospels, explicitly undertaken by the Church to improve the strained relations between Christians and Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. It is the conscientious resistance to this "adulterating" trend in contemporary Catholicism that imbues Gibson's highly commercial film with a seductive sense of mission. For beyond the desire for commercial success, which he has already achieved to an unprecedented degree, Gibson means to restore to the Gospel story its proper tone and language (this largely through the use of an obfuscating Latin and Aramaic dialogue). More important, he means to re-invest the Gospel story with its original and singular meaning. It is a passing irony of this authenticating zeal that the New Testament itself openly acknowledges--the validity of varying interpretation. The New Testament presents four distinct versions of the Jesus story, differing noticeably one from the other, according to the style and judgment of the hypothetical narrators, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. that Gibson himself makes ample use of all four versions, picking and choosing what best fulfills his "authenticating" purpose, suggests that, as a filmmaker at least, he appreciates the value of diversity. Yet if this free-ranging approach grants him a certain latitude in what he chooses to convey, Gibson can claim (as he does emphatically) that there is virtually nothing in his film in terms of literal substance and detail that does not also appear in one or another of the Gospel stories.

In the light of a mission that tacitly includes among its objectives the reconstruction of the traditional relationship of Christians and Jews, it is not surprising that Gibson should have chosen to dramatize the final, and in terms of Christian-Jewish relations, the most disturbing portion of the Gospel story. In bare outline, The Passion recounts how Jesus, betrayed by his disciple Judas Iscariot, is delivered to his enemies, the Jewish priests, who bring him to a hasty Roman trial, where he is sentenced, publicly tortured, and executed in the prevailing Roman fashion, by crucifixion. If Gibson's rendering of this episode places a greater emphasis than the Scriptures do on the graphic details of Jesus's scourging, it does not, in fact, alter the basic pattern, nor does it distort the fundamental message of a painful persecution prescribed by God, but enacted by the enemies of righteousness. Each of the Gospels deals explicitly with the growing contention between Jesus, along with his followers, and a Jewish establishment, loosely designated "Pharisees," that is sufficiently vilified so that no legitimacy can attach to their cause, and no questions can remain as to the depths of their moral corruption. It is the partisan depiction of this quarrel that prepares the necessary rupture out of which Christianity will emerge.

Certainly Gibson's cinematic treatment adds a disturbing dimension to this quarrel. The elders who are Jesus's accusers bear a remarkable resemblance to the Jewish cartoons in racist hate-sheets; the rapacious Jewish mob is captured on film at the very moment it is clamoring for Jesus's death. In a less tangible form of manipulation, Gibson plays down those moderating aspects of the story, such as the role of prophecy and resurrection, that assign a higher purpose to Jesus's suffering. Yet on the all important question of the responsibility for Jesus's painful death, the Gospels confirm Gibson's blatant condemnation of the Jews. If he is merely fulfilling the will of God in betraying his master, the Judas-figure of the Gospels must nevertheless go down in history as arch-betrayer. And in their eagerness for Jesus's death, the Jewish elders in the Scriptures must be revealed as more than willing to take up the onus of decide and to accept for themselves, and for their children, the everlasting burden of guilt. These are the fundamentals of a narrative that Gibson is able emphatically to exploit for its intrinsic divisiveness and, more disturbing, for its dark implications of unforgivable sin. Deeply embedded in the Christian story, the troubling message is available to those who seek it out--which is perhaps why critics have chosen to reserve their most vehement objections to those immediate aspects of the film: its gratuitous violence, its salacious brutality, which, clearly due to Gibson's choosing, may be safely challenged.

A great deal has been said about the role of Gibson's trademark violence in this supposedly religious film. Yet it would be a great mistake to assume the purpose of violence in The Passion is merely stylistic. Audiences who have flocked to the film in unprecedented numbers testify to being deeply moved by the visual proof of Jesus's suffering, to having gained from the relentless spectacle of suffering an insight into the palpable meaning of martyrdom that no written description could have conveyed. They have, no doubt, caught hold as well of Gibson s underlying message. For, like the creators of the medieval passion plays, Gibson uses violence in his latest film not only, indeed not primarily, for its shock appeal, but to bring home the message of guilt and condemnation. Lingering pornographically on scenes of physical torture, he elicits from the viewer the empathetic pain mad pity for the victim that finds its natural release in righteous outrage against the perpetrator.

There is no doubt in Gibson's film, as there is none in the Christian Scriptures, that Jesus's Jewish adversaries were the instigators of his death. Yet since the Jews were under Roman jurisdiction at the time of Jesus's crucifixion, this allegation requires some adjustment. Using the Gospels as his model, Gibson concedes it is the Roman soldiers who were charged with administering Jesus's punishment and execution. Yet if in this capacity, they are necessarily deeply implicated in Jesus's death, there is no doubt, in film or Gospel, that they are merely the human instruments of a deeper (read Jewish) iniquity. Nor does the barbaric zeal with which they fulfill their murderous commission accurately reflect the will and disposition of the Roman rulers. In keeping with the rationale of each of the New Testament stories, Gibson insistently neutralizes the role of the Romans in Jesus's trial. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, notorious for the sadistic pleasure he took in crucifixion, singled out by the ancient historians Philo and Josephus for his particular hostility toward the Jews he governed, is portrayed in the film (as, in fact, he is in each of the Gospels) as deeply reluctant to condemn Jesus and forced finally, by the mounting fervor of the Jewish rabble, to yield to its shameful demands.

"The Passion" is the climactic episode in a Biblical narrative that in its broader scope tempers the image of pain and persecution that it projects. In the full range of the Biblical portrait, Jesus is as much preacher and proselytizer as he is martyr. These contrasting components of his life are deeply and purposefully combined. Gibson's focus, by contrast, is stringently single-minded. He limits his depiction of Jesus to "the Passion," and specifically to those portions of it, that deal with Jesus's physical persecution. Only rarely do we catch sight of the preacher whose simple eloquence stirs the populace; or of the healer whose miracle cures testify to his extraordinary saving powers. In only one or two flashbacks do we glimpse the Jesus whose familiar humanity is so significant a component of New Testament divinity.

Missing also is any reference to the historical circumstances that in the Scriptures provide at least some rational basis for the contention between Jesus and the Pharisees, who, if deeply--perhaps sinfully--in error, are in the Scriptures driven, not by the devil, but by worldly forces. Sharpening and greatly simplifying the shape and substance of this quarrel, Gibson offers up an elemental struggle in which the Pharisees, as the heartless persecutors of God's righteous agent, have moved beyond the range of human forgiveness.

Whether Gibson's reading distorts or exaggerates the true meaning of "the Passion," this type of reading is common enough so that the Church, aware of its dangerous potential, sought to make changes, at least in how the Gospels should be taught and read. In 1965, the Vatican Council issued a series of guidelines for reinterpreting "the Passion" in a manner more sympathetic (or at the very least, less openly hostile) to the Jews. On the thorny issue of Jewish guilt, it was to be conceded that not all Jews were guilty of Jesus's death at the time of his crucifixion, nor should the limited guilt of some be extended to Jews in succeeding generations. These efforts are certainly commendable for what, belatedly, they acknowledge and seek to redress. But they are troubling as well for the presumption of a lingering guilt which is, in fact, only provisionally forgiven. The Gospels, it is acknowledged by Vatican II, must be read differently and taught differently if the religious hostility they have long inspired is ever to dissolve. Yet in the judgment of the Council, the Gospels themselves must not be amended. We are left, therefore, with a painful contradiction: for what is repudiated for its divisive potential is finally preserved for its canonical status; and those like Gibson who choose to do so, can in fact, claim the highest authority for their disturbing views.

HERTA NEWMAN has taught expository writing at New York University and English Literature at Temple University. She is the author of Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown: Toward a Realism of Uncertainty (Garland Publishing, 1996).
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Title Annotation:analysis of the movie The Passion of the Christ
Author:Newman, Herta
Publication:Midstream
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1841
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