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Baser Passions

Mel Gibson sanctifies his perverse obsessions.

It's almost embarrassing to write about The Passion of the Christ at this point. Nearly as much ink has been spilled lauding or condemning the movie as fake blood was spilled filming it. This is particularly problematic for those, like me, who found the movie cynical and grotesque: It's clear that its extraordinary success was due overwhelmingly to its attendant controversies, controversies it was consciously engineered to stoke.

But it's hard to see how much more damage can be done now, 600 million dollars of global box office later. Still, let me say this: Unless you have a serious interest in how the film portrays Jesus or portrays the Jews, don't bother seeing The Passion of the Christ. As a spiritual or political document one might find it uplifting or worthy of censure, but as a motion picture it is simply shallow and overwrought, a clumsy bludgeon designed to provoke strong responses but not thoughtful ones.

This should not come as a great surprise. Subtlety is not a trait generally associated with Mel Gibson, the film's director, co-producer, co-writer, and famously uncredited nail-hammerer-inner. Although the favorite subject of his films is a kind of masculine stoicism, he is the least stoic of filmmakers: No moment in the Passion is ever serious or moving enough on its own that Gibson won't try to juice it up with one directorial gimmick or another. The opening scene in Gethesmane is drunk on its own atmospherics: the shrouds of fog, the unremitting bass vibrato, and most of all the promiscuous sound effects. (Every flicker of every torch-flame is accompanied by what sounds like the flap of a pterodactyl's wing.) The scene is a portent of the ham-handedness to come. When Judas is tossed his bag of silver, it flies through the air in slow motion, just to make sure that no one misses the fact that this transaction is fraught with meaning. (It is one of many, many uses of slow motion in the film to signal that something important is taking place.) When the Pharisees pronounce a verdict of death on Jesus we get not only orchestral swells but also a deep rumble of thunder. And throughout the film we are treated to a quantity of drumbeats worthy of a campout with Robert Bly. Finally, lest we fail to notice the presence of evil throughout the film--of jealousy, fear, temptation, or doubt--Gibson helpfully personifies these traits in a bald androgyne who lurks in the dark of night and wanders among the angry crowds. (We know he/she is evil because a maggot comes out of her nose and a snake crawls from under her robe.) One might have imagined that of all the stories told in our culture, this was the one least in need of directorial gilding. Gibson apparently disagreed.

If there is a silver lining in Gibson's self-indulgent theatrics, it is that they make it difficult to forget that one is watching a movie. Even as his bells and whistles tell us what emotions we should be feeling at any given instant, they simultaneously make it difficult to experience those emotions genuinely. Given what transpires onscreen, this is a considerable, if unintentional kindness. The litany of abuses Jesus undergoes--the gruesome and interminable flaying, the beatings too numerous to recount, the slow nailing to the cross, the final, arterial spear thrust--have been described in enough detail on enough occasions that I'll spare readers another gory rundown. (It is, however, worth reminding once again that the majority of the brutalities Gibson recounts are based not on the Gospels but on the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, an early 19th century Austrian nun.)

The graphic images of torture and mutilation are undeniably powerful. But then, such images generally are, a fact of which few people could be more aware than Gibson, who has predicated his career on the marketability of bloodshed. While his piety has of late been well-advertised, his affection for cinematic violence has been in evidence far longer, from the cartoon carnage of three Mad Maxes and four Lethal Weapons to the martial slaughters of The Patriot and We Were Soldiers. In particular, Gibson has shown an unhealthy fascination with the systematic brutalization of human flesh, offering himself up for graphic torture in Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, Conspiracy Theory, and Payback. His genius in The Passion of the Christ lies primarily in having found a way to sanctify his own perverse obsession. (For anyone who thought the film might have marked an artistic turning point, think again: Gibson's first post-Passion project is Paparazzi, which he produced and which opened in theatres last week. The storyline? A Hollywood star wreaks an ultra-violent reckoning on his media persecutors. That Mel, always a kidder.)

Though Gibson has said that his film is about compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, these ideas are in scant evidence. Even the brief flashbacks to earlier moments in Jesus' life focus on his promise to die and return but skip his teachings. When he rises at the end--in a 90-second coda to the two-plus hours of torture and death--it is to the sound of martial drums; a viewer unfamiliar with Christianity could be forgiven for assuming Jesus had come back to offer retribution rather than forgiveness. In the end, The Passion of the Christ has almost nothing to say about Jesus' life or faith beyond the blessedness of his death. Well, that and the fact that it was all the Jews' fault. The film is quite explicit on this point. Caiphas et. al. arrest Jesus in the dead of night and conceal the arrest from the Roman authorities. They pass a death sentence on him even though, as they note, it is not in accordance with their own laws. They take him to Pilate and demand his execution. Pilate refuses, sending them to Herod. When Herod, too, refuses they go back to Pilate, venue shopping for a death sentence with a zeal that would awe John Ashcroft. Pilate once more refuses, offering instead to have Jesus severely punished. The messiah is then scourged to within an inch of his life in an exhibition of sadism that would satisfy the bloodlust of a piranha. But the Pharisees, who watched the torture approvingly, are still unsated and demand, under threat of violent rebellion, that Pilate now crucify the blood-drenched, half-dead Jesus.

Many of these details, of course, appear in the Gospels, and defenders of The Passion could argue that, yes, the film does lay the blame for Jesus' death on the Jews, but it does so only because the Gospels do as well. For obvious reasons, that is not the most common defense offered. (And even it would have to contend with the fact that Gibson, again following the lead of the nun Emmerich, goes far beyond the Gospels in exonerating Pilate.) Instead, defenders typically argue that the film is evenhanded because it shows good Jews and bad Jews, just as it shows good Romans and bad Romans. But this is silly. Yes, the Roman soldiers assigned to brutalize and crucify Jesus are, for the most part, sadistic thugs. But, to state the obvious: These are torturers and executioners; one would hardly expect them to have the most refined moral sensibilities. Their leaders, however--Pilate, his right-hand man, Abenader, and his wife, Claudia--are all presented as compassionate souls who make every reasonable effort (and more) to spare Jesus' life. There are also a few good Jews outside of Jesus' immediate circle. But they are few and far between in a mob that brays for blood, and none are members of the Jewish leadership. (A single, momentary dissenter is whisked away in an early scene and not heard from again.) So while the mechanism that martyred Jesus was Roman (of this there can be little doubt), the will that set it in motion was exclusively, and maliciously, Jewish. I will leave it to those of greater faith or expertise to debate whether this is a reasonable interpretation of scripture and/or history. But to argue that The Passion of the Christ does not indict the Jews is to ignore what is onscreen.

Is Gibson anti-Semitic? I doubt it, though given the obvious contempt he had for the mincing gay caricatures of Braveheart (and the comic relish with which he killed one of them off), I wouldn't want to place any bets on his broadmindedness or his compassion. More likely he simply didn't care whether he played into a millennia-old defamation--at least not until it became clear that he could use the resulting controversy to portray his film as the object of attempted censorship and, thus, recommend its viewing as an act of faith. It was a diabolically clever bit of marketing. Nor does Gibson appear to be done yet. The DVD version was made available in special 50-unit "Church packs"; the fact that they actually cost more per unit did not prevent Amazon from quickly selling out. The DVD also contains a flyer offering all the Passion paraphenalia one could ever desire: the soundtrack, the picture-book, the movie poster, the t-shirts, the album of songs "inspired" by the film, and the Passion-themed jewelry, including a silver pendant shaped like one of the spikes driven through Jesus' hands, "presented in an elegant velvet jewelry box." The Passion of the Christ may have been an unexpected career twist for Mel Gibson. But it is one utterly in keeping with his long dependence on blood money.

The Home Movies List:
A Decade of living dangerously

Braveheart (1995). Deserves runner-up consideration for the vainest self-directed performance of all time. (The winner, of course, is Streisand's Prince of Tides.) Gibson works so hard to give himself every masculine virtue that he fails to notice some are incompatible: You can't be both eternally faithful to your dead wife and a red-hot lover who has the princess giggling at her good fortune the next morning.

Ransom (1996). Am I the only person who came out of this movie with the impression that it was originally conceived with Gibson's union-busting airline tycoon as the villain and Sinise's H.G. Wells-spouting kidnapper as the (at least relative) good guy? Or is this really someone's idea of heroism?

Conspiracy Theory (1997). Yes, yes. We get it. Gibson and director Richard Donner have both seen Taxi Driver. There was a good movie in here somewhere, but it wasn't directed by Donner and it didn't feature Gibson trying, honestly if unconvincingly, to portray a non-alpha male.

Payback (1999). The rosetta stone of Gibsonia? Unhappy with writer-director Brian Helgeland's initial cut, Mel took the movie away from him in order to a) make his character more sympathetic and b) have him suffer a more brutal torture.

Chicken Run (2000). What a relief when it ended happily. I had feared that at any moment Gibson's Rocky the Rooster was going to be graphically plucked and debeaked by a band of hook-nosed Frank Perdues.