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March 07, 2004

  • Gospel of Enuii
  • imageThe other day I was watching the 2002 film Far From Heaven as part of my preparation for a film series I do at my church for Lent. The film, which pastiches the melodramas of Douglas Sirk to incredible effect, tells the moving story of Cathy, a middle-class housewife in the 1950s (Julianne Moore) whose discovery that her husband is gay happens at the same time she develops a socially stigmatic friendship with her African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). The chaste but passionate relationship between Cathy and Raymond is founded on genuine mutual respect and together they are able to see beyond the facile surface of their lives toward something better. You feel a thrill as they discover themselves in each other, and it is therefore heartbreaking to watch the ugly spectre of the times they live in ultimately triumph over the both of them. It was a movie where I felt a genuine bond with the characters, and I’m not ashamed to admit I cried at the end.

    I mention this incident because, for me, it illustrated what was missing from my experience of watching Mel Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ. I certainly had empathy for the violence done on the movie’s central character, I have to say—and I say this as a Christian—the experience was like watching the torture of a stranger. I felt sad, I felt pain, but I had no genuine emotional connection to James Caviezel’s Jesus. I had no real bond with the characters and therefore felt nothing like the sympathy or heartache I felt for the characters in a film like Far From Heaven.

    Given that I was watching a two-hour spectacle of someone being flogged, scourged, beaten and then crucified with more slo-mo than the average episode of Walker: Texas Ranger, I find my reaction somewhat mystifying.

    The violence of the film is not the problem. In fact, I find the response to the violence somewhat mystifying (I swear if I have to put up with another Toronto film reviewer comparing it to pornography I will be forced to throw copies of Pauline Kael and the Oxford English Dictionary at every Arts editor in Toronto). I get even more mystified when Christians complain about the violence (the ultimate elastification of which came when Train 48’s devout Catholic character Brenda Murphy compared The Passion to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It makes me wonder if any of these people have read the actual passion accounts in the Gospel.

    One thing our culture has done is to sanitize the actual death of Jesus. We have lots of pretty crucifixes where Jesus looks more bored than suffering, with a few drips of blood just to remind us it might have been violent. The whole troubling thing about the passion is that it was in actuality very violent. It’s the story of a man being beaten, humiliated, mocked, whipped, scourged, mocked all the more, forced to carry a cross (and for the benefit of the reviewer from the Globe & Mail: They flogged the guys being crucified on the way because they didn’t care if they made it to the place of execution or not). After all that, he was then nailed on the cross (and here The Passion is inaccurate as he would have been nailed through the wrists) in the grimmest death imaginable in the Roman Empire. All of this in an epoch when mob bloodlust and executions were the Reality TV of the day. The whole experience is best described as a violation of one’s body and soul.

    And yet, I return to my central question: if the violence is actually a more accurate depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion and death than we’re used to seeing, why does this film distance me so?

    I think it’s because Mel’s movie is about the what and the when and the how leading up to Jesus on the cross: What happened? When did it happen? How did it happen? But it fails to ask, except on the most basic level, the where and, except on the most cosmic level, the why.

    Violence is a very human thing. To mete out violence says as much about the human condition as it does to suffer it. The Passion stories depicted in the Gospels don’t lose sight that the beatings, the scourging, the humiliation and ultimately the crucifixion is a very human-scaled tragedy. Three years of teaching and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth led to something to snap in the status quo, and at that point there was betrayal, abandonment, and a brutal, violent death.

    Mel Gibson loses sight of this completely. The question of where this took place is accounted for a little with world-wearied Pilate, but the chief priests are just a bunch of guys in bathrobes at your average church pageant—there is no characterization, and no motivation for their violence (they talk about Jesus’ blasphemies, but we aren’t shown how this would threaten them so). To compound matters, other than a brief evocation of the Seder questions (said by his mother), we have no sense in the where that Jesus was himself Jewish.

    Worse, though, is the lack of the why. The movie starts in medias res, with Jesus’ arrest, so we’re hamstrung from understanding the questions of why Jesus has upset the apple cart so spectacularly, and, more importantly, why we should care about Jesus in the first place. Gibson tries to mitigate this by providing some flashbacks, but they’re done half-heartedly: the real significant moments of Jesus teaching and ministry—the beatitudes, the cleansing of the temple, the healings, the parables, even the resurrection of Lazarus (which, as a believer, I think shows Jesus’ humanity and divinity and a very moving way) are ignored.

    Instead, Gibson’s interest in the why is in creating a polemic on a suffering saviour of humanity defeating Satan utterly. But since, in the New Testament, that’s left to Apostles like Paul and Peter to ponder well after the fact, Gibson decides to muddy his story considerably by putting Satan into his narrative to make grotesque, and even downright silly, appearances. All the questions of why get lost to this great cosmic retrospect that Gibson is telling his story. And yet paradoxically, it destroys even the moments of subtext that proponents of such a theology love most about the Gospel accounts of the passion: Jesus’ final expression of abandonment, “My god, my god why have you forsaken me!?” lacks any conviction or stark impact because Jesus has spent the whole movie with a crazed look of conviction that he’s saving humanity.

    In talking with people subsequently, The Passion of the Christ seems like a litmus test to people’s own convictions about Jesus. If you come to the film with strong identification with Jesus (either by virtue of being schooled in the faith, or because of the actual violence done on him) you get a lot out of it. If you don’t, you don’t.

    A colleague of mine said it best when he described the film as “an aid to devotion”. And maybe for some, it succeeds on that level. It certainly didn’t for me. While I was occasionally impressed by Mel Gibson’s achievement, for the most part I could not shake a huge sense of ennui. What particularly irritated me was if he had actually stayed true to his source text, he could have had a story with the power to really move people. A story that, like Far From Heaven. has human characters that move you, and things that happen to them that break your heart.

    First names bring you in as a friend. Last names distance you. Perhaps, in the end, for me, the problem is that Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ and not The Passion of Jesus. I suspect if he set out to make the latter it might have been a different—and better—film.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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