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Kill Jesus Vol. I?

Filmgoers reared on the extreme cinematic violence of Tarantino, Scorcese and even Gibson are flocking to The Passion, drawn to the brutal reality of Jesus´┐Ż death. But do buckets of blood drown the person of Christ?

The Passion of The Christ
Is The Passion of The Christ sadistic? Does the film dwell so much and so long on the gory details of Christ´┐Żs torture that it reduces its protagonist to a bloody piece of meat?

Thanks to the works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese, we´┐Żve become accustomed to movies that present bloody spectacle as an end in itself. (Think of the protracted torture and murder sequences in Kill Bill Vol. I, Reservoir Dogs, and Goodfellas, for instance.) What we don´┐Żt really expect is that films created to inspire religious devotion would succumb to this contemporary temptation. But that´┐Żs the charge many are making against The Passion of The Christ. It´┐Żs coming from the Church´┐Żs enemies (Christopher Hitchens) but also from her friends (Franco Zeffirelli), and from secular critics who don´┐Żt seem to care one way or the other. Looking over this film and comparing it to the others Gibson has directed, and the roles he has consistently chosen, some commentators have decided that Gibson has a ´┐Żthing´┐Ż for brutality´┐Żand that it seems to have distorted his presentation of Jesus´┐Ż death. I hate to say it, but I think they may be right.

In deciding to make The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson wittingly or not took on an enormous challenge: How could he show his audience the profundity of the suffering of Christ, a suffering which he bore in the depths of his heart´┐Żfrom his rejection and condemnation by Israel's children to his abandonment by the Father and descent into Hell? A difficult and delicate problem´┐Żwhich Gibson solved by portraying Christ´┐Żs profound spiritual anguish in terms of incredible physical agony.

The Passion is filling a gap in the religious imagination of most Americans, whose Christian churches have long downplayed the brutal facts of Jesus´┐Ż sacrifice.
As a student of filmmaking, I think I understand why this happened. After all, you can´┐Żt photograph a person´┐Żs spirit´┐Żonly his flesh. But a skilled director such as Gibson has a hundred ways to convey what´┐Żs going on inside a character´┐Żhis use of actors´┐Ż facial expressions, his shaping of their delivery and their gestures, his use of the musical score, his direction of the cinematography. Directors who make subtle use of these techniques can reveal for us the interior life of their characters.

I wish I could say that this is true of Gibson´┐Żs Passion. Despite its explicitness´┐Żindeed, because of its explicitness´┐Żthe film gives us virtually no insight into the interiority of the person of Christ. And that´┐Żs what we´┐Żre looking for´┐Żit´┐Żs the main event, the whole point not just of the Passion, but of the Incarnation, of Christianity.

To be fair, this film´┐Żs explicit and intense violence has been one of the reasons for its enormous success´┐Żand not because it´┐Żs drawing the sorts of crowds that flocked to see Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No, the film is filling a real gap in the religious imagination of most Americans, whose Christian churches have long downplayed the brutal facts of Jesus´┐Ż sacrifice.

And then there are the thousands of curious filmgoers who have been reared on the extreme cinematic violence of Tarantino, Scorcese, and even Gibson himself. I suspect that they´┐Żre drawn to such dramatic violence because they feel these movies are on to something. They sense, perhaps unconsciously, that there is a certain violence underlying the surface of reality itself, namely the struggle between death and life´┐Ża conflict in which the enemy is fierce, and from which no one is safe.

Unfortunately, appealing to such peoples´┐Ż sensibilities results here in a picture of Jesus´┐Ż suffering which is almost unbelievable. The protracted flogging sequence in this film is so brutal it´┐Żs nearly impossible to believe Jesus wouldn´┐Żt have died before he ever got to Golgotha. His latex flesh is torn to ribbons. He loses what appears to be the equivalent of three men´┐Żs blood.  And as almost everyone knows by now, not only is Gibson's Jesus scourged across the back, but when he's done on that side he's turned over and the scourging continues, now with whips equipped with hooked pieces of metal large enough to cut great swaths through a man´┐Żs flesh.

In the light of Passion´┐Żs unrelenting carnage, it seems the film´┐Żs lead quotation from Isaiah was chosen with an eye towards silencing the squeamish: Gibson is saying to his audience, ´┐ŻIt´┐Żs only by his stripes that we´┐Żre healed, folks, so don´┐Żt be scandalized if he gets one for every sin.´┐Ż

Filmgoers sense that there is violence underlying the surface of reality itself, namely the struggle between death and life.
All this physical wrack and ruin, rather than piercing us with the sadness of Christ, instead merely makes us wince and cringe and hope to God it will all stop as soon as possible´┐Żnot because our heart is breaking along with Christ´┐Żs, but because it´┐Żs all just too awful. It´┐Żs something like the difference between suffering with the victim and suffering because of the victim´┐Żthe difference between com-passion and moral horror, between love and shock. In short, it seems Gibson´┐Żs Passion is a case of aiming for the heart and hitting the gut.

But why? Why does Gibson miss the mark? Why has he not broken our hearts, but simply turned our stomachs? Ironically, it´┐Żs precisely because his Jesus is so utterly crushed, so entirely overwhelmed by his torments, as he quivers, writhes, shudders, moans, and rolls back his eyes all the way to Calvary. In short, Gibson causes this man to be so swallowed up by his stripes that the person of Jesus disappears. So rather than causing us to grieve over the tragedy of a God whose heart breaks for and is broken by those whom He loves, the film merely oppresses us with the image of a poor young man who is being slowly reduced to a bloody pulp. Yes, a viewer could see in the suffering of Gibson´┐Żs Jesus the tragedy of our rejection of the one who loves us beyond all understanding´┐Żbut if he does, it is because of what he supplies from his own faith, not because of what he is shown by the filmmaker.

The warmly-lit scenes from the Last Supper and the luminously-lit scenes from the Sermon on the Mount do give us a glimpse of Jesus´┐Ż tender love for his disciples and even for his enemies. But on the Via Crucis all of that disappears. The harsh contrast between the feel-good flashbacks and the real-time crushing of Christ almost makes the pre-crushed Christ look sentimental and naïve´┐Żunsuspecting of what lies in store for him. Perhaps Gibson could have avoided this discontinuity between his two portraits of Jesus by showing us that there´┐Żs something about the suffering Jesus that remains uncrushed even as he´┐Żs being crushed.

The film gives us virtually no insight into the interior life of the person of Christ.
Would this have been possible? It was for C.S. Lewis´┐Żand he was writing for children. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe he presents a silenced, shorn, yet still majestic Aslan, even as he is stretched out on the Stone Table to be slain. Gibson´┐Żs Jesus, on the other hand, seems crushed right down to the bone, his Sacred Heart reduced to quivering jelly. In the midst of his complete disintegration, even Jesus´┐Ż prophetic words of reassurance to his mother on the path to Golgotha ("See, I make all things new") might be mistaken for a mere show of courage for Mom's sake. And his final prayer, ´┐ŻFather, forgive them, they know not what they do,´┐Ż seem like words that don't fit the music; it's hard to believe that a man so utterly reduced would be capable of largess.

For me, the clearest indication that Gibson's portrayal of Christ's suffering was a failure was that, while I wept not once for Christ, I wept more than once for Mary. You could see her heart being pierced, and could suffer along with her. As a cinematic Pietà, Passion succeeds brilliantly. But the person of Jesus is so obscured by his physical obliteration that we're left to wonder: could he have any heart left to love with´┐Żany heart left to be broken by us, for us? You simply can´┐Żt tell here. And yet it is that suffering´┐Żthe suffering of rejection, of abandonment, of losing Heaven and being lost in Hell, far more than the suffering caused by his wounds´┐Żwhich is at the heart of the Passion of Christ. 

Returning to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe´┐Żhere again Lewis achieves what Gibson could not, illuminating the mystery lying at the very center of the Passion drama: the despair of Christ. Lewis has the diabolical White Witch taunt Aslan: ´┐ŻWhen you are dead, what is to prevent me from claiming not only the whole of Narnia, but the life of the traitor as well? You have lost your own life, and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair, and die.´┐Ż

None of us can imagine what it would be like to be God abandoned by God´┐Żbut any of us can imagine what it would be like to feel that we may have given everything for nothing. In this way, then, Lewis reveals to us the broken heart of Christ. But all Gibson shows us is his broken body. If in so doing he meant to show us the mortifications of Christ´┐Żs Sacred Heart, the effort was ham-handed by comparison, and the result sensationalistic and mediocre.

In this film, Christ´┐Żs love is not revealed by his wounds; it is submerged beneath them.
Some have charged that Gibson, in making his Passion just as hyperbolically violent as many of his other movies (Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, Payback, Braveheart, The Patriot), was pandering to the masses for the sake of fat box-office returns. But I believe Gibson made his movie so violent not out of crass commercialism, but out of conviction; I believe Gibson´┐Żs world is, to its very core, a world of bad guys vs. good guys (or one good guy), a world of black vs. white, of Hell vs. Heaven duking it out, no holds barred, until the bitter, bloody end.

But the world is more complicated than that. This is a world where the good people do bad things, and the bad people, whether they know it or not, want to be good. It´┐Żs a world where the wheat and the chaff will not be separated until the last day´┐Żprecisely because, until then, we all of us are both wheat and chaff.

To his credit, Gibson does not depict Christ as mowing down the servants of Hell´┐Że.g., centurions, Sadducees, Pharisees, thieves, traitors or demons in black hooded cloaks; his Jesus is a grape crushed beneath their feet. But at the same time Gibson always makes sure by the end that the bad guys get what´┐Żs coming to them, that the right asses get kicked (if not sent straight to Hell), either by demon-children, storms, earthquakes or eye-pecking crows. (We even get an image that represents the casting of Christ´┐Żs defeated demonic tormentor back into Hell, complete with the obligatory ´┐ŻNOOOOOoooooo!!!!´┐Ż)

What´┐Żs missing from this picture? Quite simply, love´┐Żthe very love that Gibson briefly shows Jesus preaching in happier times, namely love of enemies, love of sinners´┐Żthe love Christ in truth had for the very people who were killing him. In this film, that love is not revealed by Gibson´┐Żs Jesus´┐Ż wounds; it is submerged beneath them.

Gibson has spoken movingly about his profound conversion, his rediscovery of his childhood Catholic faith´┐Żwhich motivated him to make this film. That helps explain its shortcomings; anyone who has only recently come to know the difference between good and evil is prone to mixing up the sin with the sinner´┐Żand damning both of them. He´┐Żs probably also tempted to demand that he see the kingdom of God, the justice of God, realized here and now. We have to fight both temptations´┐Żand then only with the patience of God Himself.

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March 12, 2004

Mark Lickona is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

©2004. Godspy Magazine. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
05.11.04   alexander caughey says:
That death to live, is better recorded without the act of death of the human body, would also indicate that we are not expected to sacrifice our bodies through an act of actual bodily death, but of death of our life of living at the behest of our natural body. That we are made in the image of God and therefore not God, might indicate that Christ was suggesting, by sacrificing His human self on the cross, that His expectations are less dramatic than that presented on the screen by Mel Gibson. That all of us experience dramas throughout our lives, might also suggest that we do not need a drama, that spends an enormous amount of time, dramatising torture, humiliation and an agonising death. That the film had the expected effect, must indicate that we are still able to feel compassion for those of us who are subject to this type of life ending experience. That this same act of end of life is being played-out daily, matinées included, at abortion clinics, must tell us a lot about our acceptance of butchery of innocent human life, as a regular fact of life, for those of us who who cannot see Christ as the victim of any wanton murder.

03.22.04   The author says:
lilac: The film director's task is an interpretative one. He can show us things about an event that our un-directed eye would otherwise miss. But while the authors of the Scriptures, as interpreters of the event of Jesus' death, bring forth quite clearly for us the character, the dramatis Persona of Jesus Christ, I don't think Gibson has done the same in his Passion.

03.22.04   lilac77 says:
I do agree that art is better at conveying the truth (or even Truth) than other means of communication. However, is art better than the actual event that the art is trying to represent? Is an artistic representation of the Passion (even a very good one) better than the historical event itself? There were plenty of people who knew Jesus and saw him die who were not moved to believe in Him. So they saw the death as folly. In fact, it was only at Pentecost, with the descent of the Spirit, that many people came to believe in Christ. It is the Spirit of God that allows us to see the Pascal Sacrifice for what it really is. So it is only natural that those who have the life of Christ within them, the Divine Indwelling, would see the Passion differently than those who don't. This isn't relativism. It is recognizing that grace corrects our eyes and our mind. So those who through God's grace are participating in God's own life will see and understand the Passion better than those who do not.

03.20.04   rediron says:
I agree with the author that The Passion is not a cultural relativist's smorgasbord. It was received well by Christians because it is the finest exposition of the self-sacrifice that has ever been put on film, the central truth of personal religion: ALL personal religion. The self-sacrifice transcends culture and denomination. It was attacked for the same reason, because it's attackers saw in it the central truth of Christianity and are afraid Christians will be inspired by it and throw off the straitjacket of secularism that has been throwing Christian nations into decline.

03.20.04   The author says:
But yet surely we agree that Jesus and His Passion are not simply like the doubloon in "Moby Dick"--merely (even inevitably) appearing as something different to each man, depending on the man? In other words, since Jesus is Truth, it should be possible for a work of art, if it is art, to communicate that Truth, to communicate Who Jesus is, to communicate His Person to a viewer, to any viewer, even if he is not in pre-possession of, or even pre-disposed toward, that Truth (I think art, far more than any other means of "communication," has just this sort of insinuative power). Perhaps Passion succeeds as a work of devotion, as an assistance to devotion--but does it succeed as art, if one only "gets Jesus out of it" if one "brings Jesus to it"?

03.19.04   The author says:
Blank, passive mass of suffering, indeed. It's just that this isn't Jesus, at least, not the Jesus of the Scriptures. Interestingly enough, Gibson himself has Jesus speak a line in one of those anomolous flashbacks which itself demonstrates the inappropriateness of portraying Jesus in his Passion as one who merely suffers (as opposed to acts):´┐Ż No man takes my life, I lay it down freely.´┐Ż Jesus wills cooperation with the Father at every moment, not just in the Garden--for at any moment, He could turn away from the cup given Him to drink.´┐Ż To the end, he is an actor in the drama. He is never overwhelmed, swept along--as Gibson's Jesus appears to be. The Jesus of the Scriptures appears as one who quite deliberately "opened not his mouth" as he was led to the slaughter--and ironically this is one of the most powerful ways in which his divine dignity, his divine Personhood comes through. "No man shuts my mouth," the Scripture might have read, "I close it freely." Gibson's Jesus, on the contrary, looks thoroughly subdued.

03.19.04   lilac77 says:
Mr. Lickona-I agree that one must bring something into the film in order to get something out of it (I recall making that exact comment to my sister and brother-in-law the day I saw it, in fact). But don't you think that is the nature of the Crucifixion itself? Some people, when they were there, saw their son, their friend, their Messiah, or their God being put to death. Others just saw the humiliation of a Galilean carpenter with illusions of grandeur. To Jews it is a stumbling block. To Greeks, folly. To Hollywood, tacky. To the media, violent. But to those who believe it is the wisdom and power of God.

03.19.04   The author says:
lilac: I didn´┐Żt mean to give the impression that I didn´┐Żt cry at that moment in the film. I did. I cried because I saw a mother losing her son, and her son bravely trying to console his heart-broken mother (even as his words of purpose have the ring of a mere show of courage). I saw in this moment the love a mother and a son had for each other. The love that I´┐Żve said I missed seeing in Passion was the love of God for His people, the love of the One Who came to His own yet His own knew Him not, but rather despised and rejected Him. I missed seeing the broken heart of God Himself. I missed seeing the Person of Christ. (I also missed seeing the love of Christ inform Gibson´┐Żs portrayal of Christ´┐Żs enemies.) I think it´┐Żs entirely possible, however, that a person who knows Jesus might see in this depiction of his bloody death an image of Jesus´┐Ż love, of God´┐Żs love, for him or her; I simply don´┐Żt think that the film of itself supplies any insight into the interiority, the character, the Person of Jesus. In other words, you have to bring Jesus to this film to get Jesus out of this film. (I think the reaction of many non-Christians to this film is an indication of this; for them, it has not served as an introduction to the dramatis persona of Jesus Christ.)

03.19.04   lilac77 says:
Obviously, the movie isn't perfect... far from it in fact. And the violence is extreme. What I think you are overlooking, however, are the experiences of the vast majority of the faithful viewing audience. In light of the fact that this movie has touched so many people, and (dare I say) brought them closer to the Person of Christ, your criticisms may be a bit over the top. You claim that what the movie is missing is love. I have talked to a number of people who have said that, while leaving the theater, they have never felt so loved in their life. That the movie helped them realize how much Christ loved them. And that is what they got out of it. Also, I found Jesus' comment to Mary, "See I make all things new" to be the most moving moment in the movie. It was then that I understood where He got the strength to keep going, even though he was in a process of being beaten to a bloody pulp. And while your eyes may have remained dry, I know of many others (including myself) who cried, especially at that point. It just seems that your criticisms are a bit exaggerated and subjective-- much like Gibson's representation of Christ's human suffering.

03.13.04   Lickona says:
Mark,Nice to see someone finally noting the opening quote from Scripture. Also, good to note that this is one man's vision of the Passion, a vision that he has clearly made his own. I think it's helpful - it gives people something solid against which they can test their own notions. From the film, I would guess that Gibson's vision doesn't hold that the despair of Christ is the mystery at the Passion's heart. I think he's after the death of the God-man, pure and simple - that's the redemptive act, the first step to the culmination of the Incarnation at Easter. Nor does he seem especially interested in Christ's loving humanity as humanity lays into him. Just before the scourging, he tells his Father that he's ready, and after that, you get the feeling that he sort of goes away, becomes that blank mass of suffering you describe. His job from there on in is to suffer, not act.Affectionately,Your kid brother

03.12.04   rediron says:
NO, without death, there is no resurrection. Gibson was on the mark. He's braved the self sacrifice with his own money, shown us the extent of the sacrifice of the Son of God, something even many priests have forgotten and they're now crying for Mel's crucifixion, aren't they? History repeats itself.

03.12.04   Godspy says:
Filmgoers reared on the extreme cinematic violence of Tarantino, Scorcese and even Gibson are flocking to The Passion, drawn to the brutal reality of Jesus´┐Ż death. But do buckets of blood drown the person of Christ?

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